Computer Science for All: Can Schools Pull It Off?
White House, big tech agencies push idea
Alante Klyce wants to be a dancer.
Yet here she is, inside a sun-filled classroom at Lindblom Math & Science Academy on the city’s South Side, throwing around tech-industry terms like "ideation" and working with friends to design her first mobile app.
It’s all part of the introductory computer-science course that every student in Chicago must now take in order to graduate.
“I’m still not really that into technology,” said Klyce, 15. “But this is actually my favorite class now.”
This is the promise of the nascent “Computer Science for All” movement: that the nation’s K-12 schools can prepare every student, regardless of background or career interests, to thrive in a tech-driven future.
“We’re changing kids’ minds about who they are and what they can do,” said Brenda Wilkerson, the architect of Chicago’s groundbreaking computer-science initiative. “Imagine that across millions.”
From the White House, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both pledged support for that vision. Companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce have pushed the idea with hundreds of millions of dollars and an extensive lobbying campaign. Dozens of states have gotten on board, adopting new standards and allowing computer-science courses to count towards graduation.
As a result, from Arkansas to California to South Carolina, K-12 computer-science offerings are taking off.
Now comes the hard part.
The movement sits on a clear fault line: Should computer-science education focus on preparing students for jobs, or teaching them new ways to think and solve problems?
Many observers question whether the current emphasis on workforce development makes sense. Hundreds of schools still try to pass off keyboarding classes as computer science. Completing an hourlong coding tutorial won’t land anyone a six-figure software-developer gig. And artificial intelligence may soon take over most entry-level programming work.
Then there are the practical challenges.
How, exactly, are the nation’s public schools—already stretched thin, riddled with inequities, and oft-derided as failing—supposed to keep up with the dizzying changes in Silicon Valley? Where are schools supposed to find teachers who know how to run a classroom, can program in Python, and are willing to work for $40,000 a year?
It’s a fraught moment for K-12 educators and policymakers, said Wilkerson, now president of AnitaB.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the role of women in technology.
Lay a strong foundation, and Computer Science for All has the potential to be life-changing for entire generations of students like Alante Klyce.
“But if we screw this up,” she said, “we’ll be locking in the status quo, especially for those who have been systematically shut out from opportunity.”
The Rapid Expansion of Computer Science
How many K-12 schools currently offer computer science?
It’s hard to say.
A 2016 survey by Google and Gallup suggests the figure is somewhere between 40 and 70 percent (depending on whether you only count courses that include computer programming, or you include such offerings as after-school robotics clubs.)
Big-picture, though, the trend lines are clear. Eight years ago, just 19,390 students took an Advanced Placement Computer Science exam. By last spring, that was up to 99,868—a 415 percent jump.
Janice Cuny is as responsible for that remarkable growth as anyone.
Cuny is a program officer at the National Science Foundation. Since 2004, she’s been working to make the computer-science field more accessible to girls and minorities.
Early on, she decided that one big key was to make computer-science education less about how to program loops and conditionals, and more about why you’d want to do such a thing in the first place.
Especially in K-12.
“It became pretty clear that the problem started in high schools,” said Cuny, who described a major gap caused by the lack of computer-science opportunities in grades 9-12. “We were leaving a big black hole for [students] to fall into.”
To fill the void, Cuny helped launch an effort to train 10,000 new computer-science teachers. She was instrumental in funding research into how computer science is best taught at the K-12 level. And, most significantly, Cuny played a key role in the development of two new K-12 courses, both of which have helped schools provide an introductory-level course for students who may not have prior programming experience: Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles, which debuted with huge numbers last spring, and Exploring Computer Science, now offered in more than 2,000 schools nationwide.
Those efforts helped lay the groundwork for a handful of big-city districts to embrace the “Computer Science for All” mantra.
In 2013, with help from Google and a newly founded nonprofit called Code.org, Chicago’s 400,000-student school district went all-in, announcing it would bring Exploring Computer Science to every high school in the city, as well as begin integrating computer-science into math and science courses in at least one-fourth of its elementary schools.
Five years later, those targets have mostly been met. The number of Chicago high school students taking computer science has almost tripled. And Lindblom Math & Science stands as a shining example of what’s possible.
When it opened in 1919, Lindblom was a technical school mostly for European immigrants. In its early years, the school’s massive workshop spaces were used for vocational training in everything from agriculture to blacksmithing to auto repair.
Now a selective-admission school that students from all over the city can try to test into, Lindblom’s student body is 70 percent African-American and 23 percent Latino. It offers no fewer than seven different computer-science courses, plus a wide range of related clubs, programs, and other opportunities.
Senior Mario Morales has taken advantage of all of them.
First, he took Exploring Computer Science. Then he raced through the school’s game design, web development, and networking courses. He currently has two IT-related internships, plus he’s taking a college-level course in data structures and algorithms at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
And on a snowy January afternoon, Morales stayed after school to work with Lindblom’s robotics and CyberPatriots teams, plugging away on a laptop emblazoned with a sticker that read “MY OTHER COMPUTER IS YOUR COMPUTER.”
The appeal, he said, is that programming gives him more control over the world around him than he previously knew was possible.
“Before, I was mostly into sports,” said Morales, 18. “Now, I want to get a degree in computer science or cybersecurity, then become a malware analyst.”
Computer Science for Jobs, or Life?
Morales’ ambitions embody the sales pitch that helped take “Computer Science for All” mainstream—and has contributed to tension in the field.
The driving force was founder Hadi Partovi, an Iranian-born software engineer who made a fortune selling startups to Microsoft and MySpace, then investing early in such Silicon Valley heavyweights as Airbnb and Facebook.
