3 Policy Barriers Facing Computer Science Education

Even though computer science has star power, it's more difficult to make room for it in the classroom for a number of reasons.

Computer science education enjoys endorsements from celebrity athletes and actors. But at least three obstacles hinder efforts to bring computer science to more students.

Barrier 1: Lack of Teachers

In 27 states, high school students can count computer science courses toward their graduation requirements. But it's difficult to find enough teachers who are qualified to educate students in these courses, particularly when few policymakers can agree on what makes a teacher qualified in this subject.

"The teacher shortage is basically the biggest barrier to expanding computer science education," said Amy Hirotaka, director of state government affairs at Code.org, a non-profit that promotes computer science education.

Barrier 2: Lack of Consistent Teacher Certification Requirements

Even if schools do find educators to teach computer science courses, they don't operate under consistent certification requirements for teachers like math or science teachers would. Most states have their own certification requirements that vary widely, which also makes it difficult to find teachers with the right skills.

For example, if a state requires a teacher to be certified in both math and computer science, that severely limits the pool of teachers that the state can draw from. Then it becomes a question of whether every math- or business-certified teacher should be allowed to teach computer science. 

"There has to be some sort of consistency on what teacher certification requirements are for computer science teachers," said Deepa Muralidhar, computer science content specialist at the National Math + Science Initiative. "I think that is the most vital need right now."

In a similar vein, teacher trainers also need to understand what good computer science teaching looks like so they can accurately identify quality teaching in classrooms. That requires professional development for trainers so they can help teachers improve. 

Barrier 3: Lack of Funding

Often state lawmakers will pass legislation that promotes computer science education, but don't provide any funding to local school districts and education agencies to take their efforts from policy to practice. These unfunded mandates can be tough to swallow for school districts, and they often take a backseat to funded initiatives in other subject areas. 

Overcoming These Barriers

In 2015, two states passed especially strong legislation that tackled these obstacles. 

Arkansas provided $5 million for every high school in the state to offer computer science courses to students, and it reached that goal in time for the 2015-16 school year. Not every school had computer science teachers or the ability to offer a course on campus, so the legislation included traditional, blended and online learning as acceptable options. 

Washington also passed legislation this year that called for and funded the creation of computer science learning standards, K-12 computer science teacher certification standards, teacher endorsement and professional development.

For the next legislative session, policymakers in Florida have pre-filed a few computer science education bills that show promise in dealing with these obstacles. The bills come after months of meetings as various stakeholders worked together to figure out what issues challenged the growth of computer science education in the state. 

Just as high school students graduate with a basic knowledge of biology and chemistry, computer science education advocates want to see students understand the basics of computer science.

"There's no field that isn't being changed by technology," said Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org, "so having a foundational understanding of how it works is critical for every student."