The biggest concerns for institutionalized CS education in the United States: Standards, limited models, and undergraduate enrollment caps

February 18, 2019 at 7:00 am 8 comments

I was interviewed for the SIGCSE Bulletin by my long-time collaborator, Leo Porter (see  I talk about this blog, how I started teaching in 1980, about Media Computation, and about what inspires me.

One of the questions relates to the recent discussion about standards and frameworks (see post here).

LP: You have worked with education public policymakers in “Georgia Computes!” and Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) over the last dozen years. What’s your biggest worry as US states start institutionalizing CS education?

I have two. The first is that the efforts to standardize CS education are making the bar too low. When the K-12 CS Ed Framework was being developed, decisions were being made based on how current teachers might respond. “Teachers don’t like binary, so let’s not include that” is one argument I heard. I realize now that that’s exactly the wrong idea. Standards should drive progress and set goals. Defining standards in terms of what’s currently attainable is going to limit what we teach for years. Computing education research is all about making it possible to teach more, more easily and more effectively. I worry about setting standards based on our limited research base, not on what we hope to achieve.

The second is that most of our decisions are being made around the assumption of standalone CS classes and having teachers with a lot of CS education. I just don’t see that happening at scale in the US. Even in the states with lots of CS teachers in lots of schools, a small percentage of students take those classes. This limits who sees computer science. To make CS education accessible for all, we have to be able to explore alternative models, like integrating computing education in other subjects without CS-specific teachers. If we only count success in CS education as having standalone CS classes, we are incentivizing only one model. I worry about building our policy to disadvantage schools that want to explore integrated models, or have to integrate because of the cost of standalone CS classes.

Since this interview, I have a third concern, that may be more immediate than the other two.  This is what I wrote my CACM Blog on this month. The NYTimes just published an article “The Hard Part of Computer Science? Getting Into Class” about the growing CS undergraduate enrollment and about the efforts by departments to manage the load.  Departments used to talk about building capacity, but increasingly, the discussion is about capping or limiting enrollments.  The reason why this is concerning is because we’ve been down this road before — see Eric Roberts’ history of CS capacity challenges. Our efforts to limit enrollment send a message about computer science being only for elites and being unwelcoming to non-CS majors. This is exactly opposed to the message that, CS for All, and the AP CS Principles exam is trying to send. We’re creating a real tension between higher education and the efforts to grow CS, and it may (as Eric suggests) send enrollments into the next dive.

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How to organize a state (summit): From ECEP and NCWIT The Cambridge University Press Handbook of Computing Education Research: Now Available

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. zamanskym  |  February 18, 2019 at 8:38 am

    The problem relating to your first issue is that standards are a no win situation. They’re not about learning, they’re about testing. They’re to ensure that every student has to get to point A by time B. They’re the antithesis of “meet the student where they are” and that bugaboo “personalized learning.”

    At the end of the day, if you have standards you have a high stakes test. If it has binary and the teachers don’t like binary, they’ll do what they have to do the check the box and set their students up to best pass the assessment since, after all, that’s what they’re evaluated on.

    Agree 100% on the enrollment caps.

    • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  February 18, 2019 at 8:58 am

      What is the alternative to standards then?

      • 3. zamanskym  |  February 18, 2019 at 10:11 am

        Alfred – the idea of a framework as a comprehensive guide is a good one but I’d rather see local standards in teacher qualifications driving our teaching.

        Truth be told, any set of standards is written by a limited set of people and is not necessarily better than another set of people. In fact, I just read but have not verified that when the K12 CC standards were first drafted there was only 1 practicing classroom teacher on the team.

        • 4. gflint  |  February 19, 2019 at 10:04 am

          The Montana State CS standards were written by a committee with only one teacher and she was from a large school with large resources. Montana is made up of many small schools with limited resources and very few large schools. Most of our CS teachers have very limited CS backgrounds. Most of those teachers cannot even understand what the standards are talking about. This does not mean the standards are bad, it just means that Montana needs to step up pre-service and in-service training so the standards can become realistic. I do not think Montana is an exception.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  February 18, 2019 at 9:44 am

      Are there any tests written for state standards yet? Anne Leftwich told me that they were adding questions on CS to the science tests in Indiana, but that’s not a test to the standard. Can anyone point to any yet? I’m seriously interested, as a researcher who has built standardized assessments (FCS1, SCS1) and studies standardized CS exams (AP CS). Where are the assessments for the CS standards?

      • 6. zamanskym  |  February 18, 2019 at 9:59 am

        Mark – I’m not aware of any yet but you’ve got to give them time :-).

        There’s no reason to suspect that K12 CS will be any different than other subject areas and things like the opt-out movement and government reactions show that it is indeed about testing and control of local teaching from a higher level.

  • 7. Cecily Heiner  |  February 18, 2019 at 11:13 am

    Mark, Utah has tests for standards in CS and has for a long time; a big chunk of the state funding is tied to end-of-year testing for ALL CTE classes including CS. This has been the case for at least a decade. I was somewhat involved in the creation of the test for ECS in Utah. Most of the tests were written with a less-than-rigorous approach to validation but sufficient-for-getting-the-job done approach, typically by high school teachers teaching the class who were somewhat active on a a state level.

  • 8. Mark L. Miller, Ph.D.  |  February 18, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    I strongly agree with your point about bringing CS into all curriculum areas. While it is a wonderful and exciting topic in its own right, learning to write serves as a good analogy. If I want to be a professional writer, I want there to be electives and/or enrichment opportunities for people with my special interest. However, if I want to be almost anything else, I should still learn to write well. This is also consist with the “Code to Learn” mantra from Mitch and the Scratch community. Beyond the fact that all should have some exposure to the basics of CS and computational thinking, this approach has the added advantage of being more realistic to fit into already-full school schedules and not setting an unrealistically high “bar” for teachers to be comfortable including a few lessons here and there where students bring CS expertise or issues into their learning. A few of us are working on a HOPL paper about Logo, and one of the things it points out is that the original Logo vision had creative, constructivist activities for multiple disciplines: language arts, music, graphical arts (everyone has heard of the Turtle of course), and more; we should cling to that vision.

    One additional concern that was not mentioned is that, while it is great that many states are adopting CS standards, the lack of consistency across states is troubling. Organizations such as SIGCSE and CSTA can propose nationwide standards, but it is up to the states to adopt standards that are well-aligned with those. Large variations from the national standards make textbook adoptions (or equivalents, since traditional textbooks may become less important than web-based curricular content) more challenging. One can only hope that the big “driver” states such as NY, TX, and FL stay close to the standards recommended by professional societies.

    I’ll close by saying how disappointed I am that I will not make it to SIGCSE this year, after all. I’ll look forward to seeing your remarks in print. Thanks for this wonderful blog.
    Regards, Mark


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