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Computing and the Common Core

By Cameron Wilson

K-12 computer science education might get a boost from a recently released document called the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). This initiative is historic for the United States. For the first time forty-eight governors have come together to propose a common set of English arts and mathematics standards -- which are key drivers of the curriculum students are exposed to -- for their states. Until the common core standards initiative, state standards were generally disconnected from each other.

The exciting news is that computer science is listed as a potential fourth course in their model pathway, which is described below. Or, put another way, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is proposing that computer science be part of the students' core curriculum. States are not bound by these standards or this model, and this doesn't mean that once the draft is made final computer science will count as a mathematics credit in high schools across the nation. But political momentum for the initiative is building and being a part of it gives computer science a much needed boost.

To better understand how computer science fits into the Common Core State Standards Initiative we need to dive deeper into policy landscape and context.

Most education policy discussions revolve around standards and a student's "core" curriculum requirements. Every state has standards for education, and many assess student progress toward meeting these standards. But each state sets is own standards. For example, a Virginia 11th grade mathematics standard might be in a different grade in North Carolina or might not exist in another state. The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes the main cause of the problem is that we've given states too much flexibility on setting standards and too little in implementing them through rigid testing requirements. The initiative is part of an attempt to change this dynamic.

The second piece of the policy framework revolves around core curriculum -- i.e. what "counts" toward a student's requirements for high school graduation. Of the states that have credit requirements, many are moving toward a "four by four" plan. For example, students will have to take four courses of mathematics and four courses of science to graduate. Typically other disciplines such as English arts, social studies, etc. are in the "core."

When it comes to computer science education in K-12 we have two major policy issues: 1) most states do not have specific computer science standards, and 2) if computer science courses are in schools, they don't count toward a student's core credits. Some states like Texas, Georgia and Virginia have moved to count computer science courses in high school as either a math or science; however, in most states computer science is an elective. This leaves computer science courses starved for attention, resources and student interest.

The mathematics standards in the draft document are split by grade level from K-8; certain concepts would be taught in certain grades. In high school, the framework splits the remaining standards into threads to be taught in some sequence. To help guide course development in high school, the initiative developed a model four-course pathway for mathematics, which is part of the Appendix to the standards. The standards only reflect three years of courses, but the model reflects what they would consider appropriate courses for additional study. Computer science is one of those additional courses in the mathematics pathway.

ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association have met with the leaders of the initiative and advocated that it computer science should be part of a student's core subject. The draft of the common core standards initiative gives us a foothold in meeting this goal.

Now the community can support this breakthrough by sending letters for support for the inclusion of computer science in the final document. The initiative is taking comments on the draft until April 2. There are two ways to comment. The first is by taking the survey, which as an additional comment area where you can express support for computer science. (Follow this link and click on the "submit feedback" to get to the survey.) The second is by sending letters to commonstandards@ccsso.org.

Cameron Wilson
Director of Public Policy
Association for Computing Machinery


Great posts, I will follow your instruction. Thanks!

What part of the Governor's Standards Document contains any reference whatsoever to computer science ---or discrete mathematics, for that matter?

I ask, because I read that document (the mathematics standards) last week and saw nothing, not a scintilla of hope for any consideration whatsoever for anything other than what is essentially 19th century mathematics. (I'm sure that this comes as no surprise to Mathematicians who have long ago given up hope, I surmise.)

I think that document, from what I read (and perhaps we are reading a different document?) is a death knell for any hope anyone may of had of integrating Computer Science in the secondary mathematics classroom. Again, I could be wrong and I could have missed something, but I don't think so, and neither do a lot of other pretty smart people (i.e., professors, educators, et al.) who have looked at the Governor's recommendations for the Mathematics Standards.

While I'm on this subject: I find no support whatsoever from the NCTM for anything that even looks like computer science. In fact, in private discussions with members of that organization, I have often come away with a sense of either dismay or contempt for the very notion of doing anything other than the same course sequence that has been enshrined since 1894 as the true path.

So, yes. I have taken the surveys and I have written the letters suggesting that they ask mathematicians or look in the newspaper for that matter and ask themselves some hard questions about how and what we teach as mathematics. At the end of the day, why would they do anything different than what has been done since the 19th century? (I have even considered teaching "mathematics," but that is not really what is being taught in middle and secondary school classrooms--or so I've been told by more than a few who would know.)

I wish you the very best luck, of course. It would be a great day indeed. I can see it now: the 12 or so remaining Computer Science teachers (and this is a national count) struggling to pass the Praxis 0061, asking themselves "what has any of this to do with Computer Science, or Mathematics, for that matter?"



Thanks for good post...

Hi Tom --

You can find the mention of Computer Science in the appendix to the draft:


It is listed as one of the courses that could serve as a fourth-year mathematics course.

It is important to remember limitations and use of this reference. Computer science, for the most part, doesn't count toward anything in the core. States aren't required to adopt any of the standards or the model suggested in these documents, but this gives us a chance to approach states and show that getting computer science in the core is getting high-level buy in from the major education stakeholders. The lack of definition for computer science in the document is an issue and one that ACM and CSTA (along with Microsoft, NCWIT, CRA, ABI and SAS) recommended they address in a letter of support we sent them.

Cameron Wilson

I don't know if you, or anyone else on this blog, is a classroom teacher. If you are, then you likely belong to the NEA and/or your local union. I have been thinking a lot about those organizations lately and wondering why the CSTA cannot or does not incorporate some of the effective political tactics that I see used by these organizations. Let me give you an example:

Every week or so, I get a post from either the MSEA or the NEA alerting me to legislative bills, etc., that will impact Public Schools funding or regulation in some way. I am immediately directed to a page where I can cut-and-paste a letter to a handful of pre-selected representatives. It's quick, it's painless, and if I wish to include my own thoughts, I have that capability as well.

I cannot tell you how many times I've done this over the last few years and, more often than not, the legislation or bill or what have you is turned around.

In case you were wondering, no I don't believe that we have a smoking gun correlation here. What we do have, however, is evidence of a well-focused, politically viable organization that appears to advocate for its constituents, and that is how political battles are won.

Meanwhile, I see dwindling enrollments, a persistent confusion among the few remaining classroom teachers of computer science and an apparent belief that ethics, logic, rational thought--call it what you will--is going to prevail in the rapidly approaching end-game.

Well, I stopped studying politics with my undergraduate degrees, and re-invented myself to do something that I thought was somehow better or at least different...only to come full-circle. Perhaps I would have done more for CS in the United States if I'd stayed in the political game?

Now, the question is, what will I do next? I don't see CS in my future, unless I'm able to reinvent it.



As Cameron noted, CSTA has been exceedingly active on the policy front and has succeeded in making major changes, both to legislation and to programs that will eventually mean more support and funding for high school computer science education. We are working directly with members who are meeting with their representatives and we are also meeting with policy makers at the district, state, and federal level. What we've accomplished so far is quite remarkable. But it also needs to be noted that NEA is a union and CSTA is not. We are a non-profit and by law we are not allowed to lobby. The line between advocacy and lobbying is a fine one, but we make sure we stay on the right side of the law. The other issue is that large scale political activities such as those carried out by groups such as the NEA require a great deal of money.I only wish we had their resources.

This is all fine and good -- but why is it that we have a possible Computer Science class only at the high school level? What about middle school ? Why is it still only a possible course that states do not have to offer? This is ridiculous. Viewing computers as merely a tool and not a separate and important curriculum is wrong and stupid. Why is it in this country that we do not require two of the most important topics all students need - Personal Finance/Law and Computers? Are we trying to keep the population stupid? Seems like a blairing oversight. Thoughts?

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