What We’ve Learned

There’s no education without teachers.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/PDRFeeDniCk

If you care about closing the race and gender gap in tech, you probably know that the issue is complex, systemic, and can’t be solved overnight. You also probably know that computing education (whether primary, secondary, or post-secondary) is one of the most powerful pathways we have to start untangling the knot through exposure, access, and opportunity. And you probably know that pretty much every institution tackling diversity, representation, or belonging in tech is grappling with education in one way or another, including our team at Reboot Representation.

Over our past two years of grantmaking at the high school and college levels, we’ve naturally encountered many initiatives with education at the core, from formal district-run computing classes to summer programs to peer mentoring. Recently, we started asking ourselves a simple but important question:

If education is so important (and it is), are we engaging with teachers as deeply as we need to be?

Educators are the backbone of education, but when we look at the landscape of programs and initiatives to fund, we see far fewer teacher preparation programs than after school hackathons. It’s an apples to oranges comparison (and both are valuable) — but how useful is a hackathon in the long term if there aren’t trained computing teachers to grow and nurture students’ interest in the field?

This may seem like a straightforward question with a straightforward answer. It should be easy enough to acknowledge that teachers are critical and then support them, right? Easier said than done. Teacher funding, preparation, and support are not easy to come by. And you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s complicated.

Where are all the teacher programs? (And why aren’t they getting funded?)

Let’s start by understanding the pervasive and complex roots of why teachers are seeming like less and less of a focus, and how that plays out in computing particularly.

First, enrollment in teacher preparation programs is trending — in the wrong direction.

In 2019, K-12 teacher demand exceeded teacher supply for the first time ever. This trend is felt across disciplines, but it’s acute in computer science. Only 36 teachers graduated from universities ready to teach CS in 2017, compared with 11,157 math teachers and 11,905 science teachers.

Teacher preparation programs reflect this trend. In 2019, the Center for American Progress released a distressing report:

“What is known is that since 2010, total enrollment nationwide in teacher preparation programs has declined by more than one-third; this decline has occurred in the context of increasing enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs nationwide over the same time period.”

Image credit: Center for American Progress

The Biden Administration’s recent proposals to fund teacher preparation programs come at a time where COVID has acutely worsened the shortage, hastening retirements for many. For example, Michigan has seen about a 40% increase in the number of teacher retirements compared to 2020.

This shrinkage impacts more than classroom offerings; it impacts visibility and representation for many students. In the US, students of color make up more than half of the overall population in K-12 schools. Only one in five of their teachers are people of color, and teacher preparation enrollment rates have dropped by 25% for Black and Latinx teacher candidates and by 50% for Pacific Islander and Native American candidates.

So what are we left with? An unsustainable churn of teachers in an already dwindling teacher pool. As states across the country pass legislation forbidding teachers from discussing racial and gender equity in the classroom, the chances of creating and sustaining diverse classrooms and curricula only diminish.

Second, funding avenues are dwindling — at a time they’re needed more than ever.

Over the last ten years, public investment in K-12 schools has dramatically declined — affecting everything from teacher payrolls to student resources. Faced with tough decisions about what stays and what goes, several states have removed computer science from their 2021 budgets, and others have reallocated or frozen existing CS funding.

Map of 21 states that have allocated funding for CS this year. (Image credit: Code.org)

Unsurprisingly, the lack of funding avenues disproportionately impacts some. Data shows that schools in rural communities and schools with higher percentages of economically disadvantaged students are less likely to teach computer science. A further reduction in state education budgets post COVID-19 will only widen gaps in accessing and participating in AP CS learning. Fortunately, 2021 is looking positive so far as 21 states have invested a total of over $68 million dollars to fund CS professional development.

Third, it’s hard to argue that investing in teachers has an immediate effect.

In the midst of a global pandemic, where the cost of educating K-12 students has risen to $22.5 billion, there’s more than CS funding on the chopping block. Take a look at how states allocate federal relief funds: only nine out of fifty states explicitly mention teacher preparation and only one of those states mentions creating teaching academies for computer science teachers.

This could be an opportunity for private funders to step in — but investments in teacher preparation and development are often not a top priority for funders who want to close the race and gender gap. Why? The returns for the workforce and the sector are not immediate.

It can take years before a CS teacher’s influence can guide a student into a career in tech. Moreover, in a constantly churning teacher pool with 3 in 5 teachers replacing colleagues who left their classrooms, recruitment, hiring, and training simply don’t return short-term dividends.

Anecdotally, there are a number of minor reasons that corporate philanthropy steers clear of funding teacher preparation programs, both discouraging (they find school districts to be difficult partners) and encouraging (corporate employees find volunteering directly with students so genuinely inspiring that those programs get funded at high rates, often to the detriment of programs seeking to “patch” other pipelines). In other words, funding teacher preparation programs isn’t as easy as funding programs that serve students.

Teachers are non-negotiable.

