Why I have no faith in NYC Doing CS Ed right.

This post is in response to an email thread on the NYTM mailing list. I mentioned how the NYC DOE refused to even look at our program at Stuy let alone support us and help us get to more kids.

Rather than pollute an email thread, I said I'd write up the story here.

I've been at the CS Ed game for a long time. Twenty five years to be exact. One of my biggest frustrations and failures is that I've never been able to gain the support of the NYC Department of Education in my efforts. Likewise, the only time I've truly had the support of my school's administration was during a brief period in the mid to late 90's.

My experiences have led me to believe that as CS Ed continues to gain momentum I have no faith in NYC actually doing it right.

Let me go through my experiences with the DOE over the years.

I won't use real names for either those who've supported me or those who've been obstructionist.

Here goes.

Some background

I'm generally considered to be pretty good at what I do. There are those that refer to me as the "Godfather of CS Education in NYC." Others refer to my graduates as the "StuyCS mafia" - a reference to the fact that my graduates can be found all over the tech industry.

Some people dismiss the Stuy program as being a product of the school but we can produce evidence to the contrary.

I've heard from enough people in the tech industry and academia to know that we've built something special.

Even though I started to try to get the DOE's support shortly after 2001 and Stuy's support for my entire career, I really didn't make serious attempts to connect with the DOE until the mid Bloomberg years.

The later Bloomberg Administration 2005 - 2012

At this point, we had an established three year program at Stuy and we had been around long enough to produce results.

I started to try to connect with the DOE to get them to come down and look at our program - vet us - and then hopefully help us get to more schools, more teachers, and ultimately more kids. I implored my principal to help, cold emailed the chancellor, emailed and called up the chain of command and at one point, my graduates wrote a letter to the DOE and Mayor's office with hundreds of signatures.

I was able to secure a meeting or two at Tweed but nothing ever came of it. The people I spoke to had their own agenda - they weren't tech people and frequently not educators and were more looking to see if I could be used to push their agenda.

I also pitched a school but that went nowhere.

A little later, people in the tech industry pushed the DOE to look at what I was pitching.

A school was ultimately created but as soon as the tech community was on board and the announcement was made, I was frozen out of the process. The school went in a direction very different from what I was pushing and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to keep quiet about the whole thing. Some of the story was written up in the NY Times.

A little later, with the help of the tech community, we pitched setting up Stuy as an official CS program (we're officially just math teachers) and use us to train new teachers and to roll out programs.

When the tech people were in the room, my principal and the DOE Deputy Chancellor were very supportive. As soon as the tech people left, I would get bounced around. The DOE would say "it's the principal's decision" and my principal would say "I wish we could do something but there's no pathway in the DOE to get there."

In the mean time, the DOE hired someone to run CS Education (something I was told was not going to happen). He designed New York's original Software Engineering Pilot. Looking at the guy's linkedin showed that he had never had a teaching job nor a programming job. It shows from what he developed. He parlayed this position to something at Google a few months later.

I reached out to him a few times - encouraged him to check us out - nothing.

And now

Since then other people have been running CS at Tweed. I have yet to see someone with a both a strong CS and teaching background in charge.

I have also repeatedly reached out to the people in charge.


My thoughts

It doesn't seem to matter who's running the show. We've got a great program running in a public school in lower Manhattan and everyone seems to know it and acknowledge it except the DOE.

Instead the DOE would rather take people with little or no experience and have them try to figure this all out on the fly.

I just don't see it ending well for the kids.

I've said it before - we will have CS in the schools but except for a pocket here and there, it won't be good CS.

Setting kids up to fail - CS edition

We talked about setting kids up to fail in math. What about CS?

Well, it's a little subtler.

I started thinking about this after a conversation with one of my graduates about Harvard's famous CS50. Since that conversation, I've spoken to a number of my kids that have gone through CS50 and most seem to say the same things:

  • They don't really teach anything
  • The kids rely on a group member who already knows stuff or will learn all the stuff on their own
  • If it weren't for my StuyCS background my group would have really struggled.

and things like that. I was then told that after CS50 kids go on to Functional Programming in OCAML and they drop like flies.

