The Productivity of CS Teachers

February 1, 2010 at 11:32 am 3 comments

On the way out to the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) community meeting in Los Angeles,  Barb was working on the NCWIT K-12 Alliance Strategic Plan.  (She’s co-chair of the Alliance.)  She was reviewing data from the Advanced Placement exams, and came across something interesting.

Physics is a big dog among the science AP exams.  In 2008, 55,227 students took the Physics AP exam.  (Biology had 141,321 test-takers in 2007, as another point of comparison.) In contrast, only 15,014 students took the CS Level A AP exam.  CS is only 27% of the Physics total.

She pointed out to me that there are many more Physics teachers than CS teachers.  In 2007, there were 4316 Physics AP teachers, while there were only 2,068 CS AP teachers.

I started digging into her data a bit more and found that in 1998, there were 2510 Physics teachers and 1208 CS teachers.  In that year, there were 23,315 students taking Physics AP exam, 6144 tacking CS Level A AP exam.

So, here’s what I’m getting at.  In 1998, each Physics AP teacher got about 19 students to take the exam.  In 2008  (I only have 2007 test-takers data, so there’s a year smudge here), the productivity dropped to 13 test-takers per teacher.  In 1998, each CS teacher produced 5 test-takers, while in 2008, that was 7 test-takers per teacher.

CS teachers are becoming more productive (in terms of test-takers) while Physics is dropping slightly.  That productivity is important.  Test-takers are more likely to pursue more courses in that subject in college than non-test-takers.  It’s a good thing that the productivity is rising.  On the other hand, there is lots of room for improvement.  If our current AP CS teachers produced test-takers at the same level as AP Physics teachers, we would have 26,884 test-takers — way past the 20,000 students needed for the College Board to break-even on offering the exam.

How do we increase  teacher productivity?  Is it more students per class?  Or is it that we have to get more students to take the test?  It’s a really interesting question — what does it mean to improve productivity in an educational system?

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An Educational Extinction Event? Context matters, not just my context

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jim Huggins  |  February 1, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    (Oh, you’ve done it now, Mark … run for the hills while I get my soapbox …)

    I absolutely despise discussions about “productive teaching”. Anything that looks like a ratio in this context (teachers/student, exams/teacher, etc.) gets me angry … because there are so many ways to improve those ratios in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the classroom. And I would argue that, often, it’s the outside influences that have a greater impact on such ratios.

    But let’s start with the simplest one. Suppose we want to improve the ratio of APCS test takers to instructors. I hypothesize that most APCS classrooms are far from full. Putting more butts in those empty seats will increase the number of test takers without requiring any new teachers or equipment or curricular initiatives.

    So why are those seats empty to begin with? Plenty of reasons, well known to those who’ve thought about the issues. The image of CS as a discipline drives some students away. Not all high school counselors (or principals, for that matter) understand what CS really is, much less how to promote it to students — if they’re even committed to offering it at all on a consistent basis. Capable students may not have the room to take it in their schedules, amidst the lengthy list of high school requirements and college entry requirements, for which APCS may not count for anything.

    And all of those factors affect the enrollment of students on day one of the school year, before the instructor has even had a chance to engage with the students and the material.

    Yes, I’m overly sensitive to this. For years, our previous administration would often complain about faculty “productivity”, as measured in student-hours/faculty member. Of course, it’s hard to be “productive” by that measure when the admissions staff (who fiercely insisted that they didn’t need help with their job) wouldn’t bring in enough new students to fill even one section of the intro course. But the “productivity ratio” was seen as the Gold Standard.

    I’m also not completely sure that comparisons to Physics are helpful. There are two types of AP courses: ones that students take in order to take more of the subject in college, and ones that students take in order to take less of the subject in college. CS has always been solidly in the former category. The classic example in the latter category is US History. I tend to think that Physics probably belongs more in the latter than the former … at least, I don’t see huge numbers of Physics majors being cranked out by universities these days.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  February 3, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      I’m completely okay with measuring just about anything we value in economic terms. People pay me to teach. They have a right, then, to measure how well I’m doing. If they’re doing the paying, they get to set the measure. If I don’t like the measure, or if the influences on my performance are outside my control (like the admissions situation you describe), then I have the right to leave the contract and walk.

      As for APCS, your point about types of AP’s and butts-in-seats are well-taken. We’re trying to understand the latter. There are lots of AP CS classes in Georgia where most of the students don’t take the test — there are enough butts-in-seats, yet the numbers decline. Why? Interesting question.

      • 3. Jim Huggins  |  February 5, 2010 at 12:50 am

        I understand that those who pay the piper get to call the tune. But we also have a responsibility to tell those calling the tune that they may be choosing bad tunes to call. That’s one of the differences between being a “hired gun” and a “professional”.

        After all, I’m smart enough to teach to whatever reward structure you put in place. If the gold standard of productivity is number of students taking the exam, that’s easy enough to achieve. Tell the students that they have to sit for the exam, regardless if they want to take it, or are ready to take it. Heck, if my pay raise depends on it, I can even pay the students to take the exam. (Of course, I’ll be smart enough to make it look like “graduation gifts”.)

        Overly cynical? Perhaps. But as an APCS reader, I’ve seen a non-trivial number of exam books written by students who did nothing more than doodle for two hours because they were forced to sit for the exam (and wrote notes saying so). As much as we might not like it, it does happen.


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