CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With 80% of current jobs requiring some level of computing knowledge, high school graduates in Illinois are entering a workforce dominated by technology, yet many of these young people are not receiving the computing education they need to succeed, a new report suggests.
Based on surveys of 463 educators in K-12 schools throughout Illinois, the report spotlights the digital divide between urban and rural students in access to computer science courses and qualified teachers. The researchers also note that more than two-thirds of all the states – but not Illinois – have learning standards for K-12 computer science, with more than half of all states providing funding for teacher professional development opportunities in computer science education.
Co-authors Raya Hegeman-Davis and Madison Sewell, both of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, found that many elementary and secondary schools in Illinois, especially those outside the Chicago area, aren’t offering computing courses.
Hegeman-Davis is the school-university research coordinator in the Bureau of Educational Research, and Sewell is a graduate student in educational psychology.
Of the courses currently available, the majority – 82% – are introductory or beginner-level courses that don’t help students develop advanced skills. And most of these courses are offered as electives rather than requirements of the schools’ core curricula.
The researchers also found a curious disparity in educators’ perspectives on the importance of access to computer science education.
Educators at schools that already offer computing education view access to it as critical for students’ future success, while faculty members and administrators at schools that don’t provide it perceive access to it as less important.
“It is critical that current K-12 students have access to high-quality computer science courses throughout their educational careers to ensure that they are able to succeed and excel in our modern workforce,” Hegeman-Davis said. “Access to computer science and computational thinking courses is not only a matter of workforce development, but also of equity. Early access to these courses significantly increases the likelihood that women and students of color will major in computer science in college, providing them with a pipeline to high-wage jobs.”
Hegeman-Davis and Sewell surveyed K-12 teachers and school and district-level administrators throughout the state about the types of courses taught at their schools, teachers’ qualifications and any afterschool computer science programs offered in partnership with park districts and other organizations.
The respondents were almost equally distributed across rural, urban and suburban regions and elementary and high schools. More than 60% were teachers; of those, 24% taught computer science courses.
Most of the respondents who taught computer science were in Chicago and its eastern suburbs, and were more likely to have a background or certification in computer science than their peers in the rural areas.
Slightly more than a third of teachers in the urban northeast region had bachelor’s degrees in computer science, compared with less than a quarter of their peers at schools elsewhere in the state.
Likewise, 18% of the urban teachers reported that they were certified to teach computer science compared with 1.3% of the teachers in rural Illinois, the survey showed.
“Administrators and teachers indicated that the greatest barriers to offering computer science courses in their schools were the lack of trained teachers and funding to train in-service teachers,” Sewell said.
Many of the respondents indicated that the courses and training opportunities for in-service teachers were inaccessible to teachers in rural districts, either because of cost or the programs being offered solely in the Chicago area.
But the limited number of qualified computer science teachers in Illinois also is due in part to the lack of teacher preparation and secondary certification programs by the state’s colleges and universities, the researchers said.
Currently, none of Illinois’ postsecondary institutions offers teacher education programs in computer science for pre-service teachers. And only two computer science endorsement programs for in-service teachers are available – a fully online program launched this summer by the College of Education on the U. of I.’s Urbana-Champaign campus and a joint program offered by Illinois State University in partnership with Northeastern Illinois University.
To boost the number of computer science teachers in the pipeline, the researchers suggested that more colleges and universities in Illinois provide undergraduate pathways in computer science for pre-service teachers as well as secondary endorsement programs for in-service teachers.
Illinois, which had 14,000 unfilled computing jobs at the time of the report, also urgently needs to follow other states’ lead in adopting educational policies and appropriating state funding for computer science education at the K-12 levels, the researchers said.
At least 34 states – including all of Illinois’ neighbors – have adopted learning standards for K-12 computer science, and 26 states currently appropriate funding to support professional development opportunities in computer science education for in-service teachers.
“In the near future, students in states such as Arkansas who have had computer science or computational thinking courses for a large part of their educational experience will begin to graduate,” Hegeman-Davis said. “Those young adults will be better prepared to join the digital workforce than Illinois’ graduates. It’s going to be increasingly difficult for Illinois to catch up unless state leaders take immediate action.”
The report called upon computer science education groups, postsecondary institutions and the Illinois State Board of Education to advocate that K-12 schools require computer science courses rather than offer them as electives.
Hegeman-Davis and Sewell also recommended that Illinois begin appropriating funds to provide computer science training for in-service teachers.
To make teacher training opportunities more affordable and accessible, they suggested that the Illinois Innovation Network – a system of university-, community- and industry-based centers focused on driving economic and workforce development throughout Illinois – partner with other organizations and postsecondary institutions to provide certification programs for in-service teachers at no cost or at significantly reduced rates.