As complex as the issue is, there’s no getting around the fact that teachers are the backbone of education, and to educate successfully means to support them significantly and intentionally. And even in the face of this challenging problem, we see more hope than despair.

The pool of teachers can expand, but it requires some new thinking.

Changing the face of CS education requires changing our perception of who educators are, and should be. As our friends at Code.org say, “You don’t have to be a software developer to teach computer science.” At introductory levels, teachers can offer exposure to computer science concepts and curricula regardless of their background. How? By getting rid of the concepts of “math person” or “tech person.”

No one ever says “I’m not a reading person,” so why is it so acceptable to say “I’m not a math person?” We don’t accept this type of limited thinking from our students, and we can construct better models as adults. We must create pathways for teacher preparation and student learning that will yield new talent. We can help nurture skills through career pathways that recognize, develop, and reward diversified roles in the teaching force.

The “return” may not be immediately measurable, but the scale is enormous.

Let’s take these statistics side by side:

The average teacher affects over 3,000 students over the course of their career.

There are currently 400,000 computing job openings, and they’re projected to grow at twice the rate of other jobs.

Education may be slow, but the investments scale. One great teacher can reach thousands. And we need to reach students at scale to meet the growing demand for computing jobs.

Teachers are important in diversifying that workforce, too. For students facing barriers to computing at the intersection of race and gender, “one great teacher” takes on a whole new resonance. 63% of Black female students who participated in a community learning and mentorship program for AP CS are now majoring in computer science in college. Creating communities led by teachers who look like their students can provide tangible examples to their students, helping them imagine their future selves in tech more clearly. Classrooms can, and should, reflect the communities they are located in — and this means targeted support for teachers who are laying the foundation for high school, college, and career.

Teacher preparation programs and career pathways in CS may not reap measurable dividends today, but they could lead to diverse, workforce-ready cohorts of tech graduates. The size and power of those cohorts are the key to a more inclusive industry long-term.

Education is full of opportunities for cross-sector collaboration.

Today, only 47% of public schools teach computer science. There’s a lot we can do to bring that number up if we get rid of the mindset that education is the public sector’s job and adopt the philosophy that good education benefits all of us, so we all have a role to play in supporting it.

Undoubtedly, the public sector has a critical role to play. We need to advocate for a holistic set of policy plays, such as the policy framework developed by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, at the federal, state, and local levels that focus on expanding the CS ecosystem as a whole — including entry to teaching, direction to high-need areas, and bolstering teacher retention. Expanding the scope of federal stimulus funds and state allocations to prioritize and strengthen CS educator pathways is critical.

But the private sector has a role to play, too. By building public-private partnerships with industry professionals through programs like Microsoft TEALS, teachers and school districts can tap into the knowledge, expertise, and resource richness of the private sector. Our tech sector is booming, but it’s homogenous; it’s time to take the momentum we have and use it to expand and diversify the next generation.

Microsoft TEALS impact by the numbers. (Image credit: Microsoft)

So, what can we do?

It’s easy to choose inaction in the face of a difficult problem. But if we care about this industry, if we care about diversity and inclusion, and if we care about education as a meaningful pathway, then we have to face it head on. Here’s a couple of ways individuals and organizations can get involved:

Know who is doing work in the field and support them.

At the national, state, and local level, there are organizations hard at work on this very issue. Here are just a few of them:

Start the conversation in your local district.

Whether you’re a parent or an engaged citizen, you have a chance to help local district leadership understand that computing education is a priority without being oblivious to funding and teacher shortages. Here’s how you can be additive:

  • Offer to organize and host an Hour of Code for students, families, and school leaders (in person or virtually). Consider extending the invite to local legislators to put this priority on the map for them.
  • Introduce school leaders and teachers to Code.org’s resources for teachers.
  • Share 100kin10’s Grand Challenges website, which explores the underlying challenges of the teacher shortage AND tracks progress.

Companies, direct investments to teacher prep or get innovative about your support.

Companies can always direct philanthropic investments to programs and partners serving students directly, and they should — but they should also consider the impact of reaching students via serving teachers. The Cognizant Foundation is partnering with Teach for America both to train more teachers to teach AP Computer Science and to prepare school leaders to establish computer science programs in schools in low-income communities. Last year, F5 funded the Thurgood Marshall Foundation’s Teacher Quality & Retention Program (TQRP), a five-year fellowship supporting new and aspiring teachers from publicly supported HBCUs and PBIs across the country.

So here’s the bottom line: working for a more inclusive industry means supporting tomorrow’s tech workforce. That means supporting education for today’s students. Teachers are a non-negotiable part of that equation, and our long-term success depends on them. Let’s get to it.

Reboot Representation is a coalition of tech companies committed to doubling the number of Black, Latinx, and Native American women receiving computing degrees by 2025.

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Reboot Representation

Reboot Representation

A coalition of tech companies committed to doubling the number of Black, Latina, and Native American women receiving computing degrees by 2025.

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