Thursday, November 08, 2012

Should Computer Science Teachers Be Paid More Than Gym Teachers

I first ran into the question of paying faculty based on the subject they taught some years ago during an industry advisory meeting for a university computer science department. We were discussing the issue of recruiting and retaining computer science faculty when there were (and still are) many opportunities for them to make more money in industry. It was explained that they administration’s position was that faculty all had the same job – teaching – and that all people doing the same job at the same level should be paid the same. It was seen as an issue of fairness.

Well that is the sort of thinking that causes people in industry to use terms like “ivory tower.” And “great in theory but not in practice.” But there is clearly some validity in that way of thinking as a matter of principle if not practicality.

The basic argument in favor of paying some teachers more is that they could make more money outside of teaching than as teachers. There is clearly some validity to that. After teaching for a number of years I returned to industry and made a lot more money (while it lasted) in industry. Of course I lacked something in job security as well. There are trade offs either way. I would argue that there are some strong reasons other than money to teach. (Anyone want to hire me to teach? I miss it.)

That being said I think there are other ways we could help attract and retain computer science teachers besides salary. Yes, they may cost money but not as much money and they have added value in making people better teachers. A couple of recommendations.

Pay for more professional development – It is very frustrating for people in computer science not to be able to keep up with the latest developments. Send teachers to the annual CSTA Conference, or SIGCSE, or other regional professional development opportunities. Take a look at the CS4HS programs. Or the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing!  It will pay off in increased teacher satisfaction, increased knowledge and increased opportunities for collaboration between teachers.

Keep the computer labs up-to-date – I’ve seen schools where the top of the line state of the art computers go to administrators who use them only for email, Office apps, and playing background music while computer science labs get the hand me downs. That’s not right people! You want to prepare students well and support teachers with the latest hardware and software. It doesn’t cost what it used to BTW. Take advantage of programs like Microsoft’s DreamSpark for example!

Treat Your CS Educators as professionals – For Pete sake if your computer science teachers don’t have administrative privileges on their own systems fire you tech support people! Harsh? Perhaps. But either your CS teacher comes in knowing enough to be trusted with privileges or your tech support department has an obligation to teach them what they need to know. Nothing kills motivation like being treated like a child who can’t be trusted with grown up responsibilities. Can you imagine your gym teacher being told “you can use the gym as long as you stay away from the basketball hoops because you can’t be trusted with them.” Or your English teacher being told they can use the library as long as they don’t touch the books?

Understand that tech support and teaching are different jobs – In a lot of schools, especially small ones, some teacher is the tech support person as well. Sometimes they are technically half time one and half time the other. This seldom works well. Generally it means that teaching suffers while they spend much more than 50% of their time doing tech support. Teachers in other field tend to think nothing of interrupting a computer teacher to ask them to fix their computer “right now” so they can teach what they want. Inexcusable! But it happens all the time. If you need to do something like this make sure the guidelines are firm that teaching time is sacrosanct. And think about paying them more than 100% because they will be working more than 100%.

Fix Your Guidance Department – Bring up guidance in any group of computer science teachers and you are bound to hear some horror stories. Two things are typical. One is good students being chased away from computer science. Either it is “take 3 or more years of a language or you will never get into a good college” or its '”don’t take computer science as there are no jobs there.”  Neither claim is true but both are repeated time and again. At the same time guidance often seems to use computer science as a dumping ground for students who don’t fit anywhere else in the schedule. There is little worse than a student who doesn’t want to be in a course that guidance has already explained “doesn’t count” for much. Guidance departments should be looking for good students who could benefit from a solid computer science course.

As I see it, the issue is one of respect and support. At one school I taught at we talked about people being “known, valued and treasured.” Understand, value and treasure your computer science teachers. Support them with more than just a pay check and the attraction and retention problem will largely take care of itself.


  1. When gym teachers make more than math teachers
  2. Stop Picking on Gym Teachers!


Anonymous said...

Yes, I think teachers should be paid more. It is the only job that you take home with you whether you want to or not. You might be standing over the kitchen sink but you are thinking how can I help them learn their birthday, or tie their shoes. It takes the same loving patience to teach computor as it does to say the alaphabet.

Mike Zamansky said...

The sad thing is that most of these recommendations could and should be applied to teachers of all subjects.

Garth said...

The higher pay because of what you teach makes for great conversation but not for good logic. Some of those PE teachers have degrees and skills that would surpass the average CS teacher in industry income. English teachers, on the other hand, would be in the poor house. Although I am a Math, CS, and Science guy I have to admit English is a focal department of any high school program.
I really do not see the status of CS education changing until there is a shift in the perceived importance of curriculum topics. CS is difficult, and the kids see at as difficult. CS is an elective; kids do not take difficult electives. Math is difficult. If it were an elective no kid would take math. So using my weird logic the only way CS is going to really reach the needed level for success in the US is to make it a required course. As soon as it is required a lot more teachers and resources are going to be needed. All the points mentioned in this post would (should?) then fall into place. As an elective CS is pretty low on the money totem pole therefore professional development, modern hardware and software and skilled (trained as opposed to learning it on-the-job and under fire) tech support are not really an emphasis. Mention replacing a year of English and a year of Math with CS in a curriculum meeting and watch the sparks fly.

Alfred Thompson said...

Mike, after I wrote this I realized that it could and should apply to all teachers or all subjects. Seems like such common sense and yet school boards and administrators seem to all be willing to "save money" on these sorts of items.

Unknown said...

The bigger question is should great teachers be paid more than low performing teachers? The teachers union says NO. This is absolutely crazy!

There can be no meaningful reform and improvement to education until the unions are reformed.

Yes, I think great teachers should be paid more than mediocre or low performing teachers.

Yes, I think teachers who teach high value subjects should be paid more than low value subjects. Here value equates to the level of demand from private industry.

Throwing more money at education doesn't solve any problems. However, making smart choices about where the money is spent, and rewarding great results can make a difference. Teachers unions stand in the way of any fundamental changes.

Unknown said...

This is an incredibly complex issue but I think your suggestions make excellent sense, Alfred. The fact that CS teachers typically have the worst equipment in the schools is downright shameful. And the network control issue is ridiculous. But while I understand the desire for merit-based pay, this won't work until we stop thinking that high-stakes testing is any indication of good teaching. I believe that we would have far less difficulty getting and keeping good teachers if we just treated (and paid) all teachers like professionals. And by the way, English teachers have mad skills that are valued in industry. Scratch a really good technical writer and you'll find an English major. :-)

Garth said...

You must realize the English teacher comment is coming from a math/CS geek who regards the English curriculum as some sort of arcane magical realm that really makes the world happen in a sane manner.

I really wish there was some fool proof manner to separate the high performing teachers from the low performers. If standardized test scores were the determining factor then I would be making some big bucks. But then I teach at a private Catholic school with a pretty select group of students that score much higher than the state norm. The highest scoring school in the State is another private Catholic school. Both schools pay significantly less than the public schools. Quality of education is not wage based, it is not teacher based, it is not equipment based; it is parent and student based. It is amazing how motivated students can elevate the quality of a mediocre teacher.

Discussing the place of the teacher unions in protecting the incompetent and under achieving will also have to bring in how it also protects teachers from vindictive parents, incompetent administrators and political BS.
Discussing performance pay and teacher unions will take a bigger text box than this blog provides.

I have parent/teacher days yesterday and today which is why I have all this time to blather on this blog. I really should be fixing computers and prepping for my programming classes next week. Better yet I think I will check to see how much snow the local ski areas got last night.