Unpacking models of what the $USD1.3B might achieve in Computing Education: We need long-term vision and will

October 4, 2017 at 7:00 am 10 comments

I wrote my Blog@CACM post for September on the massive investments in CS Education announced last week (see post here): $200M/year from the US Department of Education announced by the White House on Monday, then $300M over five years from the Tech industry announced on Tuesday. I have read analyses saying that the money isn’t really promised or isn’t new (see concerns in this post), and others are shunning the initiative because of White House policies (see link here). I took the promises at face value. My post starts congratulating Hadi Partovi and Cameron Wilson of Code.org and Ivanka Trump who were behind these initiatives, then I offered two back-of-the-envelope models of what $1.3B in five years could do:

  • I extrapolated the New York City model (of a significant computing education experience to every child in every school within grade bands) to the whole of the US, which would likely take more than a magnitude more funding.
  • The funding is enough to pay for a CS teacher in every school, but I argued that it wouldn’t really work. We face a shortage of STEM teachers, and those few are the teachers that we can most likely recruit to CS. CS teacher attrition is so high that we couldn’t keep up with the losses, since we have so few mechanisms of pre-service CS teacher preparation.

I received many responses, queries, and criticisms of that blog post (from email, Facebook, and Twitter).  I am explaining and unpacking the CACM blog post here. I am not going to delete or change the CACM blog post. My mentor, Janet Kolodner, told me once not to dwell on any paper, trying to make it a masterpiece before publishing it. Rather, she suggested that we should just keep publishing. Explore lots of ideas in lots of papers, and publish as a way of thinking with a community. It’s okay to publish something you thought was right, and later find that it’s wrong — it documents the explored trails.

What I learned about the effort in NYC

I said that NYC was aiming to provide a quality computing learning experience for every student in every grade in every school, as I learned last October (and blogged about it here). I learned that the goal is now mandating a computing learning experience in every grade band, so not every year. It’s still a markedly different model than one teacher per school, and doesn’t change the costs considerably.

I learned that (as one might expect) that the effort in NYC is in both the NYC Department of Education and in CSNYC. It’s great that there are many people in the NY DoEd working on CS education! I was told on Twitter that some of what I attributed to CSNYC is actually in NY Department of Education. I don’t know what I mis-attributed, but I’m sure that it’s because I get confounded over “CSNYC” representing “the effort to provide CS education across NYC” and “the organization that exists to provide CS education across NYC.” I don’t understand the split between NYC DoEd and the CSNYC organization, and I’m not going to guess here. I am sure that it’s important for the people involved, but it’s not so important for the model and national analysis.

Explaining my Estimates in Contrast to Code.org’s

Code.org has made their model of the one-time cost of expanding access to K-12 computer science (CS) available at this Google doc. According to their model, it’s clear that the $1.3B is enough to make CS education available in every elementary and secondary school. They have more empirical data than anyone else on putting CS in whole districts, and their data suggest that costs are decreasing as they gain more efficiencies of scale.

Hadi challenged several points in my blog post on Facebook. I won’t replicate all of our exchange, and only include three points here:

  • I argue that we will probably have to pay future CS teachers more in the future, at least as teacher stipends. That prediction is based on trends I see in the states I work with and economics. States are facing teacher shortages, especially in STEM. Aman Yadav shared an article (see link here) that students studying to be teachers fell by 40% from the 2010-2011 academic year to the 2014-2015 academic year. If the supply of teachers is growing more slowly than the rate at which we’re trying to grow CS, we will have to provide incentives to make CS more attractive. Lijun Ni’s dissertation explored the barriers for teachers to become CS teachers (e.g., it’s a lot easier and more pleasant to stay a math teacher). Costs are likely to grow as the labor shortage increases.
  • Some of my costs are too high, e.g., I estimated the cost to develop a high school CS teacher as $10K, where NSF’s studies found it was closer to $8.6K. I used a ballpark 50% of high school CS teacher development for the costs of elementary school CS teacher development.  Since it’s clear that there is enough to prepare one CS teacher per school, I think my numbers are close enough.
  • I believe that extrapolating the NYC model across the country would be even more expensive than it is in NYC. Travel costs in NYC are much less than in rural America. While NYC is very diverse, the rest of the United States is just as diverse. I got to see Ann Leftwich at Indiana University on Saturday. She told me that some of the schools she works with resist teaching science at all! It’s really hard to convince them to teach CS. I expect that there is a similar lack of will to teach CS across the US.

