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Computer Science Teachers Needed. But Who Will Pay to Train Them?

Washington

Conversations about improving K-12 computer science education very often seem to culminate with the same question: But where do we get more teachers?

At an event held at the Microsoft Policy Innovation Center here yesterday, panelists dug into that very question. And while there seemed to be widespread agreement that increased funding for training would help boost the number of computer science teachers, there was slightly less harmony on where the bulk of those dollars should come from.

Cameron Wilson, the chief operating officer and president of the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, which champions equal access to K-12 computer science, said state and federal funding are both necessary to ensure teachers get the professional learning they need. And that funding can't just be allowable—it needs to be targeted, he said.

"This is a room full of people interested in computer science," he said. "Generally school districts don't have people like you." If the professional funding is not designated specifically for computer science, it's not likely to be used for the subject, Wilson suggested. 

Rep. Chuck Fleishmann (R-Tenn.) opened the event by explaining that he has worked with colleagues from across the aisle to improve K-12 computer science education. 

The House spending bill includes $500 million in block grant funding that could be used for computer science education, among many other school programs.

But under the federal education budget recently proposed by the House, as well as the one proposed by President Trump, more than $2 billion in Title II funding, which goes mainly toward teacher training, would be eliminated. When asked about this, Fleischmann pointed out that most education funding actually comes from the states rather than the federal government. He then said corporations and philanthropists could help fill the gap.

"Many times the private sector will step up," he said. "Don't overlook the fact that there's a lot of philanthropy out there locally and nationally."

Relying on Philanthropy?

In an interview afterward, Lauren Allen, a STEM management analyst in the District of Columbia's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which acts like a state education department, said Title II funds are used to pay for summer trainings, standards review groups, and many other STEM initiatives.

For example, "we've had a computer science certification for a really long time," she said. "It needs to be looked at, it needs to be updated to be realistic, it probably needs to be updated regularly. We have to pay someone to do that."

Relying on philanthropy, according to Allen, is easier said than done. "I work for the government—that's not my bag," she said. "I've written grants, but I don't know the first thing about having a meeting at Microsoft and telling them what they want to hear to get the funding I need for a project ... or hosting a fundraiser where companies would come by tables. I don't even know if that's legal."

Wilson of Code.org said his group is supportive of keeping Title II funding in the budget. "But even with Title II being restored, without targeting funding for computer science, federal funding is not really going to move the needle," he said.

Getting Courses in Schools

One big policy lever that will help, Wilson said, is requiring that all schools offer computer science. That doesn't mean the course is a graduation requirement, just that it's available. From there, schools will have to figure out how to fund it and train teachers—which he said groups like Code.org can help with. 

A recent analysis of national test data found that half of 12th graders attend high schools that don't offer computer science. And students from low-income families were less likely to have access to the subject than those from high-income families.  

Another panelist, Melissa Rasberry, a senior technical assistance consultant for the American Institutes for Research, who supports a community of thousands of computer science teachers, said she thinks a shift in mindset can help with the teacher workforce issue. 

As a 3rd grade teacher previously, "I taught my students computational thinking all the time—I just didn't realize it," she said. "When I showed them 6 times 4 was the same as 6 groups of 4, that's an algorithm. ... We need to help teachers understand they can bridge the gap with what they're already doing." Ideally, preservice programs could show educators how to infuse computer science into other things they're teaching, she said. 

The hour-and-a-half-long event left many questions unanswered, such as how to recruit computer science majors to teach when they can get paid more in industry, and what exactly computer science teacher training should look like. But Allyson Knox, the director of education policy and programs for Microsoft, who moderated the conversation, rounded out by calling on attendees—who hailed from nonprofits, after-school groups, universities, the private sector, and a few from schools—to go home and help "build political will" for the cause. 


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