Doesn't sound like a recipe for success.

We're seeing this at multiple levels and we're seeing it because very few places seem to have a plan. A multi year path taking kids from start to finish. It's something we've done and I'm proud of it.

I think that if we look carefully, we'll start to see what my graduates reported happening more and more. Traditional CS sequences can be pretty unforgiving and unless colleges put in a sensible ramp up and recognize that not all CS and related majors should go on to grad school we're going to have a high rate of kids initially thinking that CS is for them and then dropping. I do suspect it will get better as colleges recognize that there's more than one type of CS major.

It will be interesting to see what happens on the high school level. Will we see what we've seen in math - two years on the first level course then dump the kids into something like APCS A or will we see something more sensible?

Where this really gets me is with all those after school and summer programs. One give away is when a program claims "learn to _ in 4 weeks," "our kids learn more than in an AP class", or something similar.

My team and I have had to "rescue" kids from a number of them.

These programs take a number of forms:

  • Using simplified environments that export to mobile
  • Gluing together libraries with minimal code
  • Working with an extreme amount of coaching in a short period of time.

Now, none of these things are necessarily bad but so many of these programs are designed and run by non-educators.

So, the kids go through the programs, think they know the real deal, and are hammered when they enroll in a real CS class.

I've seen it happen. There was even an article a couple of years ago which then went on to blame the teacher in spite of the fact that the program boasts that thier kids "learned more than in APCS."

Now, all these programs have to do is make sure the kids make something exciting and that they're happy. There's no real accountability and the guy at the next level will shoulder the blame.

So there you have it, setting kids up to fail.

It's something I think we'll have to be more aware of and on guard for as CS becomes more mainstream.

Help us create a Saturday Hacking Space for kids


As many of you know, I'm part of the team behind CSTUY, a non-profit dedicated to bringing the best CS education to kids who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity.

Over the past two summers we've hosted our highly succesful immersion program SHIP. We were also able to run a small Saturday program thanks to the generosity of SumAll who provided space, and other members of the StuyCS family who provided laptops and the funds we needed.

We're trying to do it again, this time through a kickstarter. What would be really awesome is if we could not only fund the Saturday program but also the summer program so we can focus on getting to the kids and not on raising money.

So, we need you to head over to:


Watch the video, read the project, and kick in for the cause.

Just as importantly, spread the word - your friends, co-workers, managers, funders - anyone who can help.

Wouldn't it be asweome if we could blow the roof off this kickstarter and be able to focus all year on teaching kids!!!!


Setting kids up to fail - math class

"Four in ten NYC high schools don't offer Algebra 2 and both Physics and Chemistry."

At least that's what this article and linked report say.

The implication is clear - many of our students don't have the opportunity to advance in math and the sciences.

The truth though is much more disturbing.

The reason why these schools aren't offering Algebra 2 is very simple - the kids aren't ready for it. Any math licensed teacher is qualified and capable of teaching any level of regents math which includes Algebra 2 and Trigonometry. The truth is that the students in these schools by and large aren't getting past Geometry.

Even in some highly touted "miracle schools," looking behind the curtain reveals kids ill prepared to get through geometry.

The disturbing part is that these kids are set up to fail - to take a class and exam that they're ill prepared for only to have their self esteem crushed. Why? Because more kids taking more exams at higher levels is perceived to look good.

In New York, students have to take three years of math to graduate high school. Two years can be spent on one level of math and of course Regents exams are king.

Then you have the classes: Algebra, Geometry, and then Algebra 2 and Trig. Algebra is by far the easiest course. Geometry, which is really a course in logic and deductive reasoning using Euclidean Geometry as a platform is much heavier.

Lets see how things play out.

In "high performing" populations you have kids take Algebra in the 8th grade. By and large the kids do fine in the class and on the regents exams but, at least according to my colleagues, these kids don't really internalize the skills, they just learn the mechanics.

