Sunday, February 28, 2010

Teaching Computer Science in High School

Continuing on the theme of excellence in education, I would like to briefly reflect on teaching computer science in Ontario high schools. I have to point out that I don't what exactly the state of the subject in our province is, not least because I actually never took CS in high school (though I must admit that part of the reason for this is that fellow students told me the class wasn't very good at our school).

But it does seem to me that it could be a problem. My mom is a teacher. She is currently doing special education for grades seven and eight in the Catholic school board (which, in Ontario, is one of two publicly funded boards). Based on her, I know that you can expect a very secure job, regular wage increases thanks to union negotiations or years of experience, and an excellent pension.

This sounds great, but the downsides are that the system is not a meritocracy whatsoever, and you start at a relatively low wage (once you finally get a full-time position - it sounds like most young teachers do a lot of supply or contract teaching at first). It also appears to be almost impossible to be fired, and there are no reward for excellence, both of which seem to lead to a non-trivial amount of mediocrity. These cons put together are enough to make me avoid working at that level. The politics surrounding secondary education in Ontario also make me angry, though I can't say this wouldn't be true at university as well.

Sure, if you really love what you do, then the downsides won't matter. But what I really love to do is teach young people computer science, and I can do that at the university level with a much higher salary, what seem to be better opportunities to be recognized for teaching excellence, and an opportunity to affect elementary and secondary students through outreach efforts. Why would I not stick to university teaching?

The reason I bring this all up is not to suggest that nobody should want to teach in high schools, but it does make me ask how many excellent teachers feel the same way I do. Are high schools getting the teachers they need to introduce computer science to the next generation? If not, is this one of the reasons that many non-traditional students end up taking computer science in college? Because they never had a good teacher to get them interested in high school? Is it time to consider looking at what could make teaching computer science in high school more attractive so more teachers consider doing it?


Alfred Thompson said...

I taught HS computer science for 8 years and loved it. I would probably still be doing it if a) I hadn't made a move into part-time administration and b) I had the sort of retirement plan that public teachers in the US and all teachers in Canada have.
There are some great rewards in teaching HS students and actually a lot of flexability. CS teachers have more flexability in what they teach and how they teach than teachers in most HS subjects. On the other hand getting support for new courses can be difficult. Recruiting students can also be a problem.
But you are right that there are more advantages to teaching at the higher education level. Also the very best teachers often have other oppertunities in industry and that is a factor. So we have some really great HS CS teachers (I see them all the time) but there are many more that just are not as good. It may be a lack of preperation - very often a problem. It may be that people are forced to fill holes that they are really not excited about filling. It is also often a lack of support. So even for good teachers it is hard to do a great job.
I do not have a good solution though and that worries me.

Gail Carmichael said...

I'm glad you commented Alfred - was hoping you would share your insights! :)

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