Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Expanding Computing Education–Are We Forgetting Rural Schools

One big announcement last week was College Board and Code.org announc[ing] an alliance to improve diversity in computer science. The plan is to partner with the 35 largest school districts in the US. Now to some 35 school districts may not sound like a lot but these districts are HUGE. New York City along has something like 490 high schools. The public schools (at all levels) serve 1.1 million students. So what will happen?

    • The College Board and Code.org will identify and help schools to adopt two specific computer science courses at the high school level: the introductory Exploring Computer Science and AP Computer Science Principles.
    • The College Board and Code.org will co-fund Code.org’s professional development of new computer science teachers, and recommend Code.org’s computer science pathway;
    • The College Board and Code.org will encourage schools to offer the new PSAT™ 8/9 assessment as a way of identifying more students, particularly those from traditionally under-represented groups, for enrollment in these new courses.

Since these large school districts have a lot of minority students the hope is that this effort will bring in a lot more minority students to computer science. Investing in efforts to increase minority participation was one of the reasons given for dropping the AP CS AB course a few years ago. This partnership seems in-line with that promise. All those extra PSAT test takers as well as additional AP CS test takers will be good for the CollegeBoard I’m sure.

There are other efforts at broadening participation as well. The new Computer Science Principles AP course is one of those. Efforts to promote that include the Beauty and Joy of Computing from the University of California at Berkley and the Mobile CSP curriculum that uses Android devices and App Inventor. 

The Exploring Computer Science program, developed originally for the LA School District, is also widely used and growing. Not tied in with AP CS Principals there is also Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance, an NSF Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance. And there are many more.

It all sounds so great. Why am I still worried? I know many of the people behind most of these programs and they are great people. They know their stuff and they know how to teach. But, and there always seem to be a but, I’m still worried.

Two things worry me. One is lack of teacher preparation and the other is complacency. Let me start with the second one. Over that last several years a healthy number of states have passed legislation allowing computer science to count for graduation credits. Sounds great. But there are misunderstandings about those laws.

I have read several reports that say all these states require computer science for graduation. That is not the case. Allowing a course to count for graduation is far from being the same thing as requiring them for graduation. Many schools are still not offering computer science courses that could count for graduation. We’re a long way from requiring CS for graduation. Or even from requiring that schools offer the option. This is not a time to rest on our laurels. There is still a long way to go.

Mike Zamansky covers some of the professional development issues or perhaps I should say assumptions on his blog at What's Expedient vs what's good - curriculum vs teachers. Many people seem to think that training computer science teachers is easy or fast or both. It is neither. Worse still it must be continuous because the technology is constantly changing. Snap! is not the same as FORTRAN. PROCESSING is not the same as COBOL. Programming for a mobile device is not the same as programming a batch job in a mainframe.

I think that it is great that Code.Org is doing teacher training. I am sure they are doing a great job. I believe they plan for some on-going support which is absolutely necessary. What are we going to do for schools and students not in the top 35 largest school districts?

I live in New Hampshire and we have a lot of rural, often poor, school districts. Those kids need more options as much as they city kids do. And don’t get me started about schools on native American reservations who lack resources for the bare bones of education at times. Technology and computer science open the potential for jobs careers that they don’t even know about.

The task ahead is still large and victory (how ever we might define it) is a long way away. Please though can we not forget the small districts and the rural schools?


Garth said...

Rural schools will never become hot beds of CS. It is simply not economically feasible. Montana is like New Hampshire, rural. MT has 179 schools. Of those 92 have less than 100 kids. Only 36 have more than 300 kids. We are rural with a capital "R". I know of 6 schools with a CS program. (There are undoubtedly more but I just do not know of them and they are not listed by OPI.) All 6 were started by teachers interested in starting the program, not a mandate from above. This continues to be the trend. Finding CS teachers is not possible. There simply are not enough CSEd programs in the US that are capable of generating the numbers of teachers needed. MT is starting to get on the band wagon. MSU now offers a programming for teachers summer course for practicing teachers. UM will be offering one next fall semester. Even if teachers start to appear how is a school like Belfry (yes, they are the Bats) with 8 students, going to have a CS class in their curriculum? On-line is the obvious solution but it would be on the students' own time which usually does not fly too well.

Mike Zamansky said...

While I'm far less confident w/r to the training my bigger concern is the PSAT thing.

The code.org blog post uses the word "encourage" schools to have their kids take the PSAT 8/9 but the article we both read said that schools that have their kids take the PSAT 8/9 will receive the "free" training and support.

This is right out of the privatization / reformer handbook for charter schools. Get the public school signs on for yet another un-needed standardized test and the public foots the bill it's an endless cash flow.

When we look back at this blog post maybe five years from now, I think we'll see minimal change w/r to the quality of CS education as a result of this but lots more money flowing into the college board.

I hope I'm wrong but if history is any guide, I won't be.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

Garth, I've been thinking about your comment ever since I read it yesterday. I wonder if part of the answer for smaller schools is finding ways to incorporate CS into other subjects? I think of the Bootstrap program that combines math and CS as an example. Of course curriculum and teacher training are necessary for that to happen.

Garth said...

Alfred, it is that teacher training that pretty much kills things. The program offered at MSU, "The Joy and Beauty of Computing", would be perfect for integrating CS into curriculum. The trouble is the MSU course is summer and not cheap. When teachers have to pay for their own training for a course they have to design and is low on the curriculum totem pole then the attendance is pretty low. Teachers will be attending this course because they are interested, not because the school has shown an interest. Integration requires that a lot of teachers get trained. It is not going to happen. There is also the issue that in order to integrate programming into say a math course something in that math course has to go. It takes time to teach kids even a little programming. Most math programs are very lock-step and would require a notice from God (at least in a Catholic school) to force a change. "It has worked well for 40 years so why change?" seems to be the primary curriculum philosophy in most schools. (When I talk about this topic in person I wave my hands and pace around a lot. People say I get excited and am fun to watch.)

Hadi Partovi said...

Alfred, in addition to working with 70 (not 35) of the largest districts in the U.S., Code.org has many state-level engagements to reach rural schools. For example in Arkansas we helped pass legislation requiring every Arkansas school to teach CS. In Idaho we are working with IDLA to bring dozens of rural school teachers to Boise to do a statewide PD. We share the worry. We're working on it, and also relying on promoting partners to reach the places we can't. - Hadi