At Code.org, Partovi leveraged the success of Hour of Code to line up tens of millions of dollars in tech-sector support. Then he won the ear of President Obama, who donned a Code.org cap as he became the first commander-in-chief to write a line of code.
A coalition of advocates fanned out across the country, lobbying state lawmakers to change policies and dedicate funds to support computer-science education.
Jobs became the central selling point for the movement.
In 2015, for example, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson touted a new law expanding computer-science education as a strategy for “preparing a workforce that’s sure to attract businesses and jobs to our state.”
In many ways, it’s a strong case to make.
The federal government projects robust demand for workers in computer-science-related fields through 2026. Jobs of all types are becoming more digital, a Brookings Institute study recently found. Across sectors, employers are willing to pay big premiums for people with computer- and data-science skills, according to a recent analysis of online job postings by Burning Glass Technologies and Oracle Academy.
And companies such as Microsoft haven’t been shy about tying their philanthropic support for “Computer Science for All” to their own long-term hiring strategies.
“We need the talent,” said Jane Broom, the senior director of Microsoft Philanthropies, which has committed $75 million to K-12 computer science education over the past three years.
But the growing emphasis on workforce development, combined with the rising influence of the tech sector, have made some in the field uncomfortable.
There are fears about quality: As the field attracts money and attention, schools are being flooded with sales pitches for platforms, devices, and games claiming to make coding instruction easy.
There are fears about the future: Companies may be looking for hard-core Java developers right now, but advances in both hardware and artificial intelligence could render such skills irrelevant by the time today’s 6th graders hit the job market.
And there are fears that some “Computer Science for All” proponents don’t understand or appreciate the context of public education.
“Developing a workforce that knows how to use a particular software or [programming] language is not what high school is for,” said Cuny of the National Science Foundation.
Partovi shares those concerns.
“The popularity of [the name] Code.org has made people think this is just about teaching kids coding, and not about the broader fields of computer science and computational thinking,” he said.
But his organization’s curricula, now in use by tens of thousands of teachers across the country, reflect a different reality, Partovi said.
Code.org believes schools should teach computer science like they teach math, or biology. Every student isn’t going to become a botanist, Partovi likes to say, but they all learn about photosynthesis, so they can understand how the world around them works.
The digital equivalent of that approach would:
- Provide all students with a broad conceptual understanding of how computers and the internet function, so they can participate knowledgeably in a digital society.
- Help students attack all kinds of problems computationally, breaking them down into smaller parts,and looking for patterns.
- Make sure they know how to work with large amounts of data, increasingly the lifeblood of nearly every sector of the economy.
- Give students opportunities to test their ideas in the real world, so they learn the process for creating technology, not just consuming it.
- And teach them coding—in a way that is not limited to any single programming language or environment.
“We don’t want to prepare students for just one type of job,” Partovi said. “We want to prepare them for life.”
Challenges on the Ground
Most leaders in the Computer Science for All movement embrace some version of that vision.
What’s happening inside actual schools, however, remains all over the map.
For decades, computer-science education in many of schools has consisted primarily of technology basics, such as learning how to use Microsoft Office, or even stenography. Undoing that legacy is hard.
Take South Carolina.
The state department of education has actually mandated computer science since 1997. But many students still fulfill the high school graduation requirement by taking a half-credit course in keyboarding.
“It’s no fault of the districts,” said Anne Pressley, the director of the department’s office of standards and learning, which has been leading an effort to develop new computer-science standards for South Carolina schools.
“It’s a lack of capacity, especially when it comes to course development and finding teachers,” she said.
Such problems are especially prevalent in rural school districts.
But big hurdles remain in places like Chicago, too.
Most of Chicago’s elementary schools still aren’t part of the CS4all initiative, leaving students like Ian Michael Brock to take matters into their own hands.
While 76 of Chicago’s 85 high schools now offer computer science, many have only a single introductory course, leaving students who catch the computer-science bug with limited options for following up.
The single biggest barrier to making Computer Science for All work, by far, is staffing—even at a school like Lindblom Math & Science Academy.
Principal Wayne Bevis has worked to expand computer science schoolwide—without any new money to hire additional teachers. Over the last two years, he’s had to make do, first by switching the duties of one of his math teachers, then by moving a staffer who had been working on a schoolwide support program back into the classroom.
That’s left a heavy burden on the shoulders of Jesus Duran.
The heart of Lindblom’s small computer-science team, Duran is something of a unicorn. How often do Motorola engineers, with degrees in computer science and new media art, turn down $120,000 salaries to teach in a public high school? And how many K-12 computer science teachers run their own tech companies on the side, in part to stay up with the latest advances in everything from artificial intelligence to blockchain?
But for the time being, at least, Duran is here, zigzagging between the robots and whiteboards scattered throughout his last-period game-design class.
Students are working in pairs, laughing and debating as they develop storyboards and soundtracks for their own two-dimensional video games.
The underlying purpose of the project, Duran said, is helping kids learn to manage files and collaborate with each other.
“When kids are hyper-engaged in what they’re creating, both the hard and the soft skills come through,” he said. “It’s the best way to teach, but it’s not the easiest way.”
Indeed, by the end of the class, the 42-year old teacher looked drained.
Bringing computer science to his native South Side is “orders of magnitude more difficult than any engineering project I’ve ever worked on,” Duran said.
The work is paying off, in the form of students full of confidence that they’ll be able to shape the future.
But Duran isn’t sure how long he’ll last before heading back to the private sector.
“I made a commitment for next year,” he said. “Beyond that, everything stays fluid.”
Vol. 37, Issue 22, Page 6Published in Print: February 28, 2018, as Computer Science for All: Can Schools Make It Happen?