A Weak Argument that Silicon Valley is Pushing Coding Into American Classrooms through Code.org

July 28, 2017 at 7:00 am 4 comments

When the New York Times does an article on Code.org, it’s worth noting.  I had my class on Computing and Society read the essay and critique it, and they were dubious.  They have a bias — they’re all Georgia Tech students in STEM, and almost all majoring in Computer Science.  They tend to think learning to code is a good thing.  Still, they were concerned about the article, with good reason.  They wondered, “Where exactly is Code.org doing something wrong?”

I had similar concerns. I read the quote from Jane Margolis (“It gets very problematic when industry is deciding the content and direction of public education”) and thought, “Jane didn’t just say that.  She would have explained what she meant by ‘problematic.'”  It felt to me like the quote was taken out of context.

Is Code.org really “deciding” what goes into public education?  Or are they simply influencing those who do decide?  Maybe Silicon Valley is having undue influence. This article didn’t really make the case.

Code.org’s multilevel influence machine also raises the question of whether Silicon Valley is swaying public schools to serve its own interests — in this case, its need for software engineers — with little scrutiny. “If I were a state legislator, I would certainly be wondering about motives,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. “You want to see public investment in a skill set that is the skill set you need for your business?”Mr. Partovi, 44, said he simply wanted to give students the opportunity to develop the same skills that helped him and his backers succeed. He immigrated as a child to the United States from Iran with his family, went on to study computer science at Harvard, and later sold a voice-recognition start-up he had co-founded to Microsoft for a reported $800 million.

“That dream is much less accessible if you are in one of America’s schools where they don’t even tell you you could go into that field,” Mr. Partovi said.

Even so, he acknowledged some industry self-interest. “If you are running a tech company,” he said, “it’s extremely hard to hire and retain engineers.”

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gflint  |  July 28, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I have been teaching for about 35 years, both high school and college. The most notable thing I see is the lack of change in the curriculum. Yes, there are computers in the classrooms when they were not there say 20 years ago. But if those computers were to stop working most teachers, and the curriculum they use, would hardly be effected. Something has to drive change in education and it does not appear education can do it by it self.

    Reply
  • 2. Mike Zamansky  |  July 28, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    The article might not make a good case but there’s real reason to be leery of the influence industry / business / outsiders have on education.

    Bill Gates and the like either directly or indirectly brought us stack rank firing and other “reforms” to fire, I mean improve teachers. Loads of additional high stakes testing, the small school revolution which led to the destruction of NYC neighborhood schools, and the explosion of charters which in spite of spinning false data have yet to bring a best practice back to real public schools even though that was their original goal.

    I’m a fan of code.org for a lot of what they do but I’m very concerned when a code.org representative says that it’s important to have your students take the AP CS exam (either one) – not a great CS class with a great teacher but rather an exam.

    I’m even more concerned when they say that they’ll give free training if your school or district signs up for the PSAT8/9 – another high stakes meaningless test for kids and another cash cow for the college board.

    The College Board and Pearsons, while not the tech industry have a seriously outsized influence on US education.

    I don’t doubt the good intentions of the people at code.org – as I said, I’m a fan – I am concerned that they don’t see the potential outside damage that others can do with their inadvertent help. I’ve seen many edTech entrepreneurs go into the lions den – be it a school, district or government with the best of intentions only to see their work used as a means to lower costs and lower the quality of education under the guise of progress.

    Reply
  • 3. David Young  |  July 29, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    Some of Code.org’s justifications deserve close examination, at the very least. Hadi Partovi of Code.org says, “it’s extremely hard to hire and retain engineers.” It doesn’t necessarily follow that we need a bigger supply of them. A lot of firms pre-screen job candidates based on salary expectations. The Times has reported memorably on working conditions at Amazon. For the labor conditions and wages on offer, it probably is hard to recruit and retain.

    Industry would have us believe that their difficulty in hiring and keeping workers stems from a national skills shortage that Code.org will help to alleviate. But when disinterested people look for a shortage, it is a mirage. Hal Salzman of Rutgers U. and the Economic Policy Institute has written on the imaginary shortage, http://issues.org/29-4/what-shortages-the-real-evidence-about-the-stem-workforce/.

    Code.org can help to maintain an abundant supply of labor, and in that way help to hold down wages. Suppressed wages will repay Code.org’s corporate supporters and their shareholders in the short term, but the outlook for working people and for innovation is dismal if for the foreseeable future there will be a large number of high-skill workers who industry can afford to under-employ.

    Reply
    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  August 9, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      David, what do you think of Eric Roberts’ argument that the CS labor market is different than the overall STEM labor market — that many of those STEM graduates are actually finding jobs in CS, because there aren’t enough CS graduates? http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity/

      Reply

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