Why Coding Isn't Taught Well In US High Schools

9:09 AM 0 Comments

Okay, so there are a lot of reasons, including the fact that most school systems in the US remarkably don't consider computer programming a core competency, but this graphic in a recent article about teaching coding in school:


I thought was pretty telling.  The node on the far left says "Shortage of teachers with sufficient subject knowledge."  Why is there a shortage?

The graphic proposes that not enough students are going into post-graduate Computer Science, and I would agree with that in part; however, I assert another problem which is not the size of the pool of eligible candidates, but instead of interested candidates.

The painstakingly obvious reason I am referring to is Money.  The median salary for a software engineer is about twice that of a teacher.  Compare the current Software Engineer Salary Trend on indeed with the current High School Teacher Salary Trend.  An article in the Deseret News on July 5, 2013 hits the nail on the head when they say (emphasis mine):

"In its analysis of the numbers it provides, ACT does acknowledge the existence of qualified potential math and science teachers is no guarantee that schools will be able to successfully recruit them. A student with STEM interests can earn $67,500 right out of school working as an electrical engineer, according to data from Payscale. However, that same student would only make about $37,500 as a math teacher."

In an ideal world, we would have individuals who were good teachers as well as subject matter experts teaching our youth.  I once worked for a company that, in the distant past, paid engineers sub-market value.  As far as I know, the motivation was to save money, and the company relied largely on their non-profit, good-cause nature to entice engineers away from the beefy salaries that other companies in the region were offering.

To be totally blunt, they got what they paid for.

In time, they changed several policies, adjusted pay scales to match market value, and voila! they started producing some really great results.

Of course, when it comes to our public educators, it isn't that simple.  How can we get qualified software engineering teachers without breaking the bank? My wife and I chatted about this one evening and in our amateurish, arm-chair-superintendent fashion, we came up with a few ideas:

First, we can rely on teachers who see it as a calling to teach.  This is how schools systems have operated for years, at least in the state of Utah (I often hear the argument, "we shouldn't pay our teachers more; they knew what they were signing up for when they got the job," which always leaves me a bit discouraged).  The result is that we have a few angelic, heaven-sent teachers, the ones that you can hardly stop from shedding a tear when you talk about them, and several sub-par-those-who-can't-do-teach teachers.  (See my you-get-what-you-pay-for anecdote above.)

Second, we can pay our teachers more.  For most governments, this just isn't realistic.  Some back-of-the-napkin math shows that between the 870,000 households in Utah, an average of $30 comes from each household for every $1000 paid in raw salary to each of the roughly 25,000 teachers we employ.  Now, there are benefits, administrative costs, training costs, etc., etc., and I'm not really trying to come up with a rigorous figure here.  The point is that in raw salary alone it would take roughly a 65% property tax hike to raise the median salary from $47000 to $77000 and 97% to get teachers in the realm of high-skilled labor.  Raw salary isn't the only thing in play, of course, so I'm sure the real numbers are higher than this.

(If you are curious about what my napkin looks like, it is this:  25,615 teachers/871,358 households*($1000/1 teacher) = $29.39/1 household.  (30*$29.39)/$1351 median property tax = 65%.  (45*$29.39)/$1351 median property tax = 97%)

Third, we could introduce the idea of tech businesses donating teachers to high schools.  They would stay on the payroll of their company and there are millions of kinks to work out like what happens if the individual leaves the company during the school year, but this is just an idea.  I mention high schools specifically because only one in ten US high schools offer a computer science program and it would be great to start bumping up that number.  There are roughly 200 public high schools in Utah.  These high schools house an average of 800 students.  To introduce a one-year computer programming graduation requirement to these schools would require 1 full-time teacher to teach 8 classes a day to keep the class size down to 25 students.  Now, a business can't donate one of their employees full-time, of course, but they may be able to donate them quarter-time.  Can we find enough tech businesses that would donate their employees for 2 hours during the work day to regularly teach two periods of computer science?

Fourth, tech companies may be willing to allow their employees some flex on when they take off during the day to be an adjunct teacher.  In this case, the school system would pay the cumulative of one full-time teacher sans benefits per high school and businesses would still require their employees to contribute their normal full-time hours otherwise.

Fifth, have the local universities and colleges supply teachers.  This isn't concurrent enrollment.  In fact, it is essentially the same idea as the previous two except that the universities are providing the personnel instead of local tech companies.  Ostensibly, most engineering faculty in most colleges and universities would be qualified to teach entry-level coding, regardless of whether they are teaching undergraduate computer science courses; it would seem that the same roughly 800 individuals could be identified and recruited.

Of course, the above three ideas have significant problems.  Where is the Computer Science teacher for Delta High School going to be sourced from if she needs to be donated from a university, college, or tech company? Perhaps the growing number of telecommuters may be a solution.  What incentive do business have to enter into this kind of agreement?  How would the school system get all these volunteers or adjuncts trained?

Sigh.  It's a conundrum.  How can we fix it?

Josh Cummings

"I love to teach, as a painter loves to paint, as a singer loves to sing, as a musician loves to play" - William Lyon Phelps

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