In schools with struggling populations, they don't start Algebra until high school and then do it over two years. This leads to a reasonable pass rate but then the kids are placed in geometry and are taking a much more rigorous course in half the time.

The results are predictable.

I graded geometry regents this past June. I graded two long answer questions with a combined value of 10 points. From unscreened schools, including at least one highly regarded one, the median grade was 0 and the mean not far above. Even in screened schools the results weren't much better. There we saw a bi-modal distribution with kids either doing very well or very poorly.

Why do we set these kids up to fail? Because, test scores are king and kids are required to pass regents to graduate. Schools and teachers aren't allowed to do what's best for kids. Schools and teachers must answer to the politicians - remember, my rating and job depends on how kids do on standardized tests.

You start to feel even worse when you start thinking about the value or lack thereof in lots of what we require in high school.

Why am I writing about math?

Well, to find out you'll have to tune in next time when I talk about the CS side of things.

What makes a great manager? - Open praise for my team

Today was the last day of SHIP 2015, CSTUY's summer immersion program. I was blown away by the projects. The shipmates and the stewards all did tremendous work.

All through the reception parents would come up to me and rave about the job I did with the program. They'd thank me, tell me how exited their child was every day, how proud they were of what they were learning and on and on.

I of course nodded and told them that "yep, I'm that good."

No. Seriously.

First I thanked them and then told them the secret.

I forget who said this but some coach or manager was one asked "what makes a great manager?" His answer: "Great players."

I explained to the parents that I've been fortunate enough to be surround by amazing teachers and that's what makes our program special. We've got the best program because we've got the best teachers. The best thing I can do is point them in the direction of the kids and get out of the way.

So this post is an open thank you and congratulations to JonAlf, Sam, Topher, and Yulia on yet another job well done. Four amazing CS teachers. There's been a lot of discussion in the online CS communities about CS teachers being isolated and not having resources but I am fortunate in being surrounded by you four. I can't think of another team that I'd rather "go to war" with.

Now, I don't want to leave out the other amazing players that made SHIP a success. Chris, Marlena, Stanley, and Valeriy. Chris, Marlena, and Stanley - you allowed us to give the individual attention we needed for this program and students and parents sang your praises and Valeriy, you were able to show the stewards stuff far beyond what I could have.

And to all our Stewards - your impact on the shipmates was also so critical to the programs success and that doesn't even mention your projects which blew me away.

So to everyone, congratulations, job well done.

Teaching to the test - APCS


This image has been making its rounds.

Largest expansion is pretty clear but are the largest gain in 3+ scores mean a higher percentage of 3+ scores or merely the result of more test takers?

I'm curious, but that's not what I wanted to talk about.

Looking at our AP results from this year we had:


For the past two years we've been allowed to run 7 sections of AP Computer Science with about 30 kids per class. Prior to that we were limited to five sections. There hasn't been a change in either percent passing and more importantly the percentage of 4 and 5 scores for years. I suspect that if we were allowed to open more sections to meet demands the overall percentage of 4/5 scores would remain the same.

While we always are mostly 4s and 5s, the interesting point this year is that we had a much higher percentage of 5s to 4s.

Two possibilities I can think of. One is that the depending on how the test is scored and the fact that there were so many additional test takers it changed the curve. Since I've never been involved in the scoring, I can't comment on this.

The other change is that the College Board dropped the case study - a large sample project that students are supposed to study throughout the class. Between 20% and 30% of the AP Exam was based on the case study.

I'm guessing that some teachers liked the case study but it never worked for me. What's more, all of us at Stuy pretty much agree on the subject. It's like those CS texts that have one long continuous project throughout – if the project, its design and implementation make sense to you and how you teach, you can just work through the text. If not, the text becomes next to useless.

