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C'est la Z

Should CSforAll focus on entrepreneurship and jobs?

Is CSforAll a jobs program? This came up again the other day.

With one of the referenced tweets talking about CS salaries.

I think Hadi's numbers are a little high but that's not really the point.

I've actually been meaning to write about this for a while going back to this really great post by Charlie O'Donnell titled Sevens Don't Get Funded.

I've seen arguments on all sides of this issue. On the one hand, people in the tech industry are big on the jobs side of things. This is in part because the more people who go into tech the more resources they have for their companies. I also think that a lot of the people on the tech side have seen tech work for them and allow for successful careers so they see CS education as providing others with a similar path. I also see a number of teachers with this view - they're teaching kids in poverty and see this as a potential way out. Nothing wrong with this point of view and for CSforAll to really get anywhere it's certainly helpful to have a region's business leaders on board.

On the other side, I have many colleagues at Hunter and other intuitions who get offended at the merest mention that anything we teach be in any way practical as it hurts the purity of our academic mission. Needless to say, I'm not in this extreme camp but I do think that CS should be much more than a jobs program.

This tension has been there from the begining. Are we teaching K12 CS for aspiring CS majors who will go into academia? Those who will be software engineers? Everybody else? Or a combination.

To complicate matters, at least in my experience is that the business push very frequently comes with a push for entrepreneurship. We need more kids starting their own tech companies. I suspect much of this is well meaning. They see the next big thing and would love to see a group of founders from the other side of the tracks figure it out.

In my time in CS Ed in NYC I've seen a tremendous push for entrepreneurship. Many programs that have touted themselves as CS programs were really entrepreneurship programs with a little tech and this concerns me.

This is where Charlie's piece got me thinking.

Charlie says he gets around 2000 pitches in his inbox a year but only makes around 10 investments. This seems consistent with ratios I've seen for other venture capitalists. This means if you're going to get that investment on your startup idea you've got to really stand out or to quote the article:

It might be that your company is a seven (out of 10) — a perfectly acceptable, but not particularly exciting seven.

If you’re trying to be one of the best ten things I see in a year—worth risking LP capital on, then a seven just isn’t going to make it.

Even if you are funded, the majority of startups don't succeed. I've read that 10% of startups provide nearly all the returns for a fund and other similar numbers indicating that failure is much more likely than success.

Now, if you're a venture capitalist and looking at the big picture from the top, the more entrepreneurs the better but if you're a kid from the lower economic rungs I don't know if we should be pushing entrepreneurship as the ticket out.

I'm reminded of a friend of mine who does outreach, recruiting, and interviewing for his alma mater which is one of the hardest institutions to gain acceptance to in the USA. On the one hand, he had a great experience and wants to share that with others. On the other hand, he also recognizes that for even the best student he pitches to, he's likely to be building them up for disappointment.

As a teacher who's worked with fragile kids, I can tell you that you've got to tread lightly here. Setting kids up for failure is more than bad, it's dangerous.

If it were up to me, I'd put the "you can start a company" out there but in the background and if you want to focus on jobs then put the focus there, on the job - the fact that you'll be able to put bread on the table regardless of how the economy turns and yes, you will be able to start your dream company if you want but you don't have to do it out of the gate. Build your network, your skills, and, very importantly for kids climbing out of poverty, your safety nets and then start that company.

So, where do I stand overall with this? Basically the same place I stood when I designed Stuy's intro to CS course or, as more than a couple of friends have termed the course "stuff Z likes." Yes, I want to motivate kids to go further in CS but I know the majority won't and probably shouldn't, after all, it takes a village. I want to provide that motivation while also providing value to the rest.

At a very broad, basic level, people in different disciplines look at the world through different lenses. K12 CS should expose students with what the world can look like through a CS lens and how all the different lenses can relate, complement, and support each other. It should also teach practical tech related skills that should benefit all students. I'm not talking "using a word processor" here but more so programming. Digital citizenship should also be included. With all this it should also expose all the students with enough info so that those that want to go further in tech or CS are both excited to and prepared to do so.

At Stuy, we found that this could be done in a one semester 10th grade class. We've hand a huge number of kids end up going into tech and CS and come back later to tell us that it wasn't on their radar at all until they took the required course. I've also had plenty of kids who went into other fields proclaim that their intro CS experience at Stuy was still one of their most valuable classes ever. Of course, if you're offering more classes over more grade it opens many other possibilities - embedding in other subjects, integrating classes and more.

At the end of the day we'll have a larger pool and a more diverse pool of students going into tech and for the majority of students, who won't do pure tech, they'll be more tech savvy, be able to use the mental and practical tools of the trade to suport them in whatever their endeavors turn out to be.

So, CSforAll in K12 isn't about jobs. It's about exposure and teaching some fundamentals. Setting kids up so that they will have a better idea as to if they want to go into tech and if they do they'll be better prepared while at the same time giving all students the fundamentals of CS both in terms of problem solving and looking at the world and practical skills.

The funny thing, is that on the higher ed side, I think they have to go the other way and become more responsive to job demands. In spite of the way so many CS programs are designed, the majority of kids have no intention of going on to a higher degree and CS is one of the few disciplines where there is a direct path from college to a well paying job and that shouldn't be ignored. You can keep your academic rigor and purity but at the same time the programs that acknowledge that the majority of their students will benefit from specific tools and skills will better serve their students. Practical and real world are not dirty words.

So, I've rambled on for a while and probably been a little all over the place but you know what, education is all over the place. We're talking about taking young people and preparing them for life and their life journeys. That means different things for different people and so it should be with K12 CS. Not entirely a jobs program but yes, jobs are on the radar. Not entirely CS for CS but that's there too. So is integration and support of other subject areas and more.

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