Fixing the K-12 CS Teacher Certification Mess

Chris Stephenson, executive director of CSTA.
Chris Stephenson, executive director of ACM's Computer Science Teachers Association.

This month, CSTA released a new report called Bugs in the System: Computer Science Teacher Certification in the U.S. This report (developed with support from Google) is a comprehensive study of all 50 states and the District of Columbia revealing that each state (and in some states each school district) has its own process, its own definition of Computer Science, and its own idea of where Computer Science fits in the academic program and who is qualified to teach it. As a result of these, and other factors, certification (called licensure in many U.S. states) is a complete mess in this country and fixing it will take a great deal of effort and political will.

For many years, Computer Science education has been the forgotten stepchild of K-12 education. Despite the fact that courses do and have existed in schools in every state for many years, it is not part of the "common core" of academic courses. And until CSTA came along, no one bothered to shine a light on this question of what it takes to be prepared to teach it and to teach it well.

"Bugs in the System" reveals that in most states there are no requirements for teaching Computer Science at all, meaning teachers with little or even no Computer Science knowledge can teach it, and teacher preparation institutions are unlikely to offer programs for new Computer Science teachers. Even in states where there are certification requirements, these requirements are often deeply disconnected from Computer Science content, knowledge, and practice and can serve as gatekeepers, keeping knowledgeable and interested teachers from the classroom.

One of the reasons Computer Science teacher certification is the mess it is, is that many of the administrators responsible for determining and enforcing the regulations have no idea what computer science actually is. Many administrators are still confusing computer science with basic computer literacy and with educational technology (the use of computers to support learning in other disciplines).

In addition to illuminating the problems, the Bugs report also provides practical recommendations to address the current certification craziness. These include:

  • Establish a system of certification/licensure that ensures that all Computer Science teachers have appropriate knowledge of and are prepared to teach the discipline content.
  • Establish a system of certification/licensure that accounts for teachers coming to the discipline from multiple pathways with appropriate requirements geared to those pathways.
  • Require teacher preparation institutions and organizations (especially those purporting to support STEM education) to include programs to prepare Computer Science teachers.

Going forward, CSTA will be working in concert with other organizations such as Computing in the Core to bring these issues to the front and to advocate for these recommendations. Like everything else we try to do in K-12 education, the fix will be neither quick nor painless. But we are in it for the long haul.

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