Friday, March 16, 2018

Impressive High School Computer Science Students–Made or Born?

ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) announced the winners of the 2017-2018 Cutler-Bell Prize in High School Computing recently. Five students from four schools were given this award this year. One of the students was from a public school. The rest from independent schools. The public school has magnet programs but I don't know if the winner is part of those programs.

What does that mean? My best guess is that independent schools allow more flexibility for projects like this. Not just independent schools of course, schools like the Bergen County Academies and schools like Thomas Jefferson in Virginia clearly have a lot of flexibility, extra resources, and are open to encourage things like this. TJ had an awardee in both of the first two years of the award for example. But they are exceptional schools in more ways than one. They are not your typical public school. Looking back on the first three years of awards almost all of the awardees have been from either independent schools or public magnet schools.

It’s not just computer science though. Take a look at the schools who have had the most awardees in the Westinghouse-Siemens research competition. You'll see some familiar school names there. Most of them magnet schools.

My friend Mike Zamansky (blog Twitter) ways these awards say more about the students than the schools. I’m sure that is the case to some extent. But why so many of these students from magnet or independent schools? I think environment is important. If it were all about the student we would not see these clusters of schools that produce an outsized number of awardees.

I don’t know if the motivated students choose these school or the schools themselves develop this motivation. What I do think is that these schools have the flexibility to enable and support these students.  They also have a history of producing “winners” and a culture that sets high expectations but also provides help for students to meet those expectations.

Sure students from “regular” comprehensive high schools can and do earn these awards. That is not the way to bet though. The question in my mind is how to we add the flexibility and support to more students at more schools?


Brian Sea said...

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink."

Like most things in life, you're seeing a combination of environments and the individual. The student provides the motivation/drive and the ingenuity. The parents and schools provide the environment to give those attributes room to blossom. From the school, this environment includes structure and people (students and staff).

Like Mike Zamansky, I have worked at some "high-powered" schools, but I also went to one. These schools (public or private) not only provide a more flexible schedule and some dedicated resources (not necessarily more), but they also surround students with an environment which pushes them out of their comfort zones and encourages them to do projects like these. Being surrounded by students with similar educational goals creates an incubator of ideas. Setting up expectations, crafting flexible curricula, and mentoring students is where the teacher comes in. But even given the "best" environment, the student still needs to develop the drive, and they still need put the peices together themselves.

Some environments squash students. They require so much rote work that there is no room for creativity. They require students to do a little bit of everying instead of allowing students to excel in their passions. They push students to collect APs instead of freeing up time for them to work on large projects. And schools time manage students to the minute instead of allowing ample room for students to think about, design, and implement their own ideas.

These are some the reasons why I'm like specialized schools and dislike Adanced Placement. Specialized schools provide suitable environments and attract specialized staff. The AP curriculum removes flexibility by cramming in content and focusing students not on being creative and creating something, but on passing a distilled test where creativity is all but removed.

I've been at three instistutions thus far (two private, one public), and the moment I setup high expectations and create an environment (remove the AP, create space in the curriculum for design projects, encourage competitions, etc), all students ramp up and ideas flow. But at my current school, the schedule and workload is hampering large, independent ideas from being completed.

-- Brian Sea

Garth said...

There are just so many differences in staff and students populations that is is hard to compare a standard public school to a private or independent school. I am at a private school. We are missing that lower 50th percentile. We have students that under achieve but they are a very small minority. When parents pay $10,000 it sort of changes the attitude towards school.

Alfred Thompson said...

Brian, one of my big problems with AP curriculum is that it is too confining. The AP CS Principles course has more freedom but still not as much as I would really like. It's frustrating.

Mike Zamansky said...

Alfred -- well, when the focus is an end of year test (or test + a couple of externally defined, locally administered assessments) as is AP, little surprise there's little freedom.

Oh - also my post on this coming today or tomorrow.

Had to do taxes first (or rather, stay out of Devorah's way and be available for consulting while she does the taxes since she's the brains in the family.. Actually, also the looks. Starting to wonder what I bring to the table....).

Mike Zamansky said...

Related thoughts:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Alfred. I probably have so much to say about this that I ought to write a separate post as well. I'll ping you back.
I teach at a public middle school. When I was part of the Allen Distinguished Educator cohort two years ago, public schoolteachers were in a minority there as well. My teaching partner and I wondered about this. Why is it so hard to be an innovative, out of the box teacher in a public school? How do we make this more common?
I had a group of four girls that I attempted to mentor in a coding competition a couple of years ago. They were really smart, driven students but we never could pull together what was needed to finish the competition project. There really wasn't enough time and flexibility in the school day to pull it off. I couldn't find any time to meet with them. We had difficulty with purchasing, mentoring, community connections, technology, just a whole lot of things conspired to make the project never get off the ground. Not everything was a function of the public school environment, but some of it was.