Schools Fall Behind in Offering Computer Science

July 13, 2010 8 min read
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Given the ways computer technology—from the iPhone and YouTube to uses in medical research and national security—is changing so many facets of life, you might imagine that schools have been stepping up students’ exposure to computer science to help drive the digital revolution.

But recent data suggest otherwise. One survey indicates a sizable drop in the availability of even introductory computer-science courses in public and private secondary schools since 2005. Participation rates for Advanced Placement courses in computer science have been relatively flat for years, while the rates have gone way up in traditional science and mathematics disciplines, such as calculus, chemistry, and biology.

“We’re an order of magnitude off from these other courses,” said Janice E. Cuny, a program officer at the National Science Foundation, who argues that high-quality computer-science instruction is all too rare in public schools.

Future Workspace—High School Pipeline


SOURCES: College Board, Association for Computing Machinery

Representation of female and minority students among those studying computer science in high school and college is seen as especially low.

National statistics indicate that computing will be one of the fastest-growing areas for employment in coming years, but experts say the U.S. educational pipeline is expected to fall far short in producing college graduates in the field.

Recent Initiatives

To help address the apparent disconnect between supply and demand, efforts are building to increase access at the precollegiate level to high-quality instruction in computer science, a cross-cutting subject that includes elements of math, science, and other disciplines.

Work is under way by the College Board to develop a new AP course in computer science that is intended to appeal to a broader and more diverse audience than the existing course. In Georgia, recent initiatives are promoting computer-science education, including one program that provides summer camps for girls and workshops for teachers. An innovative new computer-science course devised for public schools in Los Angeles, with a focus on serving minority students, is now expanding to other districts.

Just last year saw the launch of the first Computer Science Education Week, conceived as an annual occasion to raise public awareness about the importance of the field to the nation’s economic future and promote efforts to expose students to robust computer-science instruction.

Companies like Google and Microsoft have also taken steps to champion computer-science education.

One priority for many advocates is changing state policy to spur more courses in the subject—and more students to take them.

“A lot of focus right now is working with the states to get computer science counted as a [graduation] requirement,” said Chris Stephenson, the executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, based in New York City.

In most states, analysts say, such courses are considered general electives, though important inroads have recently been made in at least a few, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, to allow the subject to count as either a fourth math or science credit toward graduation.

Most students, Ms. Stephenson said, “don’t take courses that are electives. They don’t have time.”

‘Big Confusion’

Proponents of computer-science education say a major hurdle is simply getting school officials and others to understand what the field is, and isn’t.

“One of the biggest problems is schools confusing computer literacy with computer science,” said Barbara J. Ericson, the director for computing outreach and a research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta.

“A lot of places don’t understand the difference,” agreed Ms. Cuny of the NSF, which is providing grants to support a variety of programs and research undertakings on computer-science education. “They’re not teaching kids how to be creators of technology—they’re teaching them how to be users of technology.”

So what, then, is computer science? It’s “the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their applications, and their impact on society,” according to the Association for Computing Machinery, an international educational and scientific computing society based in New York City.

Ms. Ericson notes that there’s still debate, though, about how best to define the concept.

A flier designed by the Association for Computing Machinery to draw young people to the field highlights some career paths, from building the next generation of mobile phones to working on digital forensics, developing computing solutions for businesses, and working in software engineering. “Almost every major challenge facing our world,” the flier says,"is turning to computing for a solution.”

Ms. Cuny laments that computer science wasn’t included in the acronym STEM, for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, that’s now prevalent in policy and educational discussions.

“We’re not a letter in STEM, because we really span STEM, we span all four categories, and I think we get lost,” she said.

By some measures, computer science faces an uphill climb. A recent survey of U.S. secondary schools by the Computer Science Teachers Association found that the proportion offering any introductory computer-science courses declined from 78 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2009.

The number of students taking AP exams in the subject has stayed about the same since 2000, according to College Board data, while test-taking rates in other math and science subjects have skyrocketed. In 2009, nearly 22,000 students took one of two AP computer-science exams (one of which has since been discontinued), compared with more than 300,000 taking an AP calculus exam, nearly 160,000 taking AP biology, and 105,000 taking AP chemistry.

Promising Career Field

Meanwhile, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that jobs in computing are increasing rapidly and are expected to represent the largest growth area across the stem fields between now and 2018.

One endeavor to broaden computer science’s appeal is the College Board’s work with a group of experts to develop a new AP course in the subject to complement the existing one. The new course will focus on “computational thinking and fluency and will equate to a parallel introductory college-computing experience,” according to College Board materials.

A framework has been written for the course, which will steer pilot implementation of classes at some colleges this fall, followed by a pilot in high schools in 2011-12. The goal is to have the course ready by 2015.

Ms. Cuny said that in contrast to the existing AP computer-science course, the new one will not be “programming-centric. It’s focused on the big ideas of computing.”

Meanwhile, the role of state policy in advancing computer-science education is drawing more notice.

“No states that we know of require computer science” in high school, said Cameron P. Wilson, the public-policy director at the Association for Computing Machinery. “Across the nation, we know of only a handful of states that count it as a math or science course” toward graduation.

Georgia has just agreed to recognize AP computer science as a fourth science credit, while North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia are among the states that now count it as a fourth math credit.

Deepa Muralidhar, who teaches high school computer science in Georgia, calls the new policy in her state a “huge” change: “That ... definitely has helped teachers like me sell the program.”

A recent action at the national level that may persuade more states to follow suit is the new common-core state standards, observers say. The draft of a supporting document identifies computer science as a potential fourth math a student might take to graduate as part of a model path to college and career readiness.

‘Georgia Computes!’

Ms. Stephenson said another area of concern is teaching certification.

“In most states, teacher certification is a complete mess,” she said.

“Either there is no certification and anybody can teach [computer science], or the certification process has no connection to the content of the discipline.”

As a result, many teachers are ill-prepared for such classes.

A number of initiatives have emerged in Georgia to promote computer-science learning. A driving force is researchers, including Ms. Ericson, at Georgia Tech.

One example is “Georgia Computes!,” which aims to boost the number and diversity of computing students, from the elementary grades through college.

With NSF backing, the venture involves workshops for teachers, as well as summer camps and after-school offerings for girls, among other projects.

A recently developed computer-science course called Exploring Computer Science is being piloted, meanwhile, in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Jane Margolis, a senior researcher in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is directing the project, said the course is both “engaging” and “preparatory” for more advanced computer-science classes. It grew out of research she conducted in the city for her book Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. The 2008 book explores why so few African-American and Latino high school students are learning computer science.

The new course is a collaboration between the 678,000-student district and researchers at UCLA and the University of Oregon.

“Our project is very focused on issues of equity and ensuring [participation by] traditionally underrepresented students of color,” Ms. Margolis said. “They are working with robotics; they are learning programming through an animation program called Scratch; they’re learning Web design.”

The course, rolled out in six Los Angeles high schools in the 2008-09 school year, has since expanded and will include 17 city schools this fall, plus others in Oakland and San Jose. Plans also are in the works to draw in districts from other states.

The course got a boost recently when the University of California system decided to give it college-admissions credit.

“That was a huge breakthrough,” Ms. Margolis said. “Computer science is a door-opener across all sorts of fields.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Schools Fall Behind on Offering Classes in Computer Science


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