Mark Guzdial is one of the people I most respect in the area of computer science education so when he says something is good or bad I tend to take it very seriously. Not that I always agree but I have to think long and hard about it before I disagree. So I have been thinking a lot about some recent comments he has made recently abut the TEALS program. (Most recently in a post titled It’s time for Teach For America to fold: The lesson for computing education) In brief Mark says:
[…] why TEALS is not a useful strategy for the long-term health of computing education in the United States. We need to build up our corps of veteran computer science teachers. Using professional IT workers as stop-gap measures means that there’s no incentive to develop those veteran teachers, and means that we’re not spending our efforts in teacher professional development that will pay off over the long-term.
Now before we go further, Kevin Wang who started and runs the TEALS program is someone I know from my time working at Microsoft. He’s a good guy and his heart, in my opinion, is definitely in the right place. And of course I have had many good things to say about this program over the last couple of years. So I am conflicted a bit.
I understand Mark’s points. I can see schools and school districts taking the easy way out and letting these volunteer teachers take over. It saves them money and it means they don’t have to do (or pay for) a lot of training of new CS teachers. It is a short term fix though as people move around quite a bit in industry and someone who may be able to take a course one year (or several) may suddenly become unavailable leaving a school high and dry. Not a risk that is good for stability and continuity. In fact it really takes a couple of years for someone to become a good teacher so swapping in new people every few years (the Teach For America problem) is not a good thing. In fact it is arguably pretty wasteful.
In fact I would go one step further than Mark and ask if perhaps all programs run outside of schools are making it too easy for schools to avoid teaching computer science. Summer camps, after school programs at YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs and many more. If we have “enough” programs outside of school (by someone’s definition of enough) do schools have to teach computer science at all?
On the other hand can we wait for schools to develop enough teachers? There is not much indication that they see the need or have the desire. Is a so-so short term solution better than no solution at all? Depends on your point of view. If you have a child in high school right now you may want a teacher there right now. If you have a third grader then maybe hoping for an optimum solution that will be ready when they get to high school may very well seem like the way to go. Though I think you have to be a real optimist to expect that to happen. Or maybe I’m too pessimistic.
I really want to see computer science in the main stream of education. I really want to see people who are trained as computer science educators in the classroom. I don’t want schools to be dependent on volunteers or highly educated non-educators for what I see as an important subject that every student should have some exposure to.
One possibility I see is that having more schools offering computer science, even with volunteer professionals as instructors, may give the field more visibility. Perhaps schools in areas without high densities of professionals will see this as an indication that they need to develop their own programs using “real” teachers in order to make their students competitive with students from other areas.
I jokingly tweeted last week “Please don’t teach CS to your students. I want my students to have an edge.” It’s one of the most retweeted things I have ever tweeted. Somehow we need to make schools (and school boards both locally and state-wide) see that they need computer science programs to make their students competitive in the world today. I’m not sure how we do that but the attention that programs of all sorts that are outside of school may get the message that the world outside of school sees some value may help.