Computer science one of eleven priorities for US Department of Education

Today the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced its priorities for competitive grant programs. We’ve been waiting for this document because it articulates how the Department will act on the President’s directive to the Department to spend at least $200 million for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, with a focus on CS. We had hoped that this document would clarify exactly how CS would be prioritized across the Department of Education. While promoting STEM and CS is a top-level priority, the draft proposal doesn’t provide us much clarity — largely because there are multiple priorities and it isn’t clear how they all intersect. The priorities lay out what topics the Department will be looking for when awarding $700+ million in competitive grants each year. In short, applicants that include one (or more) of these priorities are more likely to be funded.

What are the priorities?

There are 11 priorities. (If you want to read all 11 they are at the bottom of this post). That’s a surprise to us because there are so many. STEM and CS is #6.

There’s a lot of detail within each priority, including numerous sub-priorities. With so many, it isn’t clear how they will drive decision making with specific ED programs.

We aren’t likely going to get clarity on this until individual “notices inviting applications” (ED-speak for requests for proposals) come out for each program. In those, program leads will detail how the “points” system will work for priorities (e.g., CS may score higher if it is chosen as a priority for that program).

We’d certainly like to see CS and proposals addressing diversity issues given a higher, clearer priority within most of the K-12 CS programs.

What are the details related to CS?

CS is generally a part of most of the sub-priorities within the STEM priorities, which is a positive development for the field. Here are the highlights that stood out to us:

  • Increasing diversity in CS (“racial or ethnic minorities, women, or students in communities served by rural local educational agencies”) is specifically called out as a sub-priority.
  • There’s a definition of CS that roughly mirrors the K-12 Framework and additional language that states the definition of CS specifically excludes using technology activities.
  • There’s a focus on professional development for existing teachers that want to move into CS.
  • There’s an emphasis on the creation of and maintenance of open educational resources, a space where the CS community has been a leader.
  • There are direct connections between CS and one other top-level priority — “Fostering Flexible and Affordable Paths to Obtaining Knowledge and Skills”.

Beyond our overarching concern that it isn’t clear how CS will be prioritized within specific programs, here’s what struck us as initial concerns:

  • The definition of diversity doesn’t include socioeconomic status. As we know, students of lower socioeconomic status are traditionally underrepresented in computing. The diversity reference also does not include individuals with disabilities, although there’s an entire top-level priority focused on this topic.
  • Although the guidance includes a clear definition of CS, other language within the document describes educational technology, which is not included in the definition of CS education. This can create confusion about the relationship between technology in schools vs. teaching computer science.
  • There’s a missed opportunity to prioritize programs that bring CS to schools that do not already offer such programs, which would incentivize programs to go to underserved schools.
  • There’s awkward and unclear language about transitioning students from using technology to creating technology, in an otherwise positive sub-priority focused on computer science and exposing students to inquiry-based learning, etc.

There’s a number of other highlights and questions we have with the proposal. These are just the initial ones that stood out to us.

What’s next?

Today begins a 30-day period of public comment, and we wanted to share our initial reactions with the community. We hope that everyone invested in increasing equitable access to CS education will help by providing feedback to ED along with us. We will make our official comments public.

After the comment period, the guidance will be finalized. Once final, the community’s work will need to shift to mobilizing districts, universities, and providers to apply for these funds.

Then each competitive grant program will issue its “Notice Inviting Applications,” which will detail which priorities of the 11 are “absolute” or “competitive” for that particular solicitation. Then the grants will be peer reviewed and final awards made based on these priorities and the quality of the submissions.

Full List of Priorities

  1. Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child’s Unique Needs
  2. Promoting Innovation and Efficiency, Streamlining Education with an Increased Focus on Improving Student Outcomes, and Providing Increased Value to Students and Taxpayers
  3. Fostering Flexible and Affordable Paths to Obtaining Knowledge and Skills
  4. Fostering Knowledge and Promoting the Development of Skills that Prepare Students to be Informed, Thoughtful, and Productive Individuals and Citizens
  5. Meeting the Unique Needs of Students and Children, including those with Disabilities and/or with Unique Gifts and Talents
  6. Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education, With a Particular Focus on Computer Science
  7. Promoting Literacy
  8. Promoting Effective Instruction in Classrooms and Schools
  9. Promoting Economic Opportunity
  10. Encouraging Improved School Climate and Safer and More Respectful Interactions in a Positive and Safe Educational Environment
  11. Ensuring that Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Have Access to High-Quality Educational Choices

Cameron Wilson, Code.org
Jake Baskin, Code.org

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