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C'est la Z

Math For Math Teachers - watering down CS Ed before we even start

Last Thursday I attended an event - the release of "Priming the Computer Science Teacher Pump: Integrating CS Education into Schools of Ed." Mark Guzdial wrote about it here. You can also download the actual report here.

I agree with a number of the challenges in creating CS teacher preparation programs that were outlined in the report and I also agree with the idea that a strong CS teacher preparation program should prepare teachers to teach any (and in the case of the programs I designed, create new) curriculum but I wanted to focus on one specific item that was brought up last Thursday. The item deals with how much CS content a K12 CS teacher actually needs.

The speaker at the event - I forget which one pointed out that a K12 CS teacher doesn't need the same content knowledge as a full CS major let alone graduate student. This is something I wholeheartedly agree with. The speakers throughout the event also emphasized that CS teachers need enough content knowledge to be "generalists" and teach any reasonable CS experience. Again, a point on which I agree.

The point that concerned me - not in terms of the presenters intent but rather in how I feel things will play out was when the presenter said something to the affect (and I'm paraphrasing here):

Math teachers don't need the same level of math content knowledge as math majors. That's why we have "math for math teachers."

I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had once with a colleague. He was looking over a student's college transcript and noticed a course "Math for Math Teachers" and thought, "I always thought that it was just math!!!!!"

To many teachers, titles like "Calculus for Math Teachers" like those similar courses "Calculus for Poets" or, the famous "Math for Trees" are code for watered down math for non-math majors courses. From what I can gather many of these courses are more Math Ed courses than Math but offered through a school's Mathematics Department rather than through an Ed school or department. They make sure that candidates fill the "enough graduate math credits" bucket. Everyone goes along with a nod and a wink and life moves on. I want to emphasize that there's nothing inherently bad with many of these courses - many are quite good but they're content heavy education courses masquerading as pure content courses.

I managed to avoid doing any of that in my programs current design but I did have to add a graduate algorithms class that I'm not entirely happy with - I feel that it's requiring a level of depth that K12 CS teachers will never need.

Across all subject areas we should just acknowledge that K12 teachers don't need a huge amount of graduate subject area credits. In my view, teachers need depth a bit beyond the most advanced core course their students will take and a good deal of breadth. Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to play this song and dance this dance of creating "special" subject courses for teachers.

The real thing to watch out for is how this is already playing out in computer science. Colleges are starting to offer classes for K12 computer science teachers. I've seen a few course descriptions and syllabi and spoken to a number of people involved with some of these classes. It's typical to see something like "Java Programming for CS Teachers" as opposed to a "first in CS sequence programming course using Java." Look under the hood and you'll find it's really "APCS-A for teachers" - not creating a generalist teacher but rather taking us right back to preparing them to ape specific curricula and sequences.

We can do better.

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