Archive for September 25, 2010

How there can be and NOT be an educational crisis in the US

Back in the late 1980’s, there was a decline in the SAT scores in the United States.  Critics moaned about the woeful state of our educational system.  A really interesting report came out from Los Alamos showing that, for all socioeconomic groups, SAT scores were actually rising.  What happened in the 1980’s was a dramatic increase in the number of poorer (low socioeconomic status) groups taking the SAT, and those new kids started out with lower scores (but improved every year).  That large influx at the low-end drove the average down, even though everyone was learning.  The average alone didn’t tell the story. The high variance should have alerted the critics to a more interesting story in the distribution.

That’s what I think Nicholas Lemann is pointing toward in his article.  The counter-arguments to Lemann’s case, expressed in the comments, were well-founded (except for the ad hominem attacks), but do not actually refute what he’s saying.  There are several reasonable scenarios where both Lemann and those concerned about the crisis in American education are right.

Let’s imagine a picture of the distribution of knowledge 100 years ago in the United States.  Here’s my back-of-the-envelope (actually, finger-sketched on the iPad) graph of what the graph might look like, with knowledge increasing from left-to-right and number of people being educated in that knowledge graphed on the vertical axis.

The people who are educated are really well-educated, shifted to the right of the graph.  But the graph drops off rapidly.  There were lots of people in the United States 100 years ago, but very few of them would appear on the graph.  Most citizens in the United States were not educated at all.

There are lots of possible graphs for today, but here’s one that I think matches a lot of the available data.

There are people in the United States today who are educated better than the best were 100 years ago, but few of them.  Our rightmost peak is smaller than it was 100 years ago.  But now we have this big hump in the middle.  The vast majority of people are getting some education today.  I suspect that there is another hump to the left in our graph, the folks on the other side of the Digital Divide, the ones who have been most hurt in the current recession.

Given these two possible curves, one can understand the “There is no crisis argument.”  We have a lot more people under the curve today, than 100 years ago.  The vast majority of people in the United States are literate (to some level) and have received some formal education.  In terms of creating a better workforce, a more educated quantity of people, that’s an improvement.  I suspect that our area under the curve is greater in the United States than in much of the developed world because of the large numbers of educational opportunities in the United States, but I don’t have evidence for that.

It’s also possible to see multiple crises in the second graph.

  • The average in the second graph is lower than in the first graph.  Sure, but I’m less concerned about that. It’s shifted the same way that distance education courses get students to do as well as in-class students: Get rid of all those on the left of the distribution.  Now, the average may be lower than our society needs in today’s graph, and that would be a reason to be concerned.
  • If we want more innovators, if we think we need more people who will push the envelope, we’re in trouble.  We have fewer people than we need on the right side of the graph.
  • If that big hump is too far to the left, “below threshold” as Alan would say, then we’re in trouble.  Our knowledge-driven workplace may need that majority-knowledge level to be greater.
  • If there is a second hump to the left, and if there are lots of people in the United States who are not under the curve at all, that’s social, perhaps criminal negligence.  Even if it’s not in the Constitution, as Lemann points out, public education is a right in the United States.

For those wondering, “When is Guzdial going to get back to talking about computing?!?” — I think I am.  I believe that the 100 year ago curve represents pretty well the current state of computing education.  We have a peak of people who know something, but it drops off quickly, and most people aren’t under the curve at all.  I would like to see us looking more like the bottom graph.  There is a need for the vast majority of educated people to know something significant about computation.  We need more people under the computing education curve, and I’d even take that middle hump.

September 25, 2010 at 1:17 pm 8 comments

New NSF Program: Computing Education for the 21st Century

The new NSF program to replace CPATH and BPC is now out.  There will still be a Broadening Participation in Computing program, but just for Alliances in its own program.

The Computing Education for the 21st Century (CE21) program aims to build a computationally savvy 21st century workforce that positions the US to demonstrate a leadership role in the global economy. Innovations in computing and more broadly, information technology (IT), drive our economy, underlie many new advances in science and engineering, and contribute to our national security. Projected job growth in IT is very strong.

Despite these very positive indicators, student interest in computing has declined dramatically over the last decade.  For example, the percentage of college freshmen indicating an intent to major in computing has declined overall by 70% in the last decade; for women, the decline was 80% (HERI, 2000-2009). Recent data show that student interest in computing majors has fallen behind projected job openings by a factor of five and a half (ACT, 2010).

The CE21 program seeks to reverse this troubling trend by engaging larger numbers of students, teachers, and educators in computing education and learning at earlier stages in the education pipeline.  While interventions in primary education are within scope, the CE21 program focuses special attention on activities targeted at the middle and high school levels (i.e., secondary education) and in early undergraduate education.

via nsf.gov – Funding – Computing Education for the 21st Century – US National Science Foundation (NSF).

September 25, 2010 at 11:50 am 4 comments


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