New Report Finds Fault in K-12 Computer Science Education

By Taylor Lewis — June 15, 2016 5 min read
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Computer science remains on the margins of STEM education, resulting in sub-par education of the subject at both the K-12 and college level, a new report argues.

The Information and Technology Innovation Foundation’s (ITIF) study on the state of computer science education cites a deficit of relevant course-work, and inadequate teacher training in its conclusions, tracing a historical lack of progress back to the subject’s “fringe” status.

According to “The Case for Improving U.S. Science Education,” the consequences of not prioritizing computer science have led to stagnation and decline in K-12 classrooms. That goes for what is being taught as well as how many students are signing up for those lessons. Between 1990 and 2009, STEM courses from biology to calculus to engineering saw a steady increase in high school course enrollment. Computer science was the only field where students steadily took fewer classes, with a 6 percent decline in the same period.

The lack of students taking computer science is just a symptom of an institutional ambivalence towards the subject and its instruction, the authors contend. Only 18 percent of schools are currently accredited to offer AP computer science classes. By 2010, only 16 states had computer science standards that were substantially drawn from those of the Association for Computing Machinery and Computer Science Teachers Association, which are nationally recognized. This disparity is shown in the above graphic, drawn from the ACM/CSTA “Running on Empty” report website. Only nine states considered computer science as a core graduation requirement.

In addition, Adams Nager, an ITIF economic policy analyst and co-author of the report, said that many of the technology courses being offered are too basic to translate into real-world skills. Were it not for the relegation of computer science classes to an “elective offering or a skills-based course designed to teach basic computer literacy or coding alone,” the field could see substantial growth.

Currently, in schools that do offer computer science courses, “Technology classes range from just purely focused on coding to typing classes that satisfy a technology requirement for high school students. That’s a far cry from actually learning about how computers work and things like algorithms and debugging, and all those things that make computer science, science,” Nager said in a phone interview. According to the report, in 2014 only about a third of high schools had classes with debugging or algorithms as a core concept.

Grant Smith, an education consultant who works primarily with K-5 schools on their computer science programs, said he sees similar issues in primary education. In some so-called “STEM schools,” administrations are lagging behind on the technology piece.

“There’s just this huge misunderstanding about what the ‘T’ in STEM represents. I think [schools] still view [technology] as a waste of time. Or time to take up babysitting--time to just get on the computer and do keyboarding,” he said in a telephone interview.

The 38-page report looks at trends reaching back more than a century to explain why computer science has been relegated to a STEM sub-category.

At the turn of the century, a National Education Association task force decided that natural sciences should be at the top of the list for high school students taking science courses. “We as a country decided to go with biology as the first class taught back in 1890 [because it] was the best way to have students relate scientifically to the world around them, because we were an agrarian society,” said Nager.

“But today that doesn’t really apply...we learn how computers think and how to interact with computers. [Computer science] in today’s world is a much more powerful way to teach the basic principles of science.”

Both Smith and Nager argue that improved teacher training is a key piece missing from current computer science education. A former educator himself, Smith had to become a science teacher before he could teach coding, a track that many teachers must follow.

To provide the necessary computer science education across the nation, the U.S. needs about 10,000 more properly trained high school teachers, the report claims. But only 29 states offer the subject in graduate education programs. Of the states that require certification in computer science, only Arizona, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., mandate it for all teachers.

Progress on Some Fronts

Despite the report’s bleak findings, significant progress has been made more recently, the authors note. In his work, Smith said that he has seen schools that truly embrace computer science as a legitimate, stand-alone subject.

“Not everyone has seen the shift and not everyone gets it,” he observed, “but those schools that get it are definitely trying their best to adapt to bring computer science in.”

The report also highlights the Obama administration’s “Computer Science for All” initiative, and efforts made by both businesses and nonprofits that promote the improvement of computer science education, and support its integration with other subjects.

The Society for Science and the Public, which holds science fairs sponsored by Intel and Broadcom for middle and high school students, has expanded many of its categories recently to recognize the growing influence of computer science in the projects they see.

Sponsorship by tech companies has been a large influence on that decision.

Michele Glidden, the society’s chief science education program officer, said that in creating the new categories, they looked at “how embedded computer science was across so many of the reflect that in some of these new categories. A big part of that is because Intel’s our sponsor.” Those new categories include computational biology and physics.

Just a Fad?

Nager and co-author Robert D. Atkinson offer in their report policy recommendations for putting greater emphasis on computer science that include making the subject a high school graduation requirement and expanding teacher training programs. Nager also emphasized that if interest in computer science fades, the progress that has been made could be reversed. But if that trend continues, then there could be exponential growth, and demand.

“I absolutely think that we could be looking at three times as much [computer science] majors in 10 years,” he said, “and even that might not be enough to satisfy the economy’s demand for these types of skills.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.