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We are losing the fight to keep Computer Science in the Secondary School classroom

The state of Maryland has a frankly byzantine system of awarding credits towards graduation, at least when it comes to the question of technology and Computer Science. Two kinds of credits are available: Basic and Advanced Technology. Most Computer Science courses earn an Advanced Technology credit. That sounds impressive, but students are required only to obtain a Basic Technology Credit in order to graduate any Maryland Public school.

Once upon a time, students could obtain this Basic Technology credit through a variety of courses. Several of these were introductory Computer Science or programming classes. A few years ago, Maryland lawmakers decided that only one set of standards should apply, and someone (a special-interest group) ensured that those standards excluded every class except those taught by Technology teachers---think middle school science repackaged with some construction activities.

I work in Montgomery County, which is one district that fought this change until the bitter end, which came this year. As I look through this year's enrollment numbers, I see my Advanced Placement Computer Science numbers down. These are cyclical and the drop isn't all that alarming when I consider the drop in the introductory programming course, which is devastating. The trend is clear: unless something is done our programs will virtually disappear from all public schools in Maryland. It's that simple.

Personally, I've devoted the last 5 years of my life to effecting change in the only way that a mere classroom teacher has at his disposal. I've created a great program, I spend my summers writing curriculum, developing new courses that integrate CS with other content areas, etc. I have loyal students who spread the word. I have even more who attend prestigious universities. I have a good working relationship with my Administration who believes that these courses do offer genuine value and have been willing to work with me to keep them in their building. I've obtained three certifications and now find myself faced with the prospect of unemployment within the next two years if this trend continues (and it will).

I will, of course, obtain another certification during this time. I think that I'll teach Mathematics. I like it, even if the students don't. The thing is: once I lose that AP program, I doubt that I'll ever go back and teach it. The ramp up, dealing with ETS audits, educating Administrators, parents and students about Computer Science, the countless hours writing curriculum, the time spent in out-of-the-building activities, etc., are just too great given the meager payoff---unemployment.

Tom Reinhardt
CSTA Member


I find this missive sobering. Thanks for your thoughts. Fighting for CS is the good fight, though.

My recent (and I believe correct) mantra has been to promote CS as a necessary part of everyone's general liberal arts education. I know, this is easy for me to say because I teach at a private school that aspires to educate in the liberal arts tradition and I have more autonomy and freedom to do what I want.

Nonetheless, I'm always disturbed by public education's general move to a more vocational mindset. Education for skills is not the panacea. In my world, I've found that promoting the utility of CS gains no traction. The argument always ends up equating CS to what is essentially driver's ed. (the unfortunate CS/Car analogy) or any other course in which students are guaranteed to gain "skills."

No other part of the core curriculum is justified by the skills students will have coming out of the class. Education in the liberal arts tradition views skills as the residue of doing the type of thinking and the work unique to the discipline. We become better writers, for example, not by learning how to use a pencil but by studying good writing, trying to articulate why it's good and trying to think "like a writer" as we attempt our own writing. We study calculus, not because of all the calculus problems we're likely to encounter in "real life" but because there is a benefit to exercising your brain to think like a mathematician when solving certain kinds of problems.

Thus goes the argument: Arming students with a variety of modes of thinking and thereby enabling them to see intersections among and between the various disciplines is what makes them smart and better thinkers. This is the essence of a liberal arts education.

A few years ago I (and my colleagues in the CS department) began this push to evangelicize CS as a new fundamental part of everyone's liberal arts education - this is not just lip service, we really think this. We began to promote it in our classrooms and we're also pushing for a H.S. requirement (there currently is none).

This year we're beginning to see some pay off as 51 students registered for our courses next year vs. 19 last year! This in a school of ~500. Furthermore, our suggestion for a required course is gaining traction as well - it looks like it might be put in place for 09-10.

What has happened? Word has gotten out that CS is not just for geeks, and that it's not about learning how to use a computer. Rather, it's about *thinking* in a way that's currently untapped by the other disciplines. Solving problems "like a computer scientist" is fun, interesting, and ultimately a very helpful addition to one's arsenal of thinking modes. We really promote the idea that you don't have become a computer scientist, but more and more, you are going to WANT TO KNOW how a computer scientist thinks and solves problems -- this is the real skill that everyone needs.

So, all is not gloom and doom, but change may be slow. In some way it's hard to blame administrative types for skepticism about CS - there's no tried and true content or way to teach it and us CS people are still trying to figure out the best ways to teach it. I view it as my duty to try to lead in this area while teaching at a private school where change can happen more quickly.

If the best students from the best schools are seen to have benefited from some education in CS, it will affect public policy.

Even if that method doesn't work, technology/CS in education is virtually inevitable. You may be seeing a downswing now, but can you really imagine a future where elected people deciding public policy could make an argument that CS is NOT important for our children's future?...not if they hope to get elected again. It will come. Some old thinking might have to get out of the way first, but it will happen.

Keep your head up and keep fighting for CS!

Baker Franke
Computer Science Dept.
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

Aloha Tom,
I seem to be in the same boat as you. The school that I am at is going through "restructuring" so that our test scores comply with NCLB. Therefore, more Language Arts and Math classes (less of everything else) to raise scores to that level. I too may be on the chopping block if my school follows this trend. It seems as if the more tech illiterate people populate our legislator the less tech education our students get, thus pushing us all back to the stone age...I guess the plus side to this will be I have a job...as a repair man!

Everyone needs to help keep CS in our classrooms.........its the foundation of our country

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