Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Certified or Qualified

Certification is a hot topic for K-12 computer science educators. It’s a big issue in public schools but not so much in private schools. The concern in private schools, who often see certification as a “nice to have” rather than a requirement for hiring, is more about qualified. It’s tempting to assume that certified equates to qualified but given the state of certifications for CS teachers that is not always a safe assumption. One can’t assume that not certified equates to not qualified either. So what is a school do to?

Laura Blankenship asks some good questions in a post titles Am I Qualified? on her blog. I am a person with nine years of classroom teaching experience but no certification so a lot of her questions felt familiar.

The people who hired me to teach high school computer science (something like 17 years ago now – wow!) told me that they were interested in qualified far more than certified. This was a private Catholic school so they had that flexibility. BTW many of their teachers were and are certified. They send something like 98% of their graduates to four year universities so they do seem to have some good results.

Still while I had lots of technical experience I didn’t have much teaching experience at that time so they were taking something of a chance. Not everyone with a solid technical background makes a good teacher. It takes more than technical knowledge. Some of that is taught in education schools but from what I have seen of certified teachers not everything you need to know is taught there either. There is a lot of on the job learning no matter what your education background. Half of certified teachers don’t last more than 5 years in the classroom so even that is no certainty of success.

An other question that comes up when discussing certification is what person with a degree in computer science is going to want to take less money as a teacher when they can work in industry? That’s a fair question. But take a look at this story of a Harvard grad who left Microsoft to teach at Issaquah High School. Some people are happier as teachers. Contrary to popular opinion money is not everything.

There is also the possibility of having it both ways. Working in industry full-time and teaching part-time. See this New York Times article about putting engineers in the classroom via the TEALS program that Microsoft is sponsoring. Of course it helps if these engineers in the classroom have some training which they do get through the TEALS program. They also get paired with certified teachers who no doubt help them a lot with the “how to teach” part of their roles.

What it boils down to are several basic issues:

  1. The politics of public schools that require certification
  2. The question of what makes someone qualified to teach computer science
  3. How do we train people who want to teach computer science to make sure they are qualified?

If we can solve question three question one largely goes away as an issue except as long as we have realistic alternative certification plans for people who are qualified. That makes question two the key one we need to worry about. How do we define qualified in a way that balances the needs of everyone = prospective teachers, hiring schools, and of course the students we want taught.

But these are not easy questions. Worse still we have lots of people coming up with different and sometimes contradictory answers.

BTW the Computer Science Teachers Association has some research on the subject of certification on their web site. Check them out for more information:

  1. Computer Science Teacher Certification Requirements
  2. Certification Requirements by State


Garth said...

I am at a private Catholic school and certification is a requirement. If we are going to play sports with the public schools we must meet all Montana State certification requirements. With CS this is a bit of a challenge. There is only one college (private) in the state that offers a CS certification program that actually includes programming. All the others are business based CS certifications. The second CS teacher at my school has this type of certification. When he was hired he could run Office and that was it. Luckily he wanted to learn how to program so learning programming was fun for him. The first year he was about a day ahead of his kids in learning programming. This is not optimal. There are no pedagogical courses (a “methods” course) in CS offered in the State so all CS teachers learn teaching CS on the fly. At last count Montana had about 5 (that is five) certified CS teachers that actually teach programming so at the moment the certification thing is not a big deal. If Montana ever catches up to the 20th century (we are not ready for the 21st yet) the certification issue will be a big deal. I really cannot argue with the Universities when they say there is no demand for a CSEd degree or certification route and therefore are not interested in starting a new program. There is no demand to justify the expense. Very quickly this is going to bite us (U.S.) in the ass.

Alexander Berger said...

I live in Silicon Valley so here's my perspective on this issue:

In the software development industry, old stogy companies require a degree or certification whereas new startups prefer it, but are equally (Or more) happy with demonstrated ability.

Is one better than the other? Thats not for me to say, but when I start a company, I will focus on demonstrated ability over credentials.

As far as lack of demand mentioned by Garth, this really is weird. In the Valley, there are such a lack of skilled programers that a person can get rich simply by finding them and convincing them to work for a particular company (Recruiters). I wonder where thi disconnect comes from.

Garth said...

My lack of demand relates to high school CS teachers. Many high schools do not teach programming because "there is nowhere to put it in the curriculum". IMHO I say drop a year of English or history or some other “soft” subject (this is coming from a math/science/CS teacher so there might be a slight bias). As Alex implies, there is no lack of demand in industry. I would have to say the disconnect lies in the 100+ year old curriculum most schools sustain. At present there is no room for CS in the curriculum, most school administrations do not understand the need for trained CS students or the future it offers them. Several years ago while working on a doctorate in Education I took a course called “Education Futures”. It was supposed to present how to plan for changes in education. The prof teaching it had not been in a high school classroom in 20 years, and as a result the future being taught was already long gone. And there is the minor glitch of finding qualified and certified high school CS teachers. We have a major Catch-22 thing going here.