We all hated the case study and so we all paid it minimal lip service. Teaching the case study would amount to teaching to the test. We'd rather teach Computer Science 1

I'm pretty certain that some of our kids were slowed down on the AP exam due to our approach to the case study but they still did fine and besides, for our kids, the exam generally doesn't mean a thing. In our experience if a student goes to the CS department at their college and shows their stuff, they'll be placed appropriately. It didn't matter if they got a 5, a 4, a 3, or even if they didnt take the exam at all.

Perhaps that's the reason for our uptick in 5s vs 4s. No case study and all of a sudden our kids weren't at a disadvantage.

I can't say for certain but it seems plausible.

If we taught to the test, I'm guessing more students would have scored 5s all along.

The concern?

If the College Board continues to be the driving force, either solo or in partnership with organizations like code.org, the importance of the AP Exam will remain. It's already considered by many the gold standard - if your kids take and do well on AP exams, your school must be a top school.

Educators know better. AP Exams are not the be all and end all and in fact, many of us would like to be rid of them altogether so that we could just teach rigorous courses and not to the test.

The end game is predictable. Just as we will see more and more teaching to the test in common core and regents classes so we will see in computer science.

I predict that there will be a few pockets of excellence here and there but in the end, canned AP prep will win the day. We'll have CS in the schools but not so much good CS.



If the case study worked for you, then it's not teaching to the test.

Why don't we trust teachers or Rubber Room Light?

It's Wednesday morning. I'm sitting in an unairconditioned room. I really shouldn't be writing this since we were told "NO ELECTRONIC DEVICES!!!"

Where am I? Up at a school on East 96th street grading the geometry regents.

Back in the day schools gave exams then schools graded exams. Typically by committee. You'd get a room full of math teachers, each teacher would take a problem or two and we'd work through class envelopes. When all was said and done each question was checked by at least two teachers and the whole process took under a day - usually from the morning until a little after lunch.

How does it work now? Each school sends a bunch of teachers to an off site school. How many? In our case we sent more teachers than we have teaching geometry. In my case, I haven't taught math in 23 years but I was part of the group.

We then were assigned to rooms, then questions, and the marking begins, oh wait, not before mind numbing hour to make sure we know how to grade the questions. It's similar but far less efficient. When we grade in house, you can just chug through envelopes of exams - here, we spent almost half the time sitting around doing nothing, waiting for exams to be sent to the room. We are, of course, forbidden from having electronic devices so we can't be productive during this dead time - it's a mild form of incarceration or what I'd call "rubber room light." Oh, also the questions are only looked at by one grader - no double checking like in the old days.

All our papers were graded before we left yesterday – of course that didn't stop the site leaders from forcing us to sit around doing nothing for an hour before releasing us. Were we done? Could we return to our schools to get actual end of term work done? Of course not. We had to come back this morning to sit around doing nothing waiting for the DOE to say we were done.

To all you folks that complain about us lazy teachers - all we wanted was to get back to our schools and get back to work - it's the DOE that's saying no - you must sit around doing nothing - when you see those news stories about rubber rooms - don't be so quick to blame the teachers - many times it's the DOE that's to blame for keeping a good teacher out of the classroom and wasting taxpayer money.

Why do we mark papers this way? Simple, the government doesn't trust the teachers. We spend all day with your kids but heaven forbid we grade their exams. Truth be told, we don't need regents exams to evaluate our kids – we know them - we're with them all year. That said, if you do need a test - let's mark them in house.

Are there grade irregularities? In spite of the periodic story, I doubt they're widespread - and no - giving a paper a one over to make sure a kid got all the points the deserve is not cheating.

Of course none of this affects charter schools - they grade their papers in house. No incentive to misbehave there. It's just those greedy corrupt public school teachers that we have to keep an eye on.

Don't get me started on the actual exam - one where kids are set up to fail left and right - that's a story for another day.


Now that I'm home and back on line I can finish this off and post it. We sat around today until 11:30 and then were told to go to lunch and return at 12:30. Shortly after we got back we were finally dismissed.

End result: I ended up spending under one quarter of a day grading exams and two and three quarter days sitting around all because of asinine department of education policies.