Not all of my estimates are research-based. We don’t have research on everything. Changing all US schools happens so rarely that we do not have good models of how it works. I don’t think that the empirical data of what we have done before in CS Ed is necessarily predictive of what comes next, since most of our experience with CS Ed at-scale is in urban and suburban settings. Getting everywhere is harder. I have observed about “Georgia Computes!” — 1/3 of the high schools in GA got someone that Barbara trained in CS, and that’s likely the easiest 1/3. The next 2/3 will be harder and more expensive.

What I Missed Entirely

As Hadi correctly called me on, the biggest cost factor I missed is the development of curriculum. Back in July, I blogged about Larry Cuban’s analysis that suggested that we need to re-think how we are developing and disseminating CS curriculum in the United States (see link here). We have to develop a lot more curriculum in collaboration with schools, districts, and states nationwide. The US will never adopt a single curriculum nationwide for any subject — it’s not how our system was developed, and it’s why Common Core did not reach all 50 states. The US education system is always about tailoring, adapting, and working with local values and politics. Curriculum is always political.

Mike Zamansky just posted a blog post critiquing some of the curriculum he’s seeing in NYC (see post here). I don’t agree with Mike’s post, but I wholeheartedly agree with his posting. We should argue about curriculum, negotiate what’s best for our students, and create curriculum that works for local contexts.  There is going to be a lot of that nationwide as we take steps towards providing computing education to all students. The iteration and revision will be expensive, but it’s a necessary expense for sustainable, longterm computing education.

What should we do with the money

At a talk I gave at Indiana University on Friday, Katie Siek asked me my opinion. What do I want to see the funding be used for?

It would be great if some of that funding could start more pre-service CS teacher preparation programs. I have argued that we should fund chairs of CS Education in top Schools of Education (see post here). Germany uses this model — they create CS Education professors who will be there for a career, producing CS teachers, supporting local communities of CS teachers, and serving as national models. An endowed chair is $1-3M at most universities. That is not very expensive for a longterm impact.

I prefer an NYC-like model of reaching every student to the model of a teacher for every school. The data I’ve seen from our ECEP states suggests that most CS teachers teach only a single computing class, and that class is typically mostly white/Asian and male. One CS  teacher per school doesn’t reach all the female and under-represented minority students. Equity has to be a top priority in our choices for these funds, since CS education is so inequitable.

My greatest wish is for computational literacy to be woven into other disciplines, especially across all of STEM. I devoted my career to computing education because I believe in the vision of Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, Alan Kay, and Andrea diSessa. Computational literacy can improve learning in science, mathematics, art, language, and other disciplines, too.

I don’t argue that computer science is more important than other STEM subjects. Rather, computing makes learning in all the other STEM subjects better.

I want us to teach real computational literacy across subjects, not just in the CS class hidden away, and not just in an annual experience. I recognize that that’s a long-term, expensive vision — probably two orders of magnitude beyond the current initiative. We need more long-term thinking in CS education, like building up the CS teacher development infrastructure and making the case to people nationwide for CS education. We are not going to solve CS for All quickly.

When the K-12 CS Framework effort launched back in 2015, I told the story here about a conversation I had with Mike Lach (see post here). He pointed out that the last time we changed all US schools, it was in response to the Civil Rights movement. That’s when we started celebrating MLK Jr Day and added African-American History month. He asked me to think about how much national will it took to make those changes happen. We don’t have that kind of national will in CS education in this country — yet. We have a lot more groundwork to do before we can reach CS education for all students or all schools, and funding alone is not going to get us there.

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Preparing Tomorrow’s Faculty to Address Challenges in Teaching Computer Science Disrupt This!: MOOCs and the Promises of Technology by Karen Head

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  October 4, 2017 at 8:11 am

    Hi Mark

    What about Mike Zamanskys post don’t you agree with? I had the feeling he was screaming inside (as I certainly am, and am trying to keep it there until I can say something that isn’t just profoundly angry).

