What Universities Can Do to Prepare More Computer Science Teachers

Michael Marder, Professor of Physics and Executive Director of UTeach, and Kim Hughes, Director of the UTeach Institute, The University of Texas at Austin

The United States faces a shortage of high school STEM teachers. Of all the shortages, the greatest is in computer science. The extent of the shortage is difficult to document, because for the purposes of many state and federal reports, computer science is not broken out and is simply viewed as a subset of mathematics. The number of teachers prepared is certainly very small. An estimate appears in Figure 1.

The number of computer science and computer science education teachers prepared per year is smaller than for any other STEM subject — even engineering and physics — and while estimates vary, it is safe to say it is on the order of 100 to 200 per year, compared to the thousands of biology or general science teachers prepared.

Figure 1: Estimates of U.S. STEM teacher production. Source: U.S. Title II data reports. The data are incredibly messy, with institutions appearing and disappearing from time to time and inconsistencies and changes in reporting conventions. Double majors, individuals obtaining certification in multiple subjects at once, and inconsistent use of “Area,” “Subject,” and “Major” fields are some of the problems.

The U.S. has around 24,000 public and 10,000 private high schools. Only 10% to 25% have been offering computer science, so to provide all of them with at least one teacher at the current rate simply looks impossible.

The situation is pretty bad, but not as bad as it seems

Let’s say we need to produce 25,000 new CS-certified teachers in the next decade, half of them CS majors and half other STEM majors with a CS minor. Universities have a critical role to play if we are going to achieve this target. More than 60,000 CS majors graduate nationally each year. Just as with other STEM majors, some portion of these students will explore additional interests and other career options during their undergraduate years. If it were possible to recruit just 2% of them to teaching, we could meet this target. (Check to see what this would mean for your university.)

How do we convince CS majors to teach? A range of solutions is possible, starting with computer science departments taking increased ownership for preparing high school teachers — more on that later — and working toward the development of customized CS teacher preparation pathways that effectively recruit majors without adding time or cost to their degree.

It can be challenging to even discuss possible solutions. The problem seems too hard. Computer science is an exceptional subject, so in areas where it is not exceptionally good there seems a desire to believe it must be exceptionally bad: Computer science majors will never go into teaching, the teaching salaries are too low, salaries for coders are too high, even if individuals with programming capability go into teaching they will stay only a year or two and leave for industry, there simply is no comparison with other disciplines, preparing CS majors to teach CS is hopeless.

A defeatist attitude is self-perpetuating and not justified. We draw on two sources of information. The first is that we have been overseeing preparation of STEM teachers through UTeach, a network of 45 universities across the U.S. based on a program started 20 years ago at the University of Texas at Austin that has demonstrably improved university production of high quality STEM teachers. The second is a survey of STEM majors from the American Physical Society, with assistance from the Computing Research Association, American Chemical Society, and Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership, that dispels some commonly held misconceptions about interest in teaching among these majors.

UTeach data

While more could be done to increase the numbers of CS teachers produced, from UTeach data shown in Figure 2, we conclude that CS teachers are not qualitatively more likely to leave teaching than other STEM teachers. Graduates from the national expansion of UTeach started appearing only 6 years ago, so the data are dominated by graduates of the original program at UT Austin. The numbers of graduates in physics, CS, engineering, and geosciences are all quite small, in the dozens. While computer science graduates are among those less likely to enter teaching after graduation, the geoscience graduates are even less likely. And while those computer science majors who entered teaching were among those leaving teaching at a relatively high rate, physics and engineering majors left at an even higher rate. For none of these disciplines was the typical time in teaching a year or two. For all of them it was more than four years. UTeach is designed to prepare new teachers well enough that they can be successful from their first year on the job and with a mindset that they are teaching professionals, so it is uncommon for our graduates to leave in the first one or two years.

Figure 2: Numbers of UTeach graduates in different STEM disciplines, percentage that entered teaching, and average months taught for those who finished more than 72 months ago. Half-height of gray bars is one standard uncertainty. Data from UTeach records.

APS survey

The message that CS majors are certainly among the tougher students to attract to teaching but not uniquely unreachable is brought home by the American Physical Society survey on recruiting teachers to high-needs disciplines. It happens that there were more CS majors in the sample than any other major because the CS community gathers data about its majors better than any other discipline.

The students we surveyed for the APS were undergraduate majors at a representative collection of U.S. universities, mainly research universities. They were chosen from the general population of majors, not just those on a path toward middle or high school teaching. Figure 3 shows that CS majors were the least likely of the groups surveyed to indicate an interest in teaching. However, they were not dramatically different from the physics and chemistry majors. Only mathematics majors stood out as much more likely to be very interested in becoming a teacher.

Figure 3: Undergraduates respond to the question “How interested are you in being a middle or high school teacher?”
Figure 4: Desired teaching salary after 5 years’ service compared by major with actual mean teaching salary. Salary data from Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Figure 5: (A) Response of those slightly, somewhat, quite a bit, or very interested in teaching to statement “Middle or high school teaching is discussed as a career option in my major department.” (B) Response of physics majors to same question, depending on whether their department was a PhysTEC supported site. PhysTEC is a program of the American Physical Society that provides support to physics departments to prepare physics teachers.

Figure 4 shows one of several results we obtained on the question of salary. We asked the undergraduates what salary they desired in order to remain in teaching for more than five years. Around half of CS majors would consider teaching for more than five years at a salary less than the actual mean salary for teachers.

Figure 5 shows what undergraduate majors who indicated some interest in teaching said when we asked them if faculty in their major department ever discussed teaching as a career. Computer science stands out. Fewer than 10% of respondents said that computer science faculty ever mention the possibility of becoming a computer science teacher. Of all the steps that could be taken to increase the number of CS teachers coming from U.S. universities, having CS faculty discuss the possibility with students is the easiest and could help at least bring CS up to the level of disciplines such as physics and chemistry.

What we can do

So, if you want U.S. universities to prepare more CS teachers, here are some things you can do.

1. Impress upon university faculty and advisors in CS departments the importance of promoting middle and high school teaching with their undergraduate majors and graduate students, and of providing them accurate information about teacher salaries and the positive features of teaching.

2. Partner with CS departments to provide opportunities for students to “try out teaching” as a recruitment strategy.

3. Support high-quality academic programs that prepare students for CS teaching. Strong programs provide improved coursework that is anchored in the STEM disciplines, prevent certification from requiring extra time, and support their students and graduates financially and academically. Look at PhysTEC and UTeach.

4. Support expansion of programs that provide financial and other support for students pursuing CS teaching.

5. Advocate for increases in annual compensation, including summer stipends, on the order of $5K-$25K for CS teachers.

6. Support programs that improve the professional life and community of CS teachers.

Programs like UTeach and PhysTEC do not have all the answers. But PhysTEC shows that that discipline-based educators can work together to address the teacher production problem. And the national UTeach community is actively working to strengthen the preparation of CS teachers. Email Kimberly Hughes for more information about joining us in January 2018 in Boulder, Colorado, to plan next steps.

The nation’s extraordinary public university system was built in part to provide teachers for the public schools and it retains enormous capacity to do so. Greatly increasing the number of CS teachers will be hard, but it is not impossible.

For more information about STEM teacher preparation in Austin and across the nation, please visit UTeach and the UTeach Institute. For more information about UTeach CS Principles, please visit UTeachCS.org.