Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Computer Science - Part of English Baccalaureate

There is some good news from the UK in that Computer Science is going to be part of English Baccalaureate (secondary school) program there. The Ministry of Education there has made two important and perhaps transformative decisions regarding ICT (Information and Computer Technology) in the British education system. The first decision was that they current ICT program which focuses almost completely on applications and computer use is inadequate. The conclusion is that ICT needs to include a lot of real computer science. The second decision is that computer science should be a core subject that meets part of the science requirement for graduation.

In the US a handful of states permit including computer science to meet a graduation requirement as either a math or a science. Unlike the UK the US does not have a national curriculum. The Common Core curriculum is sponsored by a large group of states but a) is not a national mandate and b) does not include computer science. It’s hard to understand why computer science is not in the Common Core but since it is not this gives computer science in the UK a jump over the US in CS education. Although it is not quite as easy as snapping ones fingers, writing a policy and making it happen.

Already teachers in the UK are asking question about implementation. Like the US the UK is not overloaded with teachers qualified to teach computer science.  Where is the training going to come from? Who is going to pay for it? And who is going to provide the training?

While British industry (including international tech giants like Microsoft and Google who have significant operations there) have been very supportive of the curriculum and have been influential in its creation it is not clear to me that they are the right people to provide the training. Fund it? Perhaps as it is to their advantage. It’s still going to be expensive.

Still since CS is part of the core set of courses and more and more parents are aware of the importance of computer science education one can expect the pressure on schools to offer CS courses to grow. Schools that are responsive to parent demands (which may mean first in the schools we call private in the US) are going to look to offer these courses. Students who were interested in CS but were concerned about it not counting towards graduation will also start asking for more CS courses. With increased demand one hopes that training opportunities with increase to build up the pool of qualified teachers. It has to start somewhere and maybe this is the kick start that is needed.

The US is much larger and has a deficit of qualified computer science teachers so in some respects the problem is larger here. The NSF with some funding from industry (the same few companies over and over again) has been working through a plan to get 10,000 computer science teachers teaching real computer science across the country. This is a struggle though for several reasons only one of which is the shortage of teachers and the limited funding for professional development. The big problem is that schools (districts, states, etc.) seem to have little interest in adding computer science to the curriculum. As noted, it generally doesn't count towards graduation. It never counts towards meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind or even Race to the Top. These days many school districts are only interested in doing things that help raise standardized test schools and get the district out of NCLB trouble.

In the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove is providing national visibility, prestige and even pressure to include computer science. We don’t hear Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talking about computer science much if at all. Even without control over a national curriculum more support from Duncan would go a long way towards helping with the shortage of CS education in the US.

We still have the problems of finding enough teachers and training the ones we have now of course. But if there were more demand for CS educators schools of education would have the incentive to create training programs for them. We have a sort of Catch-22 situation right now. There is not enough demand for CS education training so universities are not providing it but since there is a shortage of qualified CS educators high schools are afraid to offer courses for fear they will not find teachers to teach them. Without CS being part of the core curriculum no one has incentive to make the first move. Someone needs to break the logjam.

BTW don't miss Ken Royal's take at  ICT Move to Computer Science More Than a Makeover

No comments: