Gov. Martin O'Malleycorrectly flags STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as critical economic enablers, and an administrative priority. Thus, it was good news when Towson University recently won a $2 million grant to study science instruction. They'll find better ways to teach traditional sciences, just asUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County leads the nation with teaching mathematics. Unfortunately, the future is not bright for one key STEM area: computer science.
Computer science (CS) is the youngest STEM area and may be a victim of the speed of its growth. It was just two decades ago when computers became objects of study in high schools. We all used computers, but who understood what made them tick? Serious CS was a novelty even at some colleges. Then, markets exploded and demand for tech-savvy workers soared. Everyone wanted computer lore for young people — immediately.
Schools responded, but unlike sciences that had centuries for scholars to reach consensus on educational best practices, computer science was a new beast. No manual told schools what worked best. Educators improvised, and as a result, kids today can learn something about computers, but the pace has given no opportunity for do-overs or reflection on what we teach. Yesteryear's hastily prepared practices became today's policies, whether or not anyone checked how well they work. And the reality is that Maryland's approach to CS education is not working.
CS is taught under a patchwork quilt of policies that compete and conflict with one another. Instruction omits critical content, often tailored to applications without the foundational science. We send inconsistent messages to students about opportunities available to them. We pay more than we should for poorer student preparation than we want, moving us all away from the leadership role our state deserves.
Let's first be clear about what is being discussed. By CS we mean something beyond "tech skills" like using a word processor, sending text messages or browsing the web. We also mean something more than IT (information technology), which is an engineering area — application of computers to organize data. Many people today have jobs that require use of a computer. What is at issue is preparation of students to envision and create the next generations of computational tools in the first place.
How can email be sent securely in a hostile world? How to tease insights out of huge data repositories so we can improve health care or public safety? What's that next "killer app" that will have everyone installing it on their phones? These are just some things computer scientists ask, and when we find answers, we move whole economies. Technicians didn't start Google, invent 4G cell, design the "cloud" or create supercomputers to model everything from climate change to cancer-battling drugs. Computer scientists did.
Now to the policy issues. First, state high school graduation requirements work against student preparation in CS. Every Maryland high school student must take several science courses in order to graduate. Unfortunately computer science does not count. Physics, biology and chemistry (among others) are considered core, but not so the science of computation. In the face of many demands on their time, students thus have reduced incentive to take computer coursework. Similarly, and especially in austere times, schools have reduced incentive to teach computation. Principals must focus resources on core content, not electives.
The ultimate policy deterrent to computer science comes in "technology education." All students need one credit of "tech ed" to graduate. This sounds progressive, but a change in state law a few years ago makes computer classes ineligible for this requirement. Even after persevering through a rare computation course, students only get elective credit and must still circle back to take an approved tech ed course.
Maryland policy even diverts good students from CS paths. Counties are pressured to participate in CTE —Career and Technology Education — which openly serves industry by producing workforce-ready high school graduates. CTE programs prepare students for construction and building trades, hotel management, auto repair and, on point here, information technology. Middle school students who express interest in computers are quickly directed to a vocational IT track intended to teach applications programming or win industrial certification from firms like Cisco or Oracle. This path commonly leads to terminal degrees — that's the point of being "workforce ready" — and students obtain training at the expense of scholarly content needed to enter top four-year college programs. On the other hand, middle school students who appear intent on heading to a university will begin a "college prep" curriculum that involves little computer science.
To be clear, the problem isn't that the state rewards schools for promoting CTE programs in information technology, but rather the absence of a balancing computer science option. For comparison, the state has CTE programs that allow a student to become a dental assistant or pharmacy technician, but these paths don't displace foundational science for students who intend to become doctors or research scientists. Yet, if we handled health care like we do CS, then we would channel students to a service industry and abandon serious pre-med courses altogether. That would be ridiculous, of course — just as it is ridiculous to needlessly limit student options on computational sciences.
The second issue is that whether or not it can be used for graduation, Maryland gives no guidance on what ought to be a CS curriculum in the first place. In core areas such as English or algebra, students get consistent presentation of content because the state established clear curricular goals. Not so for CS. This is left to teachers to say what it might be. The result is a huge disparity in content between offerings and inequity in opportunity.
Put this in perspective. Maryland has a curriculum for teaching Earth-space systems, which is accepted for science credit. State-approved science courses thus prepare more students for interplanetary space travel than they do the computer scientists who would launch a craft in the right direction in the first place.
The third major issue is teacher credentialing. Not only does Maryland define no CS curriculum, but it gives little guidance on who can teach CS. In other topics, the state is pretty specific about degree obligations, and tests are required for a prospective teacher to demonstrate proficiency. There are no such tests for CS teachers. The only way to become licensed for secondary education in CS is to become licensed in another field, then take enough credit hours of computer classes — for which the state has no preference about content. This means two teachers having entirely non-overlapping coursework would be equally qualified in the state's eyes. The range of courses used to satisfy this obligation is huge.
Credentialing is even more problematic for CTE information technology instructors. The chief obligation is from the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires secondary education instructors to have an advanced degree in the field of instruction. Math teachers thus have a college degree in mathematics, for example, in addition to education courses. But CTE programs are licensed under a catch-all "vocational education" certification. No computer exposure is required. This is why there is no policy violation when an instructor whose background is in food service teaches computer programming, as happens. It may be legitimate for NCLB and Maryland, but it doesn't give students the best advantage.
These three issues — nearsighted graduation requirements, lack of state guidance on CS curriculum and lax credentialing of teachers — account for the huge drop in high school enrollment in computer classes of any kind over the last five years, a time when the state had a crying need for leadership in computational fields. In the coming years, it will get worse. Schools will soon be pressured to expand CTE to emit workforce-ready cyber warriors — technicians with security training who will keep labor costs low for industries servicing large Department of Homeland Security contracts. This will come at the expense of preparing professionals to win contracts in the first place.
Sadly, we don't find alignment between state interests and higher education either. The recently adopted General Education requirements for my campus do not once use the word "computer," which means that the last official exposure most of our undergraduates receive before getting a college degree will be the tech familiarity credit that satisfied their high school obligation. Computation is a lens through which all scholars view fields anew, which is why institutions in other states increasingly mandate courses in computational thinking for all majors. Not so at Maryland's flagship campus.
And while my campus offers strong STEM education programs to specifically prepare high school teachers, the nearly decade-long effort to win approval of a CS education major remains administratively blocked. Maryland is simply not in the CS ed game.
Marylanders deserves far better from us. A little coordination among stakeholders would go a long way to reducing costs while expanding opportunities. Our state should offer a full spectrum of educational pathways in computational sciences.
James M. Purtilo is a professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.