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A Shortage of Computer Science Teachers is a Problem Illinois Can Fix

by Mark Harris and Raya Hegeman-Davis

A teacher pointing at a computer screen helping a grade-age student, with other students in the background programming

Despite being one of the country’s largest producers of computer science college graduates, our K-12 system remains woefully unprepared in cultivating diverse, homegrown tech talent. The state of Illinois has a problem. A computer science-education problem. Why? Because schools don’t have teachers who can teach computer science.

This shortage is the No. 1 reason more computer science courses are not offered, according to the first statewide report on computer science in Illinois public schools. The problem is especially dire in rural areas where only about one percent of teachers have a CS certification.

We can’t say whether the shortage is a symptom of an education system that's struggled to keep up with the digital revolution, or the cause of it—but we do know the shortage is impairing our schools and, therefore, our competitiveness.

Illinois is in the bottom third of all states, according to Code.org, a national CS education advocacy group. Only 10 percent of Illinois’ 859 school districts offer advanced placement (AP) computer science courses.

And the perceptions of computer science where it’s currently not offered show that it’s viewed as less critical, making it unsurprising that computer science is treated as an elective course versus a requirement in almost every school district outside of Chicago Public Schools.

But here’s what we also know: technology is the language of business. Every company is now a tech company. And the highest paying jobs and most resilient jobs are tech jobs.

Crain’s recently identified the most in-demand and highest-paying jobs in Illinois (“Where the good jobs are,” March 18, 2021). Among them were software developer, software engineer, data scientist, cloud engineer, and information/network security engineer.

We will not develop homegrown, diverse tech talent to step into these jobs without robust K-12 computer science education. Period.

The future for Illinois K-12 students who want to learn computer science skills began on June 1, 2021.

That was the launch date for the first of seven courses in the new Computer Science Teacher Endorsement program offered through the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with collaboration from the university’s Computer Science Department.

The program equips Illinois teachers with the foundational knowledge to teach existing computer science courses, develop their own courses, and integrate new technologies in their teaching—all aimed at providing more equitable learning experiences in computer science for students across the state.

Within five years, we should aim to have a qualified CS instructor in every Illinois middle and high school.

More must be done to ensure we successfully implement high quality and equitable CS education across the state.

Chicago Public Schools requires students to complete a computer science course to graduate. The state of Illinois should adopt the same policy. Governor J.B. Pritzker just signed a law requiring school districts to offer at least one computer science course by 2022-23; that’s progress, but not enough.

The state needs to dedicate funding every year for the training of computer science teachers.

We must help school districts build capacity to effectively teach CS, including expanding higher-level courses like advanced placement.

We need to increase access to formal CS training—including endorsement programs—for current teachers, as well as new programs for undergraduates so they are equipped to teach the subject upon graduation.

Increasing the number of proficient CS teachers is one of the strongest ways we can address the disparities that exist for CS education in Illinois.

Achieving that goal would have profound effects: Within 10 years, the city’s tech sector should be closer to 25 percent Black or Latinx. And when the next recession or pandemic hits, Chicago—and all of Illinois—would weather it far better than most.

Mark Harris is director of community education at the Discovery Partners Institute.

Raya Hegeman-Davis is computer science education program coordinator in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.