Wednesday, June 12, 2013

They Just Don’t Seem To Get It

An article was published yesterday with the very optimistic title of Computer Science May Become Mandatory Part of Mass Public School Curriculum. If you read the article though the work “may” could be defined as “when hell freezes over.” OK maybe that is too far in the other more pessimistic direction so let me start over talking about the article. basically a coalition of high the companies including Google, Microsoft, Oracle. and Intel have formed the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, or MassCAN to lobby for more computer science education in Massachusetts.

There is more information at the Boston Globe article Tech firms call for mandatory computer classes Want computer science taught but I don’t know more than what is in those articles. The companies are willing to put their money where they mouth is to support curriculum development and teacher training. The response from the state Department of Education has been anything but enthusiastic as far as I can tell. That is why I see any of this happening as unlikely.

For example Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education:

While Chester agrees with tech executives that Massachusetts graduates should be better equipped to pursue computer science careers, he said a better approach would be to incorporate computer teaching in existing course work, or to work with individual school districts to develop their own specific curriculums.

The first approach, incorporating computer teaching into existing work, is a great idea. In theory. The problem is that few teachers know how to do this. Many seem unwilling to learn because they just want to teach the way they always have. Getting real computer science into the curriculum rather than just computer applications is a whole lot harder still. I wonder if the apps is what he thinks of as computer teaching?

Working with individual school district to develop specific curriculum seems like a way to say “go fight the same fight as many times as there are school districts.” That is a huge drain on resources and highly unlikely to be very successful. This strikes me as a huge failure in leadership.

Paul Reville, a former secretary of education in Massachusetts and now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

[…] suggests the companies should start on a smaller scale, selecting a few schools as a pilot for a more focused approach to the skills gap in technology. If those proved effective, Reville predicted, computer science courses would spread rapidly.

This makes no sense to me. There are schools doing good things with computing education in and around Massachusetts. Some in public schools, some in private and some in charter schools. They could take a look at the program at the Advanced Math & Science Academy (AMSA) for one. Computer Science from middle school up through high school. Their CS students win awards. 

Having an effective program is far from enough to get things to spread. Computer science has to have value to the schools and to the students. If computer science stays an elective that doesn’t “count” towards graduation schools are going to continue to give it short shrift. Students are likewise going to avoid it unless already very interested in it.  Eleven states (Indiana last week made it 11) accept APCS as a math or science credit for graduation. Massachusetts needs to do the same at a minimum.


Classof1 said...

Although I understand your feeling of how the student would not opt for the course unless they are truly interested. But on flip side it doesn't make sense to force them through computer education, if they are not interested. It would make more people averse to computer education, which may not be in the best interest of the state.

Alfred Thompson said...

We require a lot of courses as it is. Many students discover a love for subjects after first being exposed to them in a required course. If taught right computer science is fun, interesting and motivating.

Garth said...

How many years are we going to do pilot studies? Seems like there are lots of pilot studies and no adoptions of curriculum. Might be time to start putting up. It is time to look critically as present HS curriculum. Many claim it is presently "full" with no room for CS. Maybe time to change English, science or math requirements to fit the 21 century. What a stink that will cause!

Laura Blankenship said...

I agree. We require art but not CS. We require 4 years of English, but only 3 years of Science and Math only through pre-Calc. (

There's room for change if there's the will.