The limits of what people generally know

March 26, 2010 at 7:45 am 8 comments

A thread running through my day yesterday (at the NSF CPATH PI’s meeting) and this morning (via email, some at a more outlandish level) is the limits of what people (in general) know (in general).

  • Starting from the most outlandish, 24% of all Republicans (according to Harris Polls) believe that Barack Obama may be the Anti-Christ. What’s more interesting (less political, more concerning as educators) is the enormous gap between the educated and less-educated — 43% of Americans with no college education believe that Obama is a Muslim, while only 9% of college educated Americans believe that.
  • Moving to the more intellectual and profound, David Brooks has a terrific op-ed piece in this morning’s NYTimes suggesting that economists missed the worldwide meltdown because they relied too much on mathematics, and too little on the morality that early economists relied upon.  Brooks points out: “The moral and social yearnings of fully realized human beings are not reducible to universal laws and cannot be studied like physics,” and that earlier economists understood this:
  • Economics is a “moral science,” Keynes wrote. It deals with “motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous.”

I am at a meeting of 100 funded investigators in the National Science Foundation (NSF) program in CISE Pathways to Reinvigorate Undergraduate Education (CPATH).  These are mostly Computer Science (some IT, some IS) faculty who are working to improve the state of undergraduate computing education.

Yesterday at lunch, someone asked me about the new AP CS effort in which I’m involved. “When is the new AP CS going to be available?”  “Around 2015, I expect.”  “That’s terrible!  That means that there is no AP CS available until then?!?”  “No, that’s not true.”  “I heard that AP CS was canceled.”  Sigh! “No, only the Level AB exam was canceled.  The Level A exam is still available, with no plans to get rid of it.”  If the belief that “the AP CS is canceled” is still showing up here, among the CS faculty most involved in computing education, what do most CS faculty think?

Yesterday, Cameron Wilson, Director of ACM Public Policy, gave a talk about the effort to make computer science count as a math in the new core curriculum standards.  (By the way, I now have the citation for where the Federal Register said that computer science is part of STEM.)  There was a fascinating pushback from the PI’s.  “But this is replacing one problem with another problem.  We don’t want one computing course.  We want computing taught pervasively throughout the curriculum.”  In talking with people later, I got the sense that the argument was: “We already have computing in the high schools, but it’s only in certain classes.  We want it throughout math and science!”

This one is hard to respond to, because I completely agree with the goal.  The problem is the base assumption. I don’t think most CS faculty realize how little high school CS is really out there, even among CS faculty who are CPATH PI’s.

Pick a random high school in the United States. With enormous probability, it will have zero computer science.  In Georgia, where we have more high schools teaching CS than any state in the Southeast (to the best of our knowledge), the probability is ~70% that a random high school will NOT have computer science.  There are over 20,000 high schools in the United States, and only 2,000 AP CS teachers.  Those high schools that have a CS teacher typically have a math, science, or (especially in Georgia) business teacher who has had workshop training to teach computer science — or not.  There are very few (less than one per state, more like one for every 10 states) classes on how to teach computer science. If you’re not happy with how computer science is now taught in high school, how will you feel about every science teacher (with little or no training) also teaching computer science?

Of course, the correct answer is “Well, get them training!”  Agreed! But that’s where we’re at today.  Think about Jan Cuny’s challenge in project CS10K: let’s have 10,000 teachers in 10,000 high schools ready to teach AP CS in 2015. That’s going from 2,000 in 2010 to 10,000 in 2015 — and even then, we’ll be in less than half of US high schools. I have little idea how we can ramp up 8,000 more teachers in five years, but that’s a small challenge compared with teaching every science teacher in the country how to teach computer science.

All of the examples in this post point out limitations of what people know, but not limitations of what is known.  Most people know that Obama is not Muslim.  Economists used to think beyond mathematics.  The College Board will be glad to tell you that the AP CS Level A exam is not canceled.  And the state of high school computer science is described by CSTA every chance they get.  The problem is the distribution of this knowledge, who has it, and who needs it.  For all the mass media and Internet news sources and social media that we have, there is still a role for education — helping people to learn what they need, whether or not they recognize that need.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gary Litvin  |  March 26, 2010 at 8:28 am


    125,000 high schools? Did you mean 25,000? Or 12,000? My estimate is the latter. I think there are about 3000 CS teachers.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 26, 2010 at 8:40 am

      Thanks, Gary — I found that I grabbed the wrong stat. 125,000 is the number of elementary + secondary schools in the US. According to the now cited stat, it’s around 23K.

      Your 3K estimate of CS teachers is interesting — what do you base that on? We know that the College Board recognizes about 2K audited AP CS teachers. In Georgia, we have found that high schools tend to have AP CS first, and then other CS classes. If there’s no AP CS, there is no CS at all. That’s starting to change, and now there are high schools that are teaching Computing in the Modern World without AP CS. Still, we use the AP CS number as our best estimate. Where do you get your 3K number?

  • 4. Alan Kay  |  March 26, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Hi Mark

    The best part of this poll is the detailed table showing correlations with level of education.



    • 5. Davide Fossati  |  March 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm


      It’s kind of scary to see how the numbers on that table are so high even for people with post-graduate education!

      I particularly agree with this sentence from that article: “This poll should be a wake-up call to all Americans about the real costs of using fear and hate to pump up hyper-partisanship.”


  • 6. Davide Fossati  |  March 26, 2010 at 2:14 pm


    I agree with your conclusion: “The problem is the distribution of this knowledge, who has it, and who needs it.” I think our society has made a lot of progress over the millennia – think about how much more skewed the distribution of knowledge was 1000 years ago. Of course, we still have a long way to go. Let’s keep up the good work towards building a more just, educated, and humane society!


  • 7. Mike Lutz  |  March 26, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    The Harris Poll was a crappy poll with crappy questions done in crappy way (self-selection via the Internet). Here’s a link to a trenchant analysis by Gary Langer, Director of Polling at ABC (not Fox, please note).
    You can read another response by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal here.

    Why did Harris do this? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? But you can read the statement by Humphrey Taylor, Chairman. Looks to me like a drive-by smearing of Tea Partiers and other conservatives who aren’t happy with Obama. But then again I’m a conservative (with a graduate degree, thank you). I’m definitely more skeptical about such polls than Mark and others appear to be.

    Oh, Obama IS the Anti-Christ! 🙂

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  March 27, 2010 at 6:57 am

      Thanks for pointing out the analyses of the poll, Mike. I should have been more skeptical.


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