Why AP CS:Principles is a good thing: Responding to Gas Station without Pumps
Kevin Karplus recently wrote a post (on his highly-recommended Gas Station without Pumps blog) about why funding the new AP CS:Principles (AP CS:P) is such a bad idea, mentioning my positive comments on the news. I actually agree with many of the Gas Station points, but I have a more optimistic take on them.
CS:P was never meant to give credit towards a computing degree. The attestation effort showed that many schools do offer some kind of course like what’s in CS:P. It’s true at UCSC, too:
My own campus has several intro programming courses, some at the level of the AP CSP course. I suspect that our campus would offer credit in these low-level courses for the AP CSP exam. These lowest-level courses do not count towards any major, though—they provide elective credit for what should be high-school level courses. The intent (as is apparently the intent for AP CSP) is to provide an extremely low barrier to entry into the field.
That’s really the main point. We need more CS education in high schools. When there’s only 1 AP CS teacher for every 12 high schools, there is very little computer science education out there. AP courses is a big lever to get low barrier courses out there.
Gas Station then points out that courses like these may not actually have much of an impact downstream.
I don’t know how well the low barrier to entry works, though. I’ve not seen much evidence on our campus that the lowest level courses produce many students who continue to take higher level CS courses…We still have appallingly low numbers of women finishing in CS (and the new game-design major within CS is even more heavily male), so I can’t say that the lower-level intro courses have done much to address the gender imbalance.
That’s a fair point. We don’t know that it will work to get more students into computing. I just did a Blog@CACM post that suggests that the evidence we have is promising in terms of impact on careers, especially for under-represented minorities. You can’t really use a single campus to test the idea though. The game is at the level of thousands of high schools where there is no computer science at all.
I share the Gas Station concern over the professional development challenge.
The success of CSP also depends on thousands of high schools suddenly deciding to teach the course and getting training for their teachers to do this. I (along with many others) have grave doubts that the schools have the desire or the ability to do this. It is true that the CSP course should be a bit easier to train people for than the current AP CS A course (if only because Java syntax, the core of CS A, is so deadly dull).
The question that we need answered is: how important the “Advanced Placement” lever is? Is it so important (big payoff) that having a more accessible AP course in CS (thus, lower cost to adopt) changes the balance for schools? I just had an all-day meeting with folks from the Georgia Department of Education two weeks ago, and they are building AP CS:P into their curriculum plans because it’s now AP. That designator matters. Does it matter enough to draw more teachers into professional development, to get more schools to hire CS teachers? I’m optimistic, but I share the Gas Station concern.
We should also be clear that there really isn’t a single “CS:Principles” course yet. There have been several pilots, and some assessment questions tested, but there is no well-defined curriculum yet and no exemplar test. I have exactly the same question as Gas Station:
The new CSP exam is not supposed to be so language-dependent, which may allow for better pedagogy. Of course, I’m curious how the exam will be written to be language-independent, and whether it will be able to make any meaningful measurements of what the students have learned.
The plan is to use a portfolio approach, like what’s being used in art AP exams now. I really don’t know if it’ll work. I trust that the people working on it, but do see it as an unsolved problem.
I don’t share the Gas Station concern about “Gresham’s Law for pedagogy” (which I’d not heard of previously):
I suspect that the easier AP CSP will replace AP CS A at many high schools, and that CS A will disappear the way that CS AB did in May 2009 (Gresham’s Law for pedagogy: easier courses drive out harder ones). Whether this is a good or bad outcome depends on how good the AP CSP course turns out to be.
The fact that there already are CS:P-like courses on many campuses, co-existing with CS1’s (intro CS for majors) is evidence that easier courses don’t always drive out harder ones. On our campus, we offer three CS1’s. The MediaComp course would probably be easier for Engineering students than the challenging MATLAB-based on that they currently require, but the Engineering faculty have not been eager to swap it out. The existence of “Physics for Poets” and Calculus aimed at different kinds of students is more evidence that Gresham’s Law doesn’t always hold for classes.
There are lots of challenges to CS:P. AP CS Level A is doing better these days, and I’m glad for that. I want both to succeed. I want a lot of CS in lots high schools. Will the new AP CS:P lead to more CS majors and more people in computing careers? I don’t know — I think so, but I’m not really worried about it. I believe in “computing for everyone” and that lots of people (even non-IT professionals) need to know more about computer science, so having more access to computing education in more schools is a positive end-goal for me.