Political Inaction on Computer Science Stalls Prospects for American Students

Lack of Computer Science Education in U.S. Schools

While the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures debate the place of computer science (CS) as a core requirement in U.S. schools, students in England are already studying in earnest. In 2013, the National Curriculum in England required computer science at key stages of education. All students ages 5 through 16–corresponding to American kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school students–receive instruction in the field.

Meanwhile, the conversation about computer science education in the United States continues to wander. The discussion involves debating answers to various questions: Should computer science count as a graduation requirement? If so, should it replace a math requirement? Could it substitute for foreign language study? Should it remain an elective?

Long Recognized Deficit in Computer Science Education

The computer science education deficit has been identified many times before, without uniform action to rectify it. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) Curriculum Improvement Task Force’s New Educational Imperative: Improving High School Computer Science Education Final Report was published 10 years ago (February 2005). It was subtitled, “Using worldwide research and professional experience to improve U. S. Schools.” The task force, commissioned by the Association for Computing Machinery and based on work by the National Science Foundation, published the nearly 100-page report that was a Call to Action to federal and state policy makers, business leaders, and educators at all levels. It outlined 10 principles of a core curriculum and how to improve teaching, among other recommendations. Unfortunately, many of the gaps the report addresses still persist today.

In 2008, the Stanford Graduate School of Business (SGSB) reported on the film, 2 Million Minutes, which addresses claims that the way U.S. students lag behind China and India in math and science is mistakenly attributed to alleged “rote learning styles” in those countries. The movie makes the point that rather than be stymied by memorization, successful students in China and India “had clear career plans and approached their goals with a focus.”

According to SGSB, in the film, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Robert Compton “Documented students’ high school curriculums and study habits in India, China, and the United States.” He “talked with MBA students about his concerns that the weaknesses in the U.S. school system today could handicap the entire American economy for generations to come, and how students could help bridge the disparity.”

In 2015, the ongoing indecisiveness about the study of computer science, the key to the careers that drive the future, seems like a tremendous “untapped opportunity.”

Opportunities for students may be missed because of the lack of qualified teachers, as well as students’ poor study habits. In January 2012, the following report was published: In Need of Repair: The State of k-12 Computer Science Education in California. The report included a curriculum framework for middle and high school students, as well as proposals for certification and credentialing of teachers.

The broken educational system continued to be documented. A few months after the California report in April 2012, a report by the staff of U.S. Senator Bob Casey (chairman of the Joint Economic Committee), stated that “The demand for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-skilled workers is expected to continue to increase in the future, as both the number and proportion of STEM jobs are projected to grow. New Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that employment in STEM occupations is expected to expand faster than employment in non-STEM occupations from 2010 to 2020 (by 17 versus 14 percent).” If Americans are to fill these teaching positions, they must command STEM skills–including computer science.

Computer Science Professionals Lead the Effort

Professor Robert  Schnabel, Education Policy Chair for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), explains how the infrastructure of education in the United States diffuses accountability. According to Schnabel, “U.S. and U.K. are opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to curriculum. U.K. has a centralized approach to K-12 education so they were able, recently to make CS a required part of the curriculum. In the U.S., this control is at the state level and sometimes at the district level, so the best one can do overall is make curricula available which people can choose to use. Both ACM and code.org are doing this.”

Schnabel does feel that despite the delay in a national consensus on responsibility for computer science education, the country has “made huge progress. The awareness by federal and state policy makers about CS education was very low when we started and now is high and receiving frequent national attention.” His group “led to the creation of CS education week and to a consortium that then ended up blending into code.org, and both of these are having huge impacts as well. The Running on Empty report was quite influential, too.”

Proof does exist of the progress Schnabel claims. In the first quarter of 2015, state legislatures in Utah, New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, and New Mexico all have bills under consideration that propose solutions to the computer science preparation deficit, which is illustrated by students graduating from high school are behind when they enter universities to study computer science, if they are interested at all. Many states have enacted plans to interest students in science and technology, and many organizations offer programs to motivate students to try computer science. Yet the question remains whether or not the U.S. economy can afford to leave computer science skills only to motivated and interested students.

Slowly but surely, it seems the progress Schnabel spoke of will bring American students into the computer science classroom, initially motivated or not.

Bipartisan Support Without Results

Without national consensus that computer science must be required for high school graduation, access to high-quality computer science courses remains extremely uneven across the nation–even with support from both political parties. About 120 members of the House of Representatives sponsored the bipartisan Computer Science Education and Jobs Act to improve access to computer science education in public schools.

Introduced in the House in June 2013, the act amends Title IX (General Provisions) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 to define “computer science” as:

“The study of computers and algorithmic processes, including the study of computing principles, computer hardware and software design, computer applications, and the impact of computers on society, and makes computer science a core academic subject.”

