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C'est la Z

Pushback To CS for All

On the last day of 2019, Audrey Waters wrote a great piece on The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade. I agree with most of them but felt it was worth looking at a one in particular. Specifically number 6 - "Everyone Should earn to Code." I might dive in to some others later but we'll stick with number 6 for today.

I read over these right after reading two recent posts by Alina Adam's son Gregory - a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School over on Alina's blog questioning NYC's CS For All initiative.

Audrey made some very good points on CS for All (or everyone should learn to code). It's industry driven - giving them more of an outsized influence over education and she questions the tech job crisis. I'll personally add that it's problematic that so much of the emphasis - particularly in the public schools is CS for jobs. I get it - a well paying job is a ticket up the economic ladder and this can be a huge deal for low income families. That said, it's problematic at best when the attitude is education for jobs for the poor and well rounded education for life for the rich.

While Audrey wrote on 100 items a few paragraphs each, Gregory wrote two posts on CS for All in NYC and pushed back hard. One line that resonated with me was his response to the DOE's claim that " “Students with computer science degrees are some of the highest-paid college graduates” responding with:

"You know what else is a very useful skill for jobs and graduating college? Reading comprehension and basic mathematics skills."

This was a sticking point with me that got me in trouble with DOE on the AFSE project. They insisted the high school would create industry ready software engineers our of high school in spite of them coming in well below grade level. They were wrong. CS is not a substitute for other important subjects. I personally do think CS for All is very important and I'll address that shortly but I view it as one more fundamental - in addition to reading and writing not at the expense of.

Now let me push back on the pushback.

CS as a K12 academic discipline is very young. In NYC, things didn't really get rolling until Fred Wilson (from industry) started to push things around 10 years go. There were some other small efforts at individual schools and regions around the country. The national movement, in spite of the CSTA being in existence for twenty years or more didn't gain any real traction until came onto the scene - also driven by industry. While I agree very much with Audrey and other's concerns about industry's outsized influence and have publicly criticized and others on it without Fred, CS Ed doesn't happen in NYC and without Hadi Partovi I'd guess that there wouldn't be the national push either.

This is all to say that the field is young so addressing what I think are Gregory's core points, depending on the teacher, a student's CS experience can be a total waste of time or it can be life changing in a good way. This is also true of other subject areas. A bad teacher can destroy a kid in any subject area as much as good one can uplift. This will be more of a problem in CS until the system starts to produce properly prepared teachers - teachers who know both the CS content and how to teach it. That will take some time and we're starting to do that at Hunter. On the other hand, we'll never get there unless we start. In the long run, CS teachers should be of comparable quality to teachers of other disciplines which is, of course, another can of worms to dig into.

Putting that aside, I'll also push back on the pushback that teaching CS isn't valuable for everyone and I'll do that on two fronts. The first is in response to Gregory's contention that "Computer science will have very few applications for most people later in life." While most people won't become professional programmers or software engineers many (most?) people will work with data. It could be some deep analysis or it could be merely managing company or personal contacts. A rudimentary background in programming allows one to automate data processing and focus on the core task. A much simpler example of this is typing when writing. If you can type, you can focus fully on the content you're producing. If you can't your focus is split - part on the content and part on the keys.

We teach a variety of subjects. We teach languages in spite of the fact that we don't require students learn them to fluency. Everyone has to take some classes in the arts, multiple sciences, economics, math - some of which makes sense and some maybe not so much, English and more. Is CS any less important than taking a smattering of French? How about Algebra 2 and Trig? A year of bio, chem, and physics? Students should be exposed to many fields and I think it would be hard for an honest person to say that CS is less important that every single one of the other required classes we force upon our students.

When students are struggling with fundamentals - math/English some want to put more resources into them - usually at the expense of the arts - there are many people, myself included that feel that this is a huge mistake. All our students should be entitled to a well rounded education. They should take art and music, and have the opportunity to learn an instrument. They should be exposed to a myriad of subjects, ways of thinking, and yes, things that will lead to possible career paths.

CS is one of these subjects. It's just the new kid on the block. This is the other reason why CS for All (beyond "Eveveryone should program") is so important. It's not that CS should replace art or music or another important subject but that our students deserve to be exposed to it.

Some will quibble that there's no room but, at least in NY State there is - I looked over the requirements and in fact, you can have 3 years of CS in High School along with all the requirements plus a couple of other electives but I'm not advocating for that. I'm also not sure that NY's plan to have CS at every "grade band" is the right way to go. I think that if you have the right experience you can do right by the kids in a one year, single period high school introduction to CS that includes programming (and I'm not talking APCS-P).

So, there it is. CS For All or programming for everyone might end up a debacle and NYC's CS For All might turn out to be a waste in spite of the hard work of many strong educators but if that's the case it's going to be due to implementation, politics, and influence not because all our students won't benefit from learning CS.

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