CORRECTION: ACM and CSTA released the study, Running on Empty. An earlier version of this story misidentified the organizations.
Not too long ago, ACM and CSTA released a study that found computer science education was on the decline. Published in 2010, the report, titled "Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age," found that the number of high schools offering introductory computer science courses had declined 17% between 2005 and 2009. Universities and tech companies had begun to worry publicly about a growing gap between the number of jobs available and the number of people who might be ready to fill them.
Today, the picture has started to change. At a time when computer skills are only becoming more important, many cities and states have taken on the problem by expanding their computer science offerings.
The change has also opened the door for innovative approaches, including instruction starting in kindergarten. But doing so can require marshaling significant financial resources and rethinking who should be teaching students.
Who's getting on board
As of last year, more than 60 school districts, including Houston and Los Angeles, have committed to offering computer science in an attempt to reverse the trend identified by ACM and CSTA.
Several states have taken steps to include the subject as a graduation requirement. Others have passed laws directing funds toward expanding access or training more teachers. Many of those have gone through just in the past year. In Washington, lawmakers passed a bill establishing computer science standards and opening the door for more teachers to get computer science certifications. And Arkansas now requires every public high school, traditional or charter, to offer computer science courses.
A handful of major cities have taken the initiative one step further, unveiling "Computer Science for All" programs that offer the subject as early as kindergarten. Chicago, San Francisco, and New York have all taken unprecedented approaches that mirror similar drastic expansions in preschool access in those same cities. The effect can be equalizing — all students in public school have access to the new initiatives — but making the new systems work can be a challenge. Each city has grappled with unexpected ramifications from their preschool expansions and likely will face the same with computer science.
What it takes to make it work
Many of the recently passed laws or initiatives build on systems that already existed. For example, Chicago was several years into a computer science expansion when it announced its plan.
And most, especially at the city level, have had to leverage outside funds. New York is depending in part on philanthropic donations to meet its $81 million budget, and San Francisco has partnered with Salesforce to help pay for its citywide expansion.
Of course, many of the most intractable issues go beyond the financials. New York faces a large gap in the number of teachers available to teach computer science. City education officials estimate they'll have to hire or train 5,000 new teachers in order to make computer science available at every grade level. To do so, they'll likely have to think outside the typical profile of a computer science expert. For example, some districts have turned to their art or social studies teachers to teach computer science and other STEM subjects.
And launching a new academic initiative means making sure all the pieces to make that work, such as curriculum and classroom materials, are in place. The Computer Science Teachers Association offers draft curriculum, but adapting computer science classes for young students may require creativity.
In an interview with Education Week, James Ryan, San Francisco's STEM director, said the youngest students, which can include preschoolers, "aren't actually writing script or code, they're learning about conditional statements, learning about a loop or those types of things that mimic what you have in code. You can do that by putting together blocks in certain orders and they light up or scoot along like a centipede. It's about recognizing if/then statements and how they can manipulate them with these blocks."
For districts that decide to take a similar tack, watching how those ideas play out will be key. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco are taking the first step; education leaders elsewhere will likely learn from their mistakes.
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