Is there any wonder why I can't recommend kids go into teaching these days?

Shipping a product

Back in April, I was at the second annual "Dream It, Code It, Win It!" awards. Some of our kids had submitted work and were selected as awardees in the high school division.

It was great to see Jack and David Cahn there. Jack and David were both members of winning high school teams last year and they were back as college winners this time around.

It was great to see them.

The Cahn brothers spent some time talking to the current crop. They mentioned one thing that really confirmed that I've been on the right track with my SoftDev class - they said it was their most valuable experiece at Stuy because they learned how to ship a product. To take something, as a team, from idea to delivery with all the bumps along the way. Now, obviously, we don't do everything - there are no questions of funding for instance and I think we cover a lot of great CS but giving the kids a chance to learn to take a project from idea to delivery and all that entails was a big part of the design of the course.

With that in mind, I just finished evaluating projects and here's a sampling:

Stuy kids live all over the city. Nadia, Aida, and Sydney solved the problem of where to meet your friends when you live on opposite sides of town:

Miranda, Leslia, and Anya built a Chrome plugin and server to summarize articles:

and Philipp, Richard, Steve, and Ziwei created an anonymous author attribution system:

Not a SoftDev project, but for good measure, here's Natan and Angelika's Ballroom Dance project - apparently they're the first two to actually do a SONG and dance and they've both got the pipes:

There were lots of other great projects all up on github: https://github.com/stuycs-softdev/student-work-spring-2015 albeit in a rather disorganized form.

So proud of the work they all did this year.

CS Semi Formal

Today marked the last day of classes and time for the 8th annual Stuy CS Semi Formal.

What's the Stuy CS Semi Formal? It's another bad idea that we refuse to let die. Eight years ago JonAlf joked that someone in class joked that they should have a party and they should all get dressed up. My thought? "YEAH!!! LET'S DO IT!!!!!"

Eight years later, still going strong.

We cleaned out and decorated the room - classed things up by serving cheese, dried fruits, nuts and the like. Drinks served in fake plastic "wine" glasses and we encouraged the kids to dress up.

Pictures from the first year - 2007

And from 2011

Kids can come and go any period they don't have any other class.

It's a signature event and a fun time. Whats more is that throughout the day you've got pockets of CS students all dressed to the nines in all their other classes.

For the first few years JonAlf and I did the heavy lifting but these past two, it's all been the students - particularly Jenny, Miranda, and Veronika (apologies if I'm missing anyone).

It's just another event that makes StuyCS unique.

Jazz Hands!!!!!!


The StuyCS Semi Formal, Clyde "Thluffy" Sinclair, and other assorted silliness - one of the reasons StuyCS is a family is that we try to have fun.

Jazz Hands day was the latest.

I got the idea at JonAlf's wedding. The wait staff were all wearing white gloves - all of a sudden it hit me - Jazz Hands!!!! and Jazz Hands day was born.

The idea:

All of our Junior and Senior CS students, around 350 or so, along with their teachers would wear white gloves on a specified day. The rules were throughout the day, in any class, provided there were two or more CS Jazz Hands students in the class, whenever:

  • a student gave a good thoughtful answer to a question
  • or the teacher made a particularly strong point

The kids would give a Jazz Hands salute.

Imagine, some kid gives a great answer and 1/3 of the class all of a sudden does Jazz Hands!!!!


Unfortunately, this was an event that I wouldn't actually be able to see as the havoc would be wreaked in other classes.

By the time we got to the end of the day, I knew we were on to something.

Word on the street was that a bunch of teachers thought it was hilarious. Apparently one teacher pulled the math chair into her class so she could see.

Then we had at least a few teachers that didn't get into the spirit and actually lodged complaints.

Let's see, we had students, via a non-verbal form of feedback, indicate that they were totally engaged by acknowledging what they felt was a good point.


Imagine that.

I don't know what makes me want to fine tune this event more - the positive feedback or the complaints.


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