America Needs Computer Science Teachers!
And Dr. Carol Fletcher is leading an effort to train and mint new ones—vital work to expanding computer science education across the country
As state legislatures convene across the country, many will consider policies expanding computer science education—including, in some places, making it a high school graduation requirement. But it will take more than legislation to provide this generation of students with the skills they’ll need for in-demand CS jobs, it will also take teachers for these new courses. And it isn’t always easy finding them.
But Dr. Carol Fletcher, a former middle school science teacher and school board member, is building the infrastructure to create an extensive network of new CS educators.
Fletcher directs the Expanding Pathways in Computing (EPIC) program at the University of Texas at Austin's Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). She helped build WeTeach_CS, a nationally recognized professional development program she launched at UT Austin that helps teachers learn, then teach, computer science. And she is the Principal Investigator for Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP), which in September 2022 secured a $3 million private grant—its largest yet—to broaden CS participation.
Fletcher recently spoke with The Elective about what led her to computer science, the challenges ahead for all policymakers, and the importance of math to students who are ready for careers in the STEM fields.
Did you have access to computer science education in school?
I got a degree in education back when you could get a degree in secondary education. We took a technology class; we did Logo programming. It was probably the first time I ever programmed. But I never used it as a teacher.
My first computer was a second-generation Mac. I remember in my first year as a classroom teacher, my principal asked me to take on additional responsibilities. And it was because I was the only one who knew how to type up the notes from our committee meetings using a word processor.
What led to your interest in computer science?
My sons were going into high school here in Texas, and there was only one class at their school: AP Computer Science A. They needed a more overall introduction to computer science education, but we didn’t have that class. I wanted to see how our school compared, and it turns out we were doing better than most. At that time, only 25% of Texas high schools had a computer science class. I started asking around town: Who was preparing new CS teachers and supporting existing CS teachers? The answer was no one and nobody.
At UT Austin, my team was already running a large network of math and science teacher professional development, serving 9,000 to 10,000 teachers a year in every corner of the state. I thought, “Why don’t we see if these teachers would teach computer science?”
The first time we offered professional development for computer science, teachers travelled more than a thousand miles round trip. We knew we needed to create an online course. I knew nothing about how to do that. We partnered with Oracle Academy and I sent an email to our math and science network leaders to see if there were teachers interested. We got 120 applications in two weeks. That’s when we knew there was an audience out there.
But we had a challenge. We knew we needed to incentivize teachers. Only in education do we expect people to step up and take on more without rewarding them. We knew we needed to run this like a business. We needed to compensate them. So we gave them $1,000.
We certified our first teacher in 2015. We launched an online version in 2016. We just hit 600 certified teachers.
Is teaching the biggest challenge to expanding and strengthening computer science education?
It’s by far the biggest challenge. Having a competent and confident teacher that can attract a wide group of students is key. You have to get kids to believe that class is for them; you have to have a great teacher teaching it. We have to build the skill set of existing teachers. We will never get this done if we rely exclusively on pre-service teachers.
Representatives from the inaugural AWSM in CS Honor Roll are seen with EPIC director Carol Fletcher (center) at the 2022 WeTeach_CS Summit 2022.
A lot of states are passing policies to expand computer science, including graduation requirements for students. Are schools ready for these new requirements?
We should look to Arkansas as a success story. The governor had a vision and created a comprehensive long-range plan to build educator competency, to have those incentives. They had this long on-ramp. They were very adult about it—you have to have a strategic plan as if you are running a business. You can’t just say you’re going to expand computer science and then have no strategy.
The reality is it’s going to take an entrepreneurial approach to address the challenges in computing education. Anything less than that will fizzle out. We need to acknowledge the effort it will take.
You served on a local school board for many years. There are a lot of competing priorities decision-makers have to deal with, especially coming out of the pandemic. What’s the best argument for why local districts should invest in computer science education?
Parents always want their kids to have these opportunities. Something we are uniquely bad at in education is marketing and branding. We are competing for students and we want computer science to be part of what we offer to families. When I was on the board, I asked, “What is our brand?”
The other thing is we’re not seriously engaging students. We have to understand personal motivation, and we have forgotten how to do that. You see that in math. Students ask, “Why am I doing this?” We have to stop using math as a gatekeeper to computer science and instead use computer science as an on-ramp to success in math.
But getting a computer science course in schools is one thing—getting a diverse group of students to take it is another. How do you get kids from all different backgrounds into those courses? We can’t just offer these classes and then throw up our hands if students don’t take them. We have to say it’s our responsibility to have a class that is representative of our schools. There are basic things we can do to make this happen, like the way you write a course description. When I read the first course description for one of our computer science courses, I was falling asleep halfway through! Why would anyone take this class? You have to think: How am I marketing this class? How am I going to start building a pipeline of kids down into middle school and elementary school?
It's about working with other gatekeepers in the school—particularly counselors, who often don’t know about computer science. You really have to open counselors up to computer science and get them to help recruit a diverse group of students into the courses.
When I was teaching engineering at my middle school, I would identify several students who I wanted to personally recruit to my class. I sent their parents letters and told them they had been selected for the program. I invited the kids into the class. I made it cool and exclusive. And they joined! When you look at the research, most women in STEM fields say they first got interested because someone else told them they should do it.
Eybar Vasquez-Nevarez of Clint ISD Early College Academy was the 600th Texas teacher to earn a certification through WeTeach_CS.
I know data is important to you in terms of being a lever for change. What data do you wish we did a better job of collecting and reporting on?
We don’t have good systems for measuring capacity for teaching. Who is authorized to teach? How are they distributed? You need to ask those questions at the system level. We need to understand these teachers. What are their qualifications? We have a dearth of Black and Latinx teachers, and we need data to help us understand and improve there.
You’ve mentioned Google and Oracle. How important are tech companies in this work?
They’re vital. We’ve gotten funding from, and wouldn’t be where we are today without, companies like Microsoft, Google, and Oracle. The biggest value they have is political clout. They can call up the governor, the lieutenant governor, and ask, “What are you doing to support K–12 computer science education?” That doesn’t cost them a lot of money. They have a lot of clout and expertise that opens doors in ways that educators don’t.
We haven’t talked about the role of higher education. Is that end of the K–16 spectrum facing challenges as well?
Higher education is struggling like K–12 to have enough educators. It’s super hard for higher education to compete with salaries in the private sector. It’s a real struggle. We see that here in Texas.
The challenge I worry about is from a diversity perspective. If they’re only accepting students who meet certain criteria into CS majors—say they had to have taken AP CSA in high school—then they’re only perpetuating existing inequities.
What haven’t we touched on that’s important to this conversation about expanding and strengthening computer science education?
Math. I’m an evangelist about the importance of math pathways. And the funny thing is—most people don’t know this about me—I wasn’t even very good at math in school!
When you look at the data, even high performing Black, Hispanic, and low-income students in elementary school often don’t end up in advanced math pathways that lead to Algebra before high school. Why is that? Advanced math pathways should be the default for these students, not left up to chance or parent advocacy. We have systemic biases in math we need to address.
The number one predictor of whether a student takes computer science in high school is if they took Algebra I before high school. If we don’t address these leading indicators of success in elementary and middle school, we will never be able to grow more diverse and representative computer science programs in high school.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.