The Computer Science Education and Jobs Act would make computer science essential in public education. Yet, the latest action on Sept. 13, 2013 left it in the hands of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. Not everyone is willing to wait for Congress!

States Take Action

Twenty-three members of the Arkansas State Assembly have moved to take state action. They sponsored Arkansas Hb1183, a bill that includes language that calls the computer science education situation in the United States critical. Their bill “require[s] each public high school and public charter school [in the state] to offer a course in computer science; to establish a task force; and to declare an emergency.” Emergency is the right word!

Congressional Acts Proposed

It is not, however, that some Congressional representatives aren’t trying to push change. Michael Honda, representative for California’s 17th district hopes that his “Stepping Up to STEM Education” act has more than the 1 percent chance of passing rated by GovTrackUS. The act would direct “The Secretary of Education to award matching grants to state-based science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (STEM) networks or similar organizations of STEM stakeholders to increase students’ achievement in the STEM disciplines in elementary and secondary schools and in out-of-school and after-school programs.”

While not specifically requiring computer science education, the act does direct resources toward it in an effort to increase student success in the field.

There is much debate over “STEM” education and what courses should be included under its umbrella. H.R. 1020: STEM Education Act of 2015 sponsored by Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and referred to Committee on Feb. 20, 2015 defines “STEM education to include computer science, and to support existing STEM education programs at the National Science Foundation.”

Also, this bill “includes elementary or secondary school computer science teachers as mathematics and science teachers for purposes of the program of teacher recruiting and training grants.” Smith’s approach is that the status of computer science teachers must be raised to the level of math and science teachers – teachers of core requirements – in order to attract talented teachers.

Simply requiring computer science won’t necessarily solve the problem of preparing American students for the economy of their future. Senate bill S. 227 titled, “Strengthening Education through Research Act,” was introduced Jan. 21, 2015 and passed the House, but is awaiting Senate action. It is a bill to “Strengthen the Federal education research system to make research and evaluations more timely and relevant to State and local needs in order to increase student achievement.”

Sponsors believe changes to education must be the right ones to be effective. This act, again, highlights another daunting question in legislative corridors across the United States: Whose responsibility is student achievement, anyway?

States Getting Results

For students in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law on Sept. 30, 2014, that allows computer science to satisfy a mathematics credit. In Arkansas, a bill was signed into law by  Gov. Asa Hutchinson, which means public high schools and charter schools serving upper grades must offer computer science classes starting in the 2015-16 school year. Hutchinson feels that “By passing this bill, Arkansas will become a national leader in computer science education, and we’ll be preparing a workforce that’s sure to attract businesses and jobs to our state.”

As of Jan. 29, 2015, the state of Washington is considering WA HB 1813, which “Requires the office of the superintendent of public instruction to adopt computer science learning standards developed by a nationally recognized computer science education organization, and requires the professional educator standards board to develop standards for a K-12 computer science endorsement.”

Sponsors can rest assured that they have people behind them. As of Feb. 23, 2015, Washington STEM, an organization “That supports improved STEM education from cradle to career, recently announced the results of a poll showing “Overwhelming support among Washington’s citizens for improved access to computer science education at the K-12 and post-secondary levels.”

Access at all levels is the first step, but the next question is about what happens once students step into the computer science classroom. In England, that has been decided. The British Computer Society has outlined a “computational thinking framework” and is training teachers to implement the curriculum. The framework is important because the National Curriculum specifies: “A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. Computing has deep links with mathematics, science and design and technology, and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work and how to put this knowledge to use through programming.”

English students will not only know why computers work, but how they work.

Flexibility is Key

The knowledge of how digital systems function is the key that some are using to try and get American students hooked on computer science education, especially because it is not yet required. Shawn Grimes of Digital Harbor Foundation,  a Baltimore non-profit, warns that “If a curriculum is spelled out, checks must be in place to be sure it does not stifle innovation and mastery.” Grimes’ organization “fosters innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital age skills through maker activities and tech workforce readiness.” This is one reason why he cautions about the rigidity of a set curriculum.

According to Grimes, “It may take a school a year or two to implement new curriculum and then they are committed to that curriculum for several years. In our space, we make changes to our curriculum every semester we run it; sometimes we change the curriculum mid-week (We have two groups of students who come to our space, one group comes on Monday/Wednesday, the other group comes on Tuesday/Thursday.  It is not unheard of for us to tweak the curriculum from one group to the next when we discover things that work or don’t work).”

With flexibility, the beauty of computers and the key to student interest, whatever computer science requirements the United States eventually settles on, must be broad enough to welcome the future.