Master Corps of STEM Teachers and Professional Development Reconsidered

Al Franken (D-MN) has again introduced a bill in the US Senate to establish a Master Corps of STEM teacher leaders who would not only be subject matter experts but also experts at teaching students and training teachers. It sounds like a great plan to ramp up the numbers of American students ready to enter university programs in science and technology, creating the expectation that they will then go on to fill all the empty slots in high paying jobs.

Representative Michael Honda has introduced its counterpart in the House HR 794.

Indeed, a Corps of Master STEM Educators sounds like a great initiative. The STEM Corps would begin with 50 exceptional STEM teachers established in 50 sites and be expanded over 4 years to reach 10,000 Master Teachers. According to Change the Equation, it would allow

“Master teachers [to] model lessons, lead professional development, help with school turnaround efforts and mentoring younger teachers.” and in exchange for their services – a multi-year commitment to the Corps of expertise, leadership and service – “the teachers will receive up to $20,000 more in salary each year.”

However it is an effort that Franken has been trying to get passed since 2011 without results. He has not given up as his February introduction of  S. 402: STEM Master Teacher Corps Act 2015 demonstrates; it has since been assigned to a congressional committee.

Again, the plan sounds great – but, as groups like the Triangle Coalition for STEM education point out, Franken had re-introduced this in 2013, and the White House was excited about the concept in 2012. Franken’s original bill  S.758 had six Democratic co-sponsors in 2011, but went nowhere. Even though groups like Change the Equation lauded it – the plan has not happened.

At issue is always funding. The White House backs the plan which promises impressive results but it also requires a hefty investment: in 2013, the President wanted to launch the Corps with $1 billion. His 2016 budget “invests more than $3 billion, an increase of 3.6 percent over the 2015 enacted level, in programs across the Federal Government on STEM education.” Whether that will cover the STEM Corps is unknown.

Franken’s legislation is one of several he is pushing to support rigorous courses in high school. His Accelerated Learning Act of 2015 would “authorize federal funding for states to expand accelerated learning models, including Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, dual and concurrent enrollment programs, and early college high schools.” He believes “these programs have a demonstrated record of success in improving educational opportunities for students” and has included wording to support paying the fees for AP and IB for low income students.

Revisiting Ongoing Debates

Any efforts to fund improvements to STEM education spark a recursive set of debates: what should be taught? who is qualified to teach it anyway? The certification debate is particularly thorny. Most agree, not all high school computer science teachers are created equal.

Are the most effective CS teachers the ones who go through programs like Columbia State University in Columbia, Georgia? There aspiring educators who seek a computer science endorsement for their teaching license to teach grades 6-12 must apply for admission into the teacher preparation program having met its grade point, testing and 45 hours of core course requirements.

Maybe teachers just need to look around for free help on the web. Christina Cacioppo thinks that is what many computer science teachers are doing now, so she invites them to subscribe to her catalog of offers, downloads, activities and resources for “AP CS” (no connection to the AP courses or the College Board ). She claims that “most schools don’t offer computer science classes. Most teachers don’t put their AP CS material online. Instead, most teachers build, cobble, and sculpt their own materials.” She feels she has the answer with her website and her discussion forum.

Her resources are probably just what teachers like those in rural Kansas need, for example, where the “computer teacher” is just as likely to be the physical education teacher or bus driver. These are dedicated teachers stretched too far in diminishing budgets. Their students will face the same global economy as students from districts with deeper pockets and well-trained, highly compensated teachers.

A Texas bill is evidence of a slow but growing consensus across the country that computer science is not an add on, or subset of science or math, or set of skills for using computers, but is a distinct discipline of its own that requires a dedicated, trained group of professionals to teach. On March 19, 2015, in Texas, the state’s Public Education Committee began reviewing HR 3700 introduced by Rep. Bobby Guerra (District 41, McAllen). The bill  would establish of a pilot program in certain school districts to develop computer science education and professional development. Guerra’s bill also offers a mathematics credit to students who complete an advanced computer science course.

With AP computer science just having undergone a revision in December 2014 that increases its rigor, the need for teacher professional development is only increasing. Studies show that there is a correlation among trained AP teachers, student participation and student success in college.  The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA)  also has documented “that there may be a link between strong teacher certification requirements and the number of students who write the AP CS exam in each state.”

While Cacioppi’s efforts to improve teaching are ad hoc, there are other organized alternative efforts to improve the capacity of computer science teachers. The University of Arizona’s “Teachers in Industry” program directly connects the classroom to industry in critical STEM areas.  According the to program’s website

Teachers in Industry integrates paid real-world industry experience each summer in local businesses around Arizona together with focused professional development activities. Teachers in Industry courses are based on the STEM disciplines as well as teacher education & training.

The Arizona model acknowledges that effective instruction comes from a person who has the particular set of skills for teaching as well as strong content knowledge, that teaching itself is also a key set of skills.

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) cites many studies that document that teachers who leave the profession leave because they feel unprepared for the dynamics of the classroom. It points out that studies also prove that industrialized countries whose students outperform American students invest deeply in the preparation of teachers and other professional school personnel. But the validity of accreditation for programs and certification for teachers is being questioned in the United States. NCATE itself has been merged with similar groups to create the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. CAEP is standing by the efficacy of purposeful preparation of teachers for every subject area with its statement that

We are in the midst of a sea change in expectations for teacher preparation in our country. Many forces are in play, including efforts to dismantle teacher licensure and to bypass the institution of accreditation. These threats to our field’s professionalization and its stature should not be underestimated.

The Computer Science Teacher Association has studied the issue of qualifying teachers to teach the subject for some time and acknowledges that the requirements are not uniform across the country but agrees firmly with those that believe that preparation for teaching computer science must be rigorous.

Philip Sweeney, University of North Texas, College of Engineering, believes that the problems teachers and content are inextricably tied:

“Computer science education in K-12 is a largely neglected problem in our society. Relative to other sciences and math, the number of schools that include any computer science in graduation requirements is shockingly low. I believe there are two major reasons for this. One is that secondary schools have little idea of what computer science curriculum should include. Further, there is a woeful shortage of even marginally qualified secondary-school computer science teachers available.”

For that reason, his department has developed a high school curriculum and teacher preparation plan both for which he enthusiastically advocates. He also encourages participation in CS10K, a professional development funded by the National Science Foundation developed by the American Institutes for Research through the U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators initiative.  The project has lofty goals: it wants to “have 10,000 well-trained computer science teachers in 10,000 high school across the United States.” ECS and CSP also are both designed to broaden participation in computer science by appealing to a broader group of students, particularly women and minorities.”

Even though there are many alternative paths being established to send content and subject matter experts into classrooms, the alternatives at least give a nod to the fact that knowing content does not ensure you can explain it to others.

What Is CS Anyway?

While the question of what a qualified computer science teacher looks like is being debated and hopefully settled – albeit slowly and state by state –  the adoption of national standards for computer science and adoption of computer science curriculum is making the same journey. In Washington State HB 1813 recently underwent hearings. The bill “requires the office of the superintendent of public instruction to adopt computer science learning standards developed by a nationally recognized computer science education organization.” and “requires the professional educator standards board to develop standards for a K-12 computer science endorsement.“

In the meantime, computer science programs have existed in high schools in other countries for years and are building upon success. Israel has had computer science in its high schools since the 1970’s and made concerted efforts to develop training in the subject for disadvantaged students; the United Kingdom has recently made computer science part of its national curriculum. The hodgepodge of laws and requirements and content in the United States may be brought under control if efforts like the STEM Master Teacher Corps and CS10K are allowed to make traction.