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Teachers Hold Key to Improving Computer Skills in Massachusetts

Posted on June 12, 2013

Massachusetts’ economic future depends on computing expertise, yet our schools are not teaching students these vital skills. On Wednesday morning, the Massachusetts Legislative Tech Hub Caucus, co-chaired by Senator Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland) and Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein (D-Revere), heard from the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), an industry-led coalition, about the dimensions of this problem, and its proposed solutions.

Computer ScienceSteve Vinter, Cambridge site manager for AIM-member Google, presented an overview of the issues. When we think of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), he pointed out, we should think first of computing, which will account for 71 percent of new STEM jobs. These jobs are of various kinds (hardware, software, IT services, network communications), are found in virtually every sector of the economy, and tend to pay well. Yet few high school students take the computer science Advanced Placement test, and college degrees awarded annually in the field fall far short of demand ” unlike other subjects.

Massachusetts technology standards for public schools, Vinter noted, are the best in the country, but they address computer literacy, not computational thinking. MassCAN is pressing for statewide computing standards along with a curriculum that satisfies those standards; professional development programs to prepare teachers for teaching computing; and an informational campaign to make students, parents, and educators aware of the importance of computing.

We are already hearing objections. Resources and time are lacking, and we should blend computing into existing courses, says Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. Let’s avoid a top-down mandate and try pilot programs, suggests former education secretary Paul Reville.

These arguments, it seems to me, are theoretical rather than practical. First, let’s be clear about the costs.  In education, the main cost is always personnel; hardware and software are small expenses compared to the retraining of teachers to teach and use technology. Second, if the state is imposing new mandates that do not include computing, then we can be pretty sure that computing will fall by the wayside ” and this is true not only in the schools themselves, but in teacher preparation as well.

In fact, this would seem to be an ideal time for concerted, decisive action. We are in a period of demographic transition for our teaching workforce, with an opportunity to bring in large numbers of computer-savvy teachers. Hiring practices in schools and districts, and curricular decisions at teacher-training institutions, are important.

But the state, which sets standards for teacher certification, has a primary role as well. If we delay on computing standards for k-12 students, we will pay a price ” but if we do not act now on expectations for their future teachers, we will miss our best chance for change.