Questions About “Computer Science For All”

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 8, 2016

Nationwide efforts are underway to expand computer science (CS) offerings in K-12 schools. Several weeks ago, President Obama unveiled twin budget proposals to supplement state and local efforts to bolster CS education: a $4 billion proposal to help states increase their CS offerings, and a $100 million competitive grant program for school districts trying to enroll more women and minorities in CS courses. While the President’s proposals (together called “CS For All”) are unlikely to gain much traction in Congress, they join a long list of symbolic actions the President has taken to support CS education throughout his presidency.

According to the White House’s website, CS For All is a “bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world.” The website goes on to remark that there is increasing recognition among business leaders and educators that “CS is a new ‘basic skill’ necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.” This point was reiterated by the President in a recent weekly radio address: “In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill – it’s a basic skill, right along with the Three R’s.”

Important Questions Remain

While the President’s proposal is exciting, there are serious questions to be asked before leaping onto the CS For All bandwagon. First, is it really sensible to suggest that CS is a “basic skill” like reading, writing, and arithmetic? Probably not. The Three R’s are deemed basic skills because they provide the foundation for future autonomous learning. Without a mastery of the written language, for example, one would be debarred from exploring any number of subjects—from history to poetry to science to cooking to law. Similarly, without an understanding of mathematics, one could never hope to specialize in the fields of finance, music, engineering, or carpentry. CS, on the otherhand, is far more limited in its application. It is not a skill which admits the study of a multitude of other subjects. It is a specialization, like biology.

The White House’s aspiration for an economy in which all workers use technology as “creators not consumers” is likewise questionable. Never in history has there existed an economy where more than a tiny fraction of the population (let alone all individuals) were entrepreneurs and creators, and it is doubtful that such a condition is necessary for our national economic well-being. In most occupations, computers are just tools for the achievement of some other end. They help us book flights, run statistical analyses, broadcast music, buy and sell stocks, and advertise products people wouldn’t otherwise know about (or buy). In these situations, knowing how to use a computer and the software relevant to your field is usually more important than knowing how to write the code for that software. We may have no more need to train everyone in coding than we have to train everyone in plumbing.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

It is also not clear how much CS training one must receive in order to acquire the level of skill sufficient to be a creator rather than a consumer. My guess is that it would probably entail several semesters of courses. And this in turn raises another question: Where should these vast new CS requirements fit in the curriculum? There are only so many minutes in every school day and only so many courses students can take before they graduate. Inserting new CS requirements into the curriculum may force schools to reduce their focus in other equally deserving areas. When policymakers at the state and local levels call for curriculum expansions to include CS, they should specify what courses will be moved to make way.

And finally, perhaps the most important question to be asked is: Who will teach these computer science courses? It’s estimated that only about a quarter of K-12 schools currently offer CS courses with a coding component, and thus, expanding CS to everyone would require a massive influx of CS teachers. But teacher shortages are rampant across the country and STEM teachers in particular are in extremely short supply. Furthermore, according to the White House, more than 600,000 high-paying U.S. tech jobs went unfilled last year. Why would someone trained in computer science forgo a high-income tech sector job to work as an underpaid, underappreciated schoolteacher? In order to attract the legions of teachers necessary to teach CS to every single student, corresponding dramatic changes would need to be made in teacher recruitment and retention policies.

Conclusion

While CS may be a useful subject and one which we should consider teaching to our children on a larger scale, policymakers should always make sure to approach the subject of curriculum reform thoughtfully. Such reforms are often very sensitive political topics once they enter local school systems, and for any curriculum reform to produce true skill development, it must usually be supported by aligned policies in other areas.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.