Saving Computer Science Education from Itself

NYC high school students at 2104 CS Opportunity Fair

Tom — thanks for posting this thoughtful piece. I enjoyed it thoroughly. But it also reaffirmed for me a fear that we haven’t done enough to explain the vision for CS4All.

I couldn’t agree more with your “right reasons.” We at CSNYC and our partners in this community believe strongly in the power of CS to empower kids to put computing to both creative and analytical use, to better understand the technology that has become prevalent in their daily lives, and to consider a broader range of options for their futures.

Contrary to what you may have perceived in the CS4All announcement, this work isn’t as driven by industry as it may seem. The workforce issues are real — both the need for more software engineers and for greater diversity among them—but I don’t think anyone involved in designing or running these programs is doing it for the sole reason of training workers. We do expect early and repeated exposure to CS to inspire many more of our graduates to pursue careers in tech, and it’s our responsibility to make that a more realistic possibility. But it’s universities, nonprofit organizations, and the DOE itself that have generated most of the curriculum in play, much of it funded by the National Science Foundation, not industry.

We don’t have all the answers. CS4All is exciting because initiatives of this scale and timeline give us the opportunity to learn from and improve on our work. For example:

  • We have a lot to discover about what kinds of curriculum and approaches work in different contexts. We want schools to be able to choose the curriculum that best meets their needs and interests.
  • We don’t know enough about CS in elementary school, but there is already a lot of good work happening in these grades. We plan to pilot many things before we go big.
  • There’s a brand new AP CS course framework called CS Principles, of which the Beauty and Joy of Computing is one example. The new AP test will be administered for the first time in the spring of 2017.
  • Like you, we would like to see CS curriculum integrate with core subject areas, the way Bootstrap does with algebra. I agree with your comment that we should make an effort to work within existing school structures. The fact that we are training teachers from all disciplines suggests to me that this will be happening more very soon.

I wouldn’t characterize the introduction of CS as the same kind of struggle as ed tech. Ed tech has helped increase schools’ efficiency (see: Google Apps for Education) but has otherwise suffered from misdirected efforts to optimize or even automate instruction, without paying enough attention to the realities of human cognition and learning, or how schools operate. In contrast, CS is a discipline in its own right, and, as you note, one that plays nicely with others. It should be introduced to schools as such.

This is a time of transition. We are riding a tidal wave of interest in making CS available to students in the public schools. Many local organizations and a few national ones like have stepped up to make CS programs available to districts and schools. There are also promising efforts to articulate K-12 CS more clearly: CSTA is rewriting its standards for a 2016 release. recently engaged a broad range of stakeholders in the development of a K-12 CS education framework. The NYCDOE is developing a CS Blueprint modeled on their Blueprints for Teaching and Learning in the Arts. We’re also learning from the experience of Common Core and NGSS.

The hard work is just beginning. We are in 150 schools this year — only 1,550 to go. :)

Making CS4All a reality will probably look a lot like software engineering: collaboration among many designers and developers, with lots of testing and debugging, as the work evolves and expands over time.

I think it’s great you’re on board.