Questioning the report that High School CS is declining

August 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm 1 comment

The T.H.E. Journal has a report on the results of the 2009 CSTA Teacher Survey.  The results are pretty dire: “not only have the number of students enrolled in computer science has dropped significantly in the last four years and so have the number of AP computer science courses offered at high schools.”  The specific numbers are stark.  “Only 65 percent [of survey respondents] reported that their schools offer introductory or pre-AP computer science classes. This compares with 73 percent in 2007 and 78 percent in 2005. Only 27 percent reported that their schools offer AP computer science. This compares with 32 percent in 2007 and 40 percent in 2005.”

I have questions about these findings, though.  It may very well be that high school CS is declining, but I suspect that the truth is a little more complicated than the T.H.E. Journal article is stating.

The 27% of schools offering APCS seems too high to be a national average.  We know from College Board data that Georgia, at 22%, has a higher percentage of high schools offering APCS than other states in the Southeast, such as Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  The rest of the country is so high that the average is 27%?

There is a seeming contraction in the article that helps to make sense of the results. The first line says, “the number of students enrolled in computer science has dropped significantly in the last four years.” Later, though, it says, “among schools that offer CS courses, enrollments have not seemed to change much over the last three years. Of those participating in the survey, 23 percent reported that CS enrollments have increased; 22 percent said CS enrollments have decreased; and 55 percent reported no real change in enrollments.”  So where’s the enrollment drop?  The inference I make is that enrollments have dropped because the number of schools offering CS has declined, while at the schools that have it, the enrollment has stayed the same.

These results lead me to more questions.  According to the College Board, the number of students taking the APCS Level A exam has risen each of the last four years. Where are those additional test-takers coming from, given the declines reported in the surveys? If the number of schools offering APCS has declined at the survey respondents’ schools, and the enrollments at those schools are flat, yet the number of test-takers has risen, then either the percent of kids going on to take the test has increased, or…there is increase where the survey is not.

According to the CSTA report, the survey was administered “to 14,000 high school teachers who defined themselves as computer science, computer programming, or AP computer science teachers.”  I wonder if that’s why the numbers aren’t quite making sense.  This explains why the percentage of APCS seems so high — we’re talking to the teachers of CS, not sampling all schools.  This may also explain why there seems to be more high school CS than is reported.  We have found in Georgia that teachers teaching computer science sometimes (maybe even “often”) define themselves as business or math teachers, not computer science teachers.  If you’re training is in mathematics education, and you only teach one or two computer science classes, it’s not surprising that you would see your identity as a math teacher, not a computer science teacher.

Given the focus of the CSTA survey, it may be that there is growth in APCS, but only in those schools that are new to teaching computer science and don’t have teachers who define themselves as computer science teachers. Further, there may be a decline in the number of high school CS classes nationwide, but the CSTA report really only reflects those schools have had high school CS in the past.  Again, high schools new to CS, or with new teachers, may not be included in these numbers.

So the survey result is not really about high school CS overall — that’s not who was surveyed. The article is making claims about “high school CS” which really can only be about “schools that have self-described CS teachers.” The survey raises important questions about why CS should be declining at the places where it used to succeed!  The real story is in the changes in survey responses over the years, not as a measure of high school CS nationwide.

We need a survey of a sampling of high schools nationwide, not just those with a teacher who claims the role of “computer teacher.”  High school CS is changing, and it may be that the action is in the new schools with the new teachers just starting to construct their own identity as teachers.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  August 11, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Hi Mark,

    This could be a red-herring whether true or not. It’s not at all clear that *quantity* of CS people helps anything, or whether it is just aiding the prolongation of bad software practices that require lots of lines of code (which very likely could be shorter and easier to handle in better languages) and lots of maintenance of huge conglomerations of code (which could be shorter -more reliable, etc.).

    For most of the 65 or so years of actual computing machinery it has been small numbers of very high quality folks who have made the difference. The percentage of such very high quality folks has almost certainly diminished given just how many people have jumped into computing, but the real question again could be posed as:
    — is the absolute number of very high quality people in the field (and who are being produced) sufficient to deal with the most important problems the field has been grappling with the last 25 years or so?

    Throwing workers at weak architectures isn’t going to do it (for example, no amount of programmers could have made a bad design for the Internet work — it required a really good new approach to “no centers” distributed architectures to pull off, and this required a number of really brilliant people to invent these new architectures and the tiny powerful “DNA” software to allow the enterprise to grow by 10 or so orders of magnitude).

    A difficult and important part of “very high quality people” is their ability to find problems and approaches to solutions that are not currently in style or according to the belief system. What is there in any of the current curriculum approaches that helps to find and nurture those who might see beyond the local religion? Hint: ARPA in the 60s was most certainly interested in just such iconoclasts, and bent over backwards to enable enough of them so that new approaches could be invented and built.

    Another book that has quite a bit to do with these processes (in fact, where I found out about Hadamard’s book) is Arthur Koestler’s “Act Of Creation”. I’ve employed his notion of “bisociation” both directly as he uses it (as ideas being in more than one context, and some contexts are more powerful than others), and as the idea of escaping from a context.

    You and your readers might like to sample a reading list that was requested of me more than 20 years ago (a little out of date now and like all reading lists, lacking some titles that should be there).




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