Archive for June 15, 2009

The Responsibility of APCS for the Decline of Enrollment in Undergraduate Computer Science

I had a really interesting discussion (perhaps “disagreement”) at the NCWIT meeting a few weeks ago.  My discussion partner claimed that “the APCS (Advanced Placement Exam in Computer Science) has to go” and “the APCS does nothing good for undergraduate computer science” and most pointedly, “the APCS exam is a factor in declining enrollments in computer science.”  I disagree strongly with that last point. I do think that the APCS is in need of improvement for broadening participation in computing, and I even agree that it doesn’t do much good for undergraduate computer science today.  However, I don’t believe that it does any harm.  The reality is that there is just so little computer science in high schools today, that the APCS (and just about any other CS curriculum) has almost no impact on potential computer science students in high school.

One of our major accomplishments (read “Barbara Ericson’s major accomplishments”) in “Georgia Computes!” is that the number of APCS high school teachers in the state has more than doubled in the last four years, and most of those new teachers took workshops from Barbara. The way we get the teacher count is by measuring the number of high schools in the state who send anyone to the APCS exam.  Since there is only one high school in the state that has more than one APCS teacher, the number of high schools is essentially 1:1 with the number of teachers. It’s also the case that the percentage of high schools offering APCS out of all high schools is higher in Georgia than any other school in the Southeast.  Georgia’s percentage of APCS-offering schools is higher than Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, etc.

That sounds impressive — until you realize that that percentage is 22%.  22% of Georgia high schools offer APCS.  The inverse implication is that 78% of high schools in Georgia offer no APCS, and if a high school doesn’t offer APCS, they most likely offer no computing at all.  Thus, with more than 75% of high schools offering no computer science, Georgia is a leader.

The CSTA has been recently crunching the numbers on APCS.  The APCS has been around for 25 years now.  In 26 states, the grand total of all students who have taken the APCS in all that time is less than 200.  That’s 8 students per year on average (over 25 years), in more than half of the United States.  8 students could be the output of a single teacher in a single high school.  In 26 states, then, there could be essentially no high school computer science at all.

APCS does over-emphasize programming, and it does emphasize Java which is not the best introductory programming language.  However, I can’t believe that APCS is swaying high school students’ opinions of computer science if the vast majority of those students never see AP classes or students taking them! The argument was made to me that, by offering credit for APCS, universities are holding the APCS in some respect and thus drawing attention to it, which may be hurting us because of the APCS failings.  Yes, the APCS may be overly emphasized by college CS departments. That doesn’t change the fact that even if a high school student in the US wanted to take APCS, almost none of them have any opportunity to even see the course.  We may be saying implicitly, “the APCS is great!” But if a student can’t take APCS, that statement has no real impact.

The problem with high school computer science is not that APCS is such a bad model. It’s that far too few students see any model of CS at all.  That’s another reason why Jan Cuny’s efforts at NSF to create “10,000 CS teachers for 10,000 high schools by 2015” is so important.  We need more CS teachers.  Yes, we need more and better curricular models.  But without teachers, even the best models will get no further into high schools than APCS is today.

June 15, 2009 at 5:07 pm Leave a comment

Stories Teachers Tell Themselves

Last Saturday was our last Disciplinary Commons for Computing Educators (DCCE) meeting for this academic year (funded by NSF CPATH program, organized by PhD students Lijun Ni and Allison Tew).  The Georgia DCCE is based on the successful model by Sally Fincher and Josh Tenenberg, where computing teachers are brought together to discuss their common issues, create a community, and in so doing, improve their own teaching.

The Georgia DCCE has a couple of twists.  First, we combine high school and undergraduate teachers, to encourage discussion about the boundary and making them easier to cross for students. Second, we engaged teachers in action research: Coming up with small assessments to use in their own classrooms, and then compare across classrooms.  A key point of a disciplinary commons is to get teachers to reflect on their practice.  Sally and Josh used portfolios and journals to get this reflection.  We decided to try action research.

In our DCCE, we went through two cycles of coming up with questions, create instruments, evaluating data, and reflecting on the results.  The first round was based on assessment questions and instruments developed by others. The second round was invented entirely by the teachers.  Saturday was the our “data party” to combine results, and then a “gallery walk,” where teachers posted on a wall their results and claims, and what they took as the implications for their teaching.  I was really struck by some of the claims and implications that teachers drew from their stories.

One mini-study involved two teachers of a year-long Advanced Placement CS (APCS) course and one teacher of a single semester introductory programming course.  (In Georgia, high schools have a three course CS sequence that they teach: Computing in the Modern World, Introductory Programming, and APCS.)  The two APCS classes did much better than the introductory students.  The teacher of the intro course took as his implication that the new book he started using wasn’t as effective as the old book he used to use.  He may very well be right, but there are lots of other possible suspect variables there, like the difference in level, length of time of the course, and the socio-economic situation of the students.  The intro course is in one the poorest sections of Atlanta, while the two APCS classes are in affluent sections of the suburbs.

A second mini-study involved asking two college classes to tackle the calculator problem from the McCracken ITiCSE Working Group.  The classes did no better than did the students in the original Working Group study.  When asked why, the one teacher explained, “Most of these students don’t really belong in CS.”  He may very well be right, but I still found it an unusual argument — but mostly because of my own cultural and epistemological biases.  I tend to believe that all kids can learn to read, write, do basic mathematics, and learn basic programming.  I think of computing as a form of literacy, so it doesn’t enter into my world-view that, “these kids just can’t do it.”  I would look at these same data and try to understand what was hard for the students, what were the barriers, and how might they be reduced.

I thought about these implications and rationalizations when reading a recent NPR report on the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness which is supposedly influencing the Obama administration’s thinking on influencing citizen’s decisions.  The bottomline is that we are all irrational decision makers.  We see a low starting rate for a credit card or cellphone, and don’t think about the overall costs over the next two years.

Teachers tell themselves stories about what happens in their classrooms all the time.  I know that I do.  I explain to myself why students fail my classes, or why graduate students choose not to work with me, or why a paper or proposal gets rejected.  We all do.  I’m sure that I, like the irrational decision-makers in Nudge and the teachers in the DCCE, make assumptions and ignore possible explanations that are more likely than the ones I’ve chosen.  A problem, though, is that the stories I tell myself about my classes influence more than just myself — my response to those stories changes how I teach the next time, and thus influences the next group of students.

I’ve been thinking that Nudge is a good argument for Teaching Circles and other community of teachers mechanisms.  We need some way to check our rationalizations, to hear alternative explanations, and to make sure that we don’t make huge changes based on erroneous assumptions.  We’re just individual irrational decision-makers, but maybe together, we can make better decisions.

June 15, 2009 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

The Public Perception of the University

A mismatch between the public’s view of faculty and the faculty’s view of themselves.

Continue Reading June 15, 2009 at 4:59 pm Leave a comment

Moving in from Amazon

Amazon is de-emphasizing their author blogs.  I’ve found that my posts are no longer being picked up by Google Reader nor on my Author page.  Author blogs are no longer showing up on books written by that author.  Amazon is encouraging authors to link to external blogs — I’m guessing that Amazon is trying to get out of the blog business.

So, I’ve set up shop at  Please join me here!

June 15, 2009 at 4:49 pm Leave a comment

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