Advocates Lament Computer Science Gap in Standards Push

By Erik W. Robelen — July 21, 2011 3 min read
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It’s probably inevitable that when a document intended to lay the groundwork for new national standards is issued, there will be some dissent.

Sure enough, as I’ve done some follow-up reporting about the new science framework issued this week by an expert panel convened by the National Research Council, I’m hearing of some pushback. In this blog post, I’ll focus on computer science education. In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss concerns from the behavioral and social sciences.

In both cases, the issue essentially boils down to: What about us?

The same day the framework was released, an advocacy group called Computing in the Core issued a press release lamenting that the document does not include a focus on computer science. The group also complains that computer science was largely excluded from the recently developed common-core standards in math, which have been adopted by nearly all states.

“No other subject will open as many doors in the 21st century as computer science, so it is disappointing that neither the science framework nor the mathematics core standards make room for computer science in the K-12 curriculum,” Della Cronin, a representative for Computing in the Core, said in the press release.

Computing in the Core’s members include, among others, Google, Microsoft, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Computer Science Teachers Association, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Science Teachers Association.

Overall, the coalition argues that computer science is marginalized today in K-12 classrooms, and is working to enhance the discipline’s presence.

Cameron Wilson, the public policy director at the Association for Computing Machinery, said that Computing in the Core made efforts to persuade the authors of both the science framework and the math standards to include a significant focus on computer science, but to no avail.

“It’s not for lack of trying,” Wilson told me today. “It’s a troubling gap for us, because we look where the jobs are and how computing is affecting society.”

He said the gap is especially problematic because “the common-core state standards and the National Research Council are trying to define what kids need to know within the math and science space, and the broader STEM space.”

In an appendix to the NRC report, the panel offers a response to the complaint, first noting that computer science concepts are more typically included in mathematics.

“Although the committee determined that it was not appropriate to include computer science in the framework as a separate discipline with its own set of core ideas, in the revisions of the draft we made an effort to stress the importance both of computational thinking and of the use of computers as scientific tools,” the panel writes. “Although the framework does not include material usually covered by courses under the title ‘computer science,’ we stress that this choice in no way diminishes the importance either of general computer literacy for all students or of options for advanced computer science courses at the high school level.”

But the last line of this NRC response, with its reference to “computer literacy,” might itself spark more frustration from computer science advocates.

In a letter written just days before the framework was released, the Computing in the Core coalition once again made its case, and touched on the very issue of what is—and isn’t—computer science.

“As schools have increasingly stepped up the integration, use, and teaching of information technology, distinctions between these areas and computer science have blurred,” the letter says. “Educators and policymakers consistently confuse the use of technology and teaching of technology literacy with teaching computer science as a core academic discipline within the [STEM] fields. ... If you exclude computer science in your work on a science education framework, you will also exacerbate the confusion and contribute to the problem.”

For more background on efforts to promote increased access to computer science in schools, see this EdWeek story from last summer.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.