Special Report

Principals Warm Up to Computer Science, Despite Obstacles

By Benjamin Herold & Sarah Schwartz — April 17, 2018 | Corrected: April 18, 2018 6 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the principal of Putnam County High School in Unionville, Mo. His name is Jeremy Watt.

A national effort led by the White House and Silicon Valley has pushed computer science education onto the radar screens of 70 percent of school principals, according to a new national survey of school leaders by the Education Week Research Center.

But one-third of school leaders view computer science as an occasional supplement, rather than the type of comprehensive academic discipline that computer science proponents advocate, according to the survey of principals, assistant principals, and other school-based leaders.

And high school leaders in smaller districts tend to be the most enthusiastic about the promise of computer science education—even as they face the biggest obstacles to making it a reality for their students.

Those dynamics are highlighted by the 2,100-student district in Lamesa, Texas, located about five hours west of Dallas, and the 700-student district in Putnam County, Mo.

“We know we’re living in a computer-based world, and our students need to know about that,” said Douglas Morris, an assistant principal at Lamesa High, which recently added classes in game design, 3D printing, and, beginning next year, computer programming.

But as in many smaller districts, the focus in both places is on preparing students for information technology and networking jobs available right out of high school, rather than preparing prospective computer science majors in college.

And even with that as their goal, schools in smaller districts such as Lamesa and Putnam County face huge obstacles.

In Lamesa, for example, Morris said it’s a challenge to find qualified computer science teachers willing to settle in a rural town where life revolves around “corn, cattle, and cotton.”

And Putnam County faces the same problem—plus fluctuations in funding levels and student interest, which leads to variations in the types of computer-science-related courses the high school can offer year to year.

The net result is that teachers are often “not teaching computer code,” said Principal Jeremy Watt, “but they are teaching our students to use technology that they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.”

Nationwide, it’s hard to say exactly how many schools now offer computer science courses.

But over the past decade, the idea of “computer science for all” has attracted bipartisan support from two presidents and dozens of governors and state legislatures. It’s also garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic support from such tech-industry titans as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce.

The rationale that has helped take the movement mainstream? Jobs.

Tens of thousands of computer-science-related positions are projected to remain open through the next decade, and K-12 public schools are increasingly seen as a critical part of the talent-development pipeline.

Given that backdrop, it’s probably no surprise where principals think the push for computer science education is coming from.

Jeremy Watt, the principal of Putnam County High School in Unionville, Mo., said difficulties finding qualified computer science teachers for his rural school lead to variations in the types of computer science courses his school can offer.

Forty-seven percent of the school leaders surveyed by Education Week said they feel mild or strong pressure to expand computer science from vendors and the technology industry. That’s compared with 28 percent who said they feel such pressure from parents and 23 percent from teachers.

In places like Lamesa, the focus is clearly on workplace preparation. The school’s technology-related classes mostly fall under its Business & Industry career pathway, which focuses on getting students certified in specific IT skills.

“Our community wants children to leave here ready to step right into jobs,” said Morris, the assistant principal.

Such perspectives are not unusual, said Leigh Ann DeLyser, the co-founder and managing partner of CSforALL, a nonprofit promoting K-12 computer science education.

Ideally, said DeLyser, a former high school teacher, principals would see computer science as a way of also infusing a broad set of skills such as collaboration and problem-solving throughout their schools and across their curricula. But just 7 percent of the school leaders surveyed by Education Week described computer science as central to their mission and operations.


So for now, when it comes to principals, computer science proponents generally have more modest goals. They’re looking to build on the 45 percent of school leaders who see computer science as “one part of a well-rounded education.”

Often, that means encouraging principals to give official course codes to computer science classes, encourage a diverse array of students to sign up, and provide meaningful feedback to classroom educators who may be teaching the subject for the first time.

“We’re spending millions of dollars to provide professional development for teachers, but those teachers aren’t empowered to go back to their schools and put a computer science class on the master schedule,” DeLyser said. “Without principals, computer science for all will never work.”

One of the challenges to getting more principals on board is that computer science can often feel somewhere between unfamiliar and intimidating, said Kecia Ray, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Education.

“I don’t think people, even principals, understand computer science well enough,” Ray said. “If you come from a liberal arts background, it can feel completely foreign.”

But the far more imposing hurdles are curriculum and staffing.

Take Lamesa High.

Back in the 1980s, current technology teacher Lisa Telchik was a student at the school. She took a class in BASIC, an early programming language.


But the teacher of that course left more than 20 years ago, Telchik said. It’s been a struggle to find a replacement ever since. Younger educators aren’t interested in moving to a small town without much to do. Until recently, the school has had constant leadership churn. State budget cuts have made everything harder.

As a result, the foundational course in Lamesa High’s Business & Industry program still focuses on teaching students basic productivity applications, such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

And there are currently no plans to add one of the broad survey courses, such as Exploring Computer Science or Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles, that proponents have touted as a strategy for helping schools bring a more academic version of computer science to a wider range of students.

Groups like Code.org, a nonprofit that has spearheaded efforts to change state policies and spur computer science adoption, say they can help.

Often, said Alice Steinglass, the group’s president, that starts with introductory exposure opportunities, such as Code.org’s popular Hour of Code events. Even principals without a computer science background of their own see students’ enthusiasm, she said, and embrace the idea of doing more.

From there, Steinglass maintained, it’s about addressing school leaders’ misconceptions.

Zach Heidenwith, 14, works on Snap Circuits in a STEM class at Putnam County High.

One is that adding computer science necessarily means losing another subject.

Another is that every school has to find its own highly trained teacher with a background in computer science.

“Most rural schools are not going to have a full-time computer science teacher, but they should be able to have computer science,” Steinglass said. “We have thousands of teachers with backgrounds in history, English, and art who have gone through our professional development and are now teaching computer science successfully.”

Not everyone buys fully into that philosophy, though. CSforALL, for example, sees it as a stop-gap that is necessary in the short term. But long term, the group believes it’s important to improve training and preservice opportunities for computer science educators, so there is a bigger pool of qualified teachers for schools to hire from.

The reality, said DeLyser, CSforALL’s managing partner, is that such disagreements highlight that the field of K-12 computer science is still in its early days. For school leaders across the country, that means considerable uncertainty, even as they welcome the trend.

“We’re seeing that principals now accept the premise that computer science has value, and they’re starting to look at the landscape and lay out the constraints they’re facing,” DeLyser said. “The good news is that principals are some of the most amazing problem-solvers on the planet.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Principals Report Computer Science Rising in Value


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