Archive for December 16, 2009

Growing Teachers is Hard

May I whine?

The AP CS data for 2009 was finally released, and was disappointing for “Georgia Computes!”  The number of test-takers was flat, almost identical to 2008.  What’s worse, the number of teachers and high schools offering AP CS fell from 2008.  It’s a little hard to tell because the College Board changed how they count (do you count high schools where a student who sent a student to the test, or schools that passed the College Board audit?).  Overall, we think we hit our goal of increasing by 50% the number of AP CS teachers from 2003 levels (before GaComputes started) by 2009 (we hit 68% increase) — but in 2008, we were at 86% increase!

What happened?  Well, the economy happened.  If you’re a principal with reduced budget, what classes do you cut?  How about those “extra” AP classes, especially those that (for awhile this year) don’t count toward high school graduation requirements, and have never counted towards No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “core” requirements?  That’s certainly an issue, but there’s a deeper, bigger challenge.  Even if the financial meltdown didn’t happen, we’d still have challenges in growing the number of CS teachers in the state.

When Barb and I were comparing our too-long to-do lists this last weekend, Barb mentioned that she had to grade some of her teachers’ work.  Grading the teachers work?  Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  But Maria Klawe’s right — we need to improve the quality of our high school teachers, in all sciences but especially computer science.  Barb assigns homework in her workshops, and she grades it.  That’s not a normal practice.

I know we don’t worry about the teacher knowing the content at the College level.  I do wonder how many teachers of a given class X could pass the final exam of the same class offered the semester before?  Why don’t we do checks like that?  Because we have respect for the teacher, and expect that the teacher, as a professional, can learn the material necessary to teach the course.  But if the teacher needs help, where do they get it?  And how do they ask for it without losing face, without feeling that they are betraying their professional standards?

In one Georgia county, Barb has trained teachers to teach “Computing in the Modern World” (the first course in the high school CS curriculum, similar to the first course in the ACM K-12 Model Curriculum), yet as far as she can tell, nobody in the county is teaching that course.  Barb spoke to one of the teachers there, and her “informant” told Barb that the teachers are scared to teach it.  There’s a lot in that course, especially for a business teacher who has taught keyboarding and Microsoft Office but never took programming coursework.  “What if the students know more than we do?”  How does a full-time teacher learn new subject matter, and feel that she won’t lose the student’s respect when she teaches the course?  We offer a lot of summer workshops, but a two week workshop barely covers the gap and certainly doesn’t fill it.  And this is the first, easiest course. APCS? 10K teachers by 2015?  OOF!

Thanks for letting me whine.

December 16, 2009 at 12:52 pm 1 comment

How I think about the new AP CS effort

While my post on the new AP CS slideshow received few comments here, I’ve been getting a bunch of them via email and in-person.  Since I’ve given the same responses several times now, it’s probably worthwhile to put it here publicly for others to find (who probably have the same questions).  Let me make clear up-front that I do not speak for the College Board, NSF, or even the PI’s of the effort, Owen Astrachan and Amy Briggs.  I’m a member of the Commission that is building the “curriculum framework” (as the College Board calls it), and I’m giving you my impressions of what’s going on.

There is a serious but not insurmountable mismatch between NSF’s goals (and that of the larger computing education community) and the College Board’s goals.  Because of that mismatch, a lot of what people want to see in the new AP CS course doesn’t appear in the slideshow or in the “Big Ideas” and “Computing Practices” documents that have been assembled by the commission.  That’s because the College Board’s process has as its goal (1) a course that has similar content and learning objectives to existing college level courses and (2) an assessment that checks for those learning objectives.  (A whole lot of what the Commission has been working on the last few months is invisible right now, because we’re taking the Ideas and Practices documents and producing (essentially) specs for the assessment.)  The NSF’s goals are about creating a course that is rigorous but fun, inviting, and engaging.  That mismatch is why I am getting questions like:

  • “Where is the fun? Why doesn’t this class talk about computing being fun?”
  • “Where is the Web? Where are databases?  These are important application areas!”
  • “Where is Scratch? Where is Alice?  I thought that these courses would be taught with tools like those.”
  • “My College colleagues will never accept for credit a course that includes Big Idea/Practice X and leaves out Z!”

Here’s the biggest big idea about this course, and is the real challenge and hope of this mismatch: This course doesn’t exist! All that exists right now is this “framework” of Big Ideas (and supporting concepts, etc.) and Computational Thinking Practices (and claims and evidence, etc.) that describe what comes out of the course.  Therefore, making this course happen will be a stretch for everybody. The hope for this course lies in its potential.

It’s also the case that these documents are being assembled by a multi-layer committee (Commission of maybe 10, an Advisory Group triple that size), in a very short amount of time.  The last Commission meeting was pretty darn quiet most of the time, because we were just producing stuff as quickly as we could with small groups reviewing.  The result is  inherently a compromise, without a common, coherent voice, and barely even time for an editing pass.

To respond to some of these questions:

  • Where’s the fun?  It’ll get there, we hope.  But it’s not a Big Idea or a Practice, because it’s not a concept that is testable.  All the Big Ideas about “fun” disappeared when we started the effort of creating Claims and Evidence for the assessment part.  How do you assess if a student had fun in their APCS course?  “Did you have fun, on a scale from 1 to 5?”  And if they say that they didn’t, do you grade the student down, the teacher, the course, the Commission/Advisory group, the College Board, or NSF?  Fun will come from the course assembled around this framework.
  • Where’s the Web and databases?  As one of my colleagues once sniffed, “We don’t teach classes about the Web! We teach classes about concepts!”  The College Board process is about those concepts that Colleges and Universities care about.  This framework can be applied to a wide variety of contexts, including Web, databases, scientific computing, media, robots, and video games.  The plan is for FIVE (5) versions of this course to be created at College/University-level pilot sites in the Fall.  (I understand that over 80 schools offered to be pilot sites.  The invitation to be a pilot site has gone out to a smaller list of people. If you didn’t get one, sorry, but we can only have a limited number of pilots–and don’t ask me for an invite, I wasn’t involved there.) 
    These pilots are incredibly important!
    All that fun, fascinating, engaging, and inviting stuff has to come about from the curriculum that gets wrapped around the framework.  I want to see great fun, inviting, and engaging contexts, too.  That’s not going to come out of the College Board process — they’re about Ideas, Practices, and assessment. That’s their job.
  • Where’s Scratch and Alice?  Again, not part of the College Board process.  Now, I believe that the final course and assessment will have to specify languages and tools (the test can’t be wide open, but it can be more than one possible language/tool).  I suspect that the set of tools chosen will come out of the College level pilots in Fall 2010 and the High School/College level pilots in Fall 2011.  (Nope, don’t ask me for an invitation to the high school pilots, either — that’s a decision “above my pay grade.”)
  • That last question is completely unhelpful.  The course will be a stretch for everybody. Better form of the question, “Okay, I think I can convince my colleagues to do without Z, but it’ll be more palatable if we could teach X as X’.”  Now, we’re talking!

The other question is how we’re going to teach high school teachers to teach this.  Yeah, big issue, and it’s a topic for another blog post.

The point of my rant here is to see what we’re doing as trying to carve out a path to a class that only exists in potential, and since we’re doing this as an AP course, there are constraints on the process.  I think that there is a way to meet both the College Board’s and NSF’s goals.  When reviewing the AP CS curriculum framework, look for holes (“Everyone should know X”) and places that could prevent a great course from being created.  But mostly, imagine the great course(s) that can be erected around these girders.  That’s what’s being assembled in the next phase.

December 16, 2009 at 12:23 pm 1 comment

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