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Unfunded Mandates and CS For All

This morning, Mark Guzdial wrote about unfunded mandates and CS for All. Unfunded mandates frequently wreak havoc on schools in a number of ways but in the long run, I don't think it should have a severe effect on CS for All. Rather, it could have a big impact on the number of CS courses we offer beyond that.

Mark relay's a story from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School where at the time many students wanted more CS classes but the school wasn't planning on hiring a new CS teacher. The money quote is:

Over 50 percent of students signing up for Level 2 [computer science] courses next year identify as African Americans,

No, I'm not talking about the diversity issue raised by the quote, I'm talking about Level 2 [computer science]. This implies that the students already had Level 1 computer science. Level 1 would cover CS For All so now we're talking about CS electives vs other electives. This is something I had to deal with for most of my career even after we got a CS requirement at Stuy. It was always a battle to hire enough CS teachers to meet demand. The hard part was politics - there were always older more entrenched subject areas who would rather force kids into their electives rather than allow them to take my CS electives. This is a whole other kettle of fish than CS for All. It's an issue for some schools now and will become a BIG issue in five to fifteen years when a single CS required course is more the norm. The issue raised here is a new CS elective vs entrenched teachers and classes which shuld lead to a discussion of the relative value of CS electives vs other electives. That said, the reality is that it usually comes down to school and local power and politics. Also to be considered is the potential ebb and flow of interest - there might be demand for 5 more CS classes and 5 less something else this year but there might not be next year and then we're in real trouble staffing wise.

Schools, public high schools in particular are zero sum endeavors. You have a fixed number of periods a day, specific class requirements, and certain mandates as to a the minimum and maximum number of classes a student can take. In New York City, I believe students are required to have a "full" schedule which basically means they can't come in for English, Math, and History and then go home.

With CS for All, you're basically allocating reallocating some amount of time to computer science. It might be hard to find a qualified teacher. particularly in a small school where the population won't support a full time CS teacher and it might ruffle the feathers of the teachers that will be losing the time but it shouldn't make much of a dent or really any dent on the budget.

Mark also raises the possibility of embedding CS into other subject classes. Bootstrap is a program that I'm rather fond of that does just this in Algebra classes (although more recently they're working to branch out into other subject areas). Even though I'm a big Bootstrap fan I don't think that's the answer to CS for All or CS in the high schools in general. I think that one of the reasons why Bootstrap works so well is the alignment between the CS tool they use and the way Algebra is or can be taught. Another reason is the fact that while Algebra is the lowest level of the traditional high school classes, it's frequently the one for which the most time is allocated. Students in low performing schools might take Algebra over two years or have a double period. This won't be the case for other subject areas. What this means is that there's more likely extra time to embed another subject, cs, into the Algebra class. Long term, embedding CS into another subject area requires:

  • a teacher that really knows both subjects
  • enough time so you can add all the cool CS content while still

preparing the students for both the next level of whatever subject you're embedded in as well as for whatever standardized assessments come at the end of the year.

As I said, I'm a Bootstrap fan but I don't think that's the answer for CS in K12.

Back to the original topic there are certainly issues with implementing CS for All but I don't think school funding is the biggest hurdle. For me there are other big challenges. One is having a supply of qualified teachers. In the long run as states outline CS requirements and pre-service programs crop up this will work itself out. Until then, yes, we will have an issue and yes it will take some funding for stop gap and transitional teacher preperation. A second issue is working the internal politics. Adding CS does mean removing something else or more likely a piece of something else. The third one is what I'm noticing in NY where CS for all seems to at times forget about the CS. If we have knowledgeable teachers we can work around that one but I still think that might be my biggest concern.

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