    I will point out here briefly for the nth time that in education doing something “below threshold” is almost never “well, it’s a start” but is something that will generally take the children lower in both understanding and morale. The first because “there is no there there”, and the second because those who realize this will be more against school, and those who don’t realize this will make a bad way of thinking another part of their “bad ways of thinking”.

    For example, teaching reading badly is not “Well, it’s a start”, it’s turning children away from reading for the rest of their lives.

    I hated school along with pretty much everyone I went to school with.

    The only difference was that there were a few kids who by lucky circumstance realized that “school” is -not- the same thing as “learning” and -not- the same thing as knowledge.

    This allowed us lucky few to bypass the bullshit and get started on what should be the greatest adventure ever for human beings: growing up in the 20th century! (And now the 21st) This is the best time to be alive for those who love knowledge and art, but one of the worst times to be alive to find that out.

    Murray Gell-Mann said “Education in the 20th century is like going to the world’s greatest restaurant but being forced to eat the menu”.

    Eating the menu is -not- “Well, it’s a start”, it leads to eventual starvation because there is no nutritional value in the menu. This is what people really need to understand here.

    Substantiated criticism has been done in by egregious trolling on the one hand and exaggerated political correctness on the other, so it’s a real problem these days to bring the depth of what’s wrong here to anyone’s attention.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 4, 2017 at 10:40 am

      Hi Alan,

      I don’t want to get distracted by Mike’s argument — it’s an important issue, but this is an argument about one activity in a curriculum that is only in NYC. There are other curricula that we could talk about that are more relevant to the issue of providing CS education nationwide. Please take a look at https://studio.code.org/courses?view=teacher to see the Code.org curriculum. This is the curriculum that is being used in the large, urban districts partnered with Code.org now. Is this the curriculum that we should teach to everyone, nationwide? Should the curriculum be adapted to different students, to different locales? If so, how? As I understand the Code.org model, the plan is not to develop any additional curricula in the roll out nationwide. This is a curriculum worth critiquing.

      • 3. alanone1  |  October 4, 2017 at 11:00 am

        Hi Mark

        Good point! Is there something “extensive” to read about studio.code.org courses? The website is completely fragmented (but maybe I’m missing a “Pdf comprehensive summary” (or have they decided that teachers don’t read?)).

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  October 4, 2017 at 12:01 pm

          Hi Alan,

          I don’t know. I’ve written Pat Yongpradit to ask him.

          • 5. alanone1  |  October 4, 2017 at 12:19 pm

            That sounds like a good start. They make it difficult to both understand and to criticize because it is at an oral culture level that has to be sequenced through.

            They have done a lot of work!

            I did plod through some of the 4th grade (5th grade is is for “needs” children) stuff. Comparing to what the children at the same ages did with Etoys, I’d say they are mainly aiming for success at any cost, and not for having the children learn powerful ideas — especially in science.

            It doesn’t seem to be the “real deal” at all. The next level of comparison would be to “music appreciation”, “math appreciation”, “science appreciation”. It is probably better than the current “math appreciation”, but likely worse than “music and science appreciation” (both of which should only be taught after enough of the real deals have been learned.

  • […] BBC coverage). Here in the US, we’re also talking about dramatically increasing funding (see blog post here about the $1.3B funding from White House and Tech industry).  Are the US and England on the same […]

  • […] Not really a surprising claim, but I still think that we’re not talking enough about this. No K-12 subject is taught nationwide without producing teachers from universities. We simply cannot create sustainable K-12 CS education without universities producing CS teachers (called “pre-service teacher professional development”). Currently, we produce new CS teachers by recruiting existing teachers from other subjects (called “in-service teacher professional development”). None of our models for growing CS nationwide currently have a plan to replace in-service with pre-service (as described in this blog post). […]

  • […] into CS Ed via in-service professional development — a tenfold increase in England, and $1.5B in the next five years in the US.  In general, more money in education alone doesn’t change things. We have to think about […]

  • […] for me. I may do more Engineering Education Research in the future.  I may get more involved in preparing future CS teachers. My research directions are changing. I will continue to work towards Computing Education for All, […]

  • […] laudatory, but it will take time, training and money; probably more money than what is currently earmarked  before teachers are able to create frameworks around computational thinking and then apply […]


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