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Talking Across the K-12/Post Secondary Boundaries

This post is based on remarks I gave at the Town Hall session on K-12 CS-Ed at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Atlanta, October 1-2, 2010.

My job here today is to make a case for talking across boundaries within the context of K-12 CS education, to make the argument that the complex problem of changing K-12 computer science education is best addressed by the combined forces of K-12 teachers AND college and university faculty AND people who work in the computing industry. We need to do a lot of talking across perceived boundaries, and make sure we do it effectively, along the way letting go of any suspicion, any disdain, any fears we have of the other. In particular, there are times when college people can be paternalistic and dismissive in comments about and treatment of K-12 teachers. Instead, we all must be respectful of the knowledge and experience our colleagues bring. We have to learn the meaning familiar terms have when they are used in a different context than we might be used to, learn the meaning of a new lexicon, and map known experiences and concepts into new venues.

We can make big changes happen in K-12, especially if we all get together and work on it. But I have come to understand over the past year that it is complicated and change will be slow. There are really two parts to changing K-12 CS education: curriculum, of course, and infrastructure. And there are roles we can all play in both of those.

For curricular change, the K-12 teachers know their students, their age groups, their grade band. They have a frame of reference that the rest of us don't have, and are often quite expert in student engagement and the use of a range of pedagogic practices. They can help college faculty be realistic about what we can expect from entering college students, what their knowledge base will be. As we develop better working relationships that span K-16, we can all contribute to a curricular continuum vis a vis computer science education.

People in the academy or in industry must keep in mind that, even in tough economic times, you have institutional resources that K-12 teachers and schools do not have. Invite area K-12 CS teachers to your campus or company, provide breakfast or lunch, give teachers a chance to connect with each other and with you. Join CSTA yourself and encourage the area teachers to join. Encourage them to form a CSTA chapter. Offer them a place in which to hold chapter meetings.

What's involved with infrastructure change? First of all, people outside K-12 need to understand that change has to happen state by state, and will likely require a different process in every state. We need to raise our voices to demand that the term STEM, when used by government people, must include computer science. We need to agitate for colleges to list high school computer science among the expected courses taken by applicants. We need to encourage states to allow high school CS courses to satisfy a requirement for graduation, as is the case in Georgia. We need to inform the appropriate officials in our states about the teacher education programs in Georgia and Indiana that lead to endorsements for teaching CS.

When possible, take advantage of the opportunity to talk across groups. Discuss what the needs are in K-12 and how to help and how to ask for help. There are exciting efforts now underway: Exploring Computer Science is a wonderful high school CS curriculum developed in the Los Angeles Unified School District and available through the CSTA web site; keep an eye out for the new AP Computer Science course and test. The course is being prototyped this year at a number of schools, and there is also information on the CSTA web site about that effort; CS/10K is an effort to develop 10,000 high school CS teachers for 10,000 schools; another NSF effort is the solicitation released on Monday of this week, Computing Education for the 21st Century, which has a goal of engaging "larger numbers of students, teachers, and educators in computing education and learning at earlier stages in the education pipeline." NSF is looking for efforts that target middle school, high school, and the first two years of college so today's discussions are a great opportunity to begin to look for ideas and collaborators!; keep an eye on the Dot Diva / New Image for Computing (NIC) initiative, sponsored by WGBH and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which is trying to create an exciting and positive image of computing for high school girls; check out National Lab Day and volunteer at a school near you; and lastly, help bring CS Ed Week activities into a school near you or into a school where you work in order to raise awareness of the role of computing and help increase student exposure to CS education.

Finally, a few words directly to those of you who are not K-12 teachers.

Consider some employment and salary data. Among women workers in the U.S. there are a lot of teachers. In fact, there are over 2 million women teaching in just elementary and middle schools. There are way fewer women in computer science and IT related jobs. But women in CS and IT jobs earn considerably more money than the teachers do, and more than half are among the top 10% of all full-time women earners in the country. In America, I think it is safe to say that the salary paid for a job category usually correlates with the prestige accorded to that job. The more you earn, the more prestige accorded to your job. The more prestige accorded to your job, the more people are likely to listen to you.

Unfortunately K-12 teachers earn much less than they should, and are accorded much less prestige than they should be. I want to argue that those of us not in K-12 should go against the tide, and set an example by valuing the contributions of our colleagues in K-12. But we can also exploit the fact that people may be more inclined to listen to us because we have job titles like software engineer, or information systems manager, or network systems analyst, or professor. Use the bully pulpit you have by virtue of position to fight for K-12 CS education. Help in the trenches with technology and curricular issues. But also engage with the infrastructure issues. Be a voice for K-12 CS education within your technical community, and within your political community, your local school board, your state. For those of you in industry, communicate to your company about how they can have an impact, encourage them to give money and support to efforts that really make a difference, not just to easy feel good activities. Ask people from the K-12 world, in what ways could corporate support help them. Become informed through collaboration with K-12 educators. When you use your position to advocate for K-12 CS education, people will let you talk because you are a technical person with expertise, but they will really listen to you if you are informed by collaboration with K-12 educators and you are passionate, truly passionate, about K-12 CS Education.

Valerie Barr
CSTA CT Task Force Chair


I work full-time in industry (formerly @Microsoft and currently @Google) and I wanted to voice my support for your statements in this post. Before I started going out and teaching for myself (once/week to middle school students), I sometimes found it hard to fully appreciate comments being made by people who taught full-time.

For example, before I started teaching, I thought that I wouldn't have trouble judging how difficult a concept/project would be for the students. While this wasn't an issue most of the time, there were times when topics I thought would be hard ended up being way too easy for the students and other times when the exact opposite happened. This first-hand experience with a variety of students has been really helpful when creating and judging the age-appropriateness of classroom material.

While there's no substitute for this first-hand teaching experience, having open channels of communication (your "talking across boundaries") is the next best thing. And it's a far more scalable solution since not everyone has time/resources available for front-line teaching.

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