Why don’t high schools teach CS: It’s the lack of teachers, but it’s way more than that (Miranda Parker’s dissertation)

December 16, 2019 at 8:00 am 8 comments

Back in October, I posted here about Miranda Parker’s defense. Back then, I tried to summarize all of Miranda’s work as a doctoral student in one sentence:

Readers of this blog will know Miranda from her guest blog post on the Google-Gallup polls, her development of SCS1 as a replication of a multi-lingual and validated measure of CS1 knowledge, the study she did of teacher-student differences in using ebooks, and her work exploring the role of spatial reasoning to relate SES and CS performance (work that was part of her dissertation study).

That was a seriously run-on sentence for an impressive body of work.

On Friday, December 13, I had the great honor of placing an academic hood on Dr. Parker*.

I haven’t really talked too much about Miranda’s dissertation findings yet. I really want to, but I also don’t want to steal the thunder from her future publications. So, with her permission, I’m going to just summarize some of my favorite parts.

First, Miranda built several regression models to explain Georgia high schools teaching computer science in 2016. I predicted way back at her proposal that the biggest factor would be wealth — wealthy schools would teach CS and poorer schools wouldn’t. I was wrong. Yes, that’s a statistically significant factor, but it doesn’t explain much.

The biggest factor is…teaching computer science in 2015. Schools that taught CS in 2015 were many times more likely to be teaching in 2016. Schools have to get started! Hadi Partovi made this argument to me once, that getting started in schools was the biggest part of the battle. Miranda’s model supports his argument. There’s much more to the story, but that’s the biggest takeaway for me on the quantitative analysis.

But her model only explains a bit over 50% of the variance. What explains the rest? We figured that there would be many different factors. To make it manageable, Miranda chose just four high schools to study as case studies where she did multiple interviews. All four of the schools were predicted by her best model to teach computer science, but none of the did.

Yes, as you’d expect, access to a teacher is the biggest factor, but it’s not as simple as just deciding to hire a CS teacher or train an existing teacher to teach CS. For example, one principal laid out for Miranda who could teach CS and who would take their class, and how to fill that gap in the schedule, and so on. In the end, he had a choice of offering choir or offering CS. There were students in choir. CS was a gamble. It wasn’t even a hard decision for that principal.

Here is the story that most surprised me. At two of the schools Miranda studied, they teach lots of cyber security classes, but no computer science. As you would expect, there was a good bit of CS content in the cybersecurity classes. They had the teachers. Why not then teach CS, too?

Because both of these schools were near Fort Gordon which has a huge cybersecurity district. Cybersecurity is a community value. It’s a sure thing when it comes to getting a job. What’s “computer science” in comparison?

In my opinion, there is nothing like Miranda’s study in the whole world. There are the terrific Roehampton reports that give us a quantitative picture about CS in all of England. There are great qualitative studies like Stuck in the Shallow End that tell us what’s going on in high schools. Miranda did both and connected them — the large scale quantitative analysis, and then used that to pick four interesting high schools to dig into for qualitative analysis. It’s a story specific to Georgia, and each US state is going to be a different story. But it’s a whole state, the right level of analysis in the US. It’s a fascinating story, and I’m proud that she pulled it off.

Keep an eye out for her publications about this work over the next couple years.

* By the way, Dr. Parker is currently on the academic job market.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , .

Why some students do not feel that they belong in CS, and how we can encourage the sense that they do belong What’s unique about CS education compared to other DBERs?

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN  |  December 16, 2019 at 8:31 am

    My grand daughter at 12 years old, use computers in all respects . How come American students do not do that .

  • 2. Peter Kemp  |  December 16, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    Sounds like a great PhD, really looking forward to reading the full thing. It’s giving me some ideas for models to predict school uptake of CS in England. Depressingly the churn for all girls schools appears to be high.

  • 3. gflint  |  December 17, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    This does look interesting but I can predict it is very regional. Montana is small schools, over half are under 200 students, a third are under 100. Getting CS in a small school requires a huge commitment. Finding a teacher, finding students, budgeting hardware and even the seemingly simple thing as finding a room to put a lab in can be major issues for a small school. Bit we have schools with 1000+ students without a CS program so it is not just a school size issue in Montana. All my evidence is anecdotal but is seems more a case of the attitude of the school superintendent/principal toward CS. It is kind of like the choir vs CS example, futures and career opportunities are really not all that relevant. Kids in seats is.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  December 17, 2019 at 1:33 pm

      All K-12 education in the US is local. That’s by design. Size of school was a significant variable in Miranda’s model. It’s totally true — principals are not incentivized to pay attention to career outcomes.

  • […] 90% of US high school students are avoiding computer science, even when it’s being offered (which Miranda Parker explored in her dissertation). These are much lower numbers than in other STEM fields. (See blog post here about the low CS […]

  • 6. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  December 27, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    We just moved away from CS to focus more intently on Cybersecurity.
    Did she per chance make her dissertation publicly available on ProQuest?

    Part of it has to do with a push towards consolidated pathways in Texas. There is more/easier funding and a more justifiable course career pathway for Cybersecurity.

    Given the accountability metrics though and the relatively odd certs TEA chooses to recognize – the Cybersecurity pathway isn’t a slam dunk for accountability either.

  • […] By 2018, I realized that there was a difference between access and participation. But now we have Miranda Parker’s dissertation and we know that the problem is much deeper than just having teachers and classes. Even if you have […]

  • […] all the students the classes they need to meet current school requirements. See the principal in Miranda Parker’s dissertation who chooses to keep choir (which helps many students to get the credits they need to graduate) over […]


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