Twenty years ago Michael Zamansky left his high paying Wall Street job to teach computer science at New York's Stuyvesant High School. "My current salary after 23 years is just approaching my pre-teaching salary when I worked in the industry back in the day,” he laughs.
When Zamansky joined the staff at Stuyvesant (which is often ranked as one of the top public high schools in America), the school had no computer science program and only a class or two vaguely related to the subject.
Today the school has eight dedicated computer science teachers and requires each student to complete a full year of courses on the subject.
As a result, Stuyvesant has alumni in high-level positions at tech firms around the country. Zamansky uses alumni at companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to help his current students.
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"Look at New York, we’re not going to bring back big manufacturing" says Zamansky. "A computer economy is an intellectual economy. We have smart people here with limited real estate to build really cool things.” American students must begin to learn computer science in high school or even middle school in order to meet the needs of this economy, he argues.
The tech community often complains that there are not enough qualified workers to fill open positions.
“There seems to be a disconnect between the tech community and the political and administrative institutions and the schools,” Zamansky explains.
Even those who don't plan on entering the tech world after college graduation can benefit from partaking in a computer science curriculum in high school. "Computer science is really fundamental," says Zamansky. “It’s a way of thinking and problem solving that’s always existed. Just like you shouldn’t leave school without being able to think like a poet in certain ways, you should be able to think like a computer scientist in certain ways."
There’s also a practical side to learning computer science.
“Computers are everywhere and everything,” Zamansky tells The Daily Ticker. “If you can make these devices sing, if the computer is your canvas and you can paint on that you can do anything with it. It opens up so many possibilities both professionally in computer science and in other fields.”
While adding computer science to the high school core curriculum may seem like a no-brainer, Zamansky has struggled to have his voice heard.
"At the policy level, there’s a lot of politics going on and that’s frequently counter to education," he argues. “A lot of the best work is grassroots level stuff, it’s the educators. But when you look at the national education debate and look at who’s not part of the picture, it’s teachers.”
Last year, Zamansky proposed a new high school that would specialize in computer engineering. He was backed by Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson and many in the tech community.
He was disappointed, however, when the New York City Board of Education made the school more of a vocational academy. “The board of education refuses to engage us,” Zamansky says.
Another challenge lies in finding educators to teach computer science. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average high school teacher makes $56,750 while software developers make an average of $92,000.
"It’s tough but it can be done. You have to identify career teachers who have the spark and who have the love for computer science," says Zamansky.
You can contact this journalist on Twitter: @NicoleGoodkind.
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