Rapid Rise: Computer Science Education in NYC Part 2 (2015-2025)

This week’s post builds on last week’s discussion of the foundation of the Computer Science for All movement in New York City, focusing on how and why this work has taken off.  

Like Finland’s enactment of a policy requiring that all studentsparticipate each year in “a multi-disciplinary learning module,” setting a goal of providing a computer science experience for all students within ten years created a demand for the development of computer science related learning experiences. But it did not prescribe the teaching of a particular course. In this case, NYC’s new policy initially left open exactly what counts as “meaningful” and “high-quality” computer education, stating only that “NYC students will learn to think with the computer, instead of using computers to simply convey their thinking.” Further the announcement declared that “Schools can implement computer science education in a way that aligns best to their educational vision.”   “The DOE deliberately avoided being too specific about a definition of computer science when the initiative launched,” Preston said. “The K-12 Computer Science Framework had yet to be written and New York State did not have computer science standards, and work in computer science education had been very decentralized until that point. I think the DOE wanted to learn from doing… without schools immediately going to requirements and seat time.”

At the same time, as part of the new policy, CS4All built on initial efforts of the Software Engineering Pilot to develop the infrastructure that could support the spread of coherent and focused computer science learning experiences. As one article from Code.org put it, CS4All started with an explicit “focus on providing resources for every step of the education pipeline.” For example, since New York’s statewide computer science framework had not yet been created, CS4All developed a CS Blueprint as well as a wide range of K-12 curricula.

In order to meet the increase in demand, the new policy also sought to increase the supply of teachers with the experience and skills to spread computer science learning experiences across the City.  The approach, however, had to take into account the fact that it could take quite some time to build a “pipeline” of computer science teachers to serve students in a variety of different computer science learning experiences at different levels.  Therefore, “we started with creating a job market for computer science educators,” Preston explained, recognizing that they would have to “catch up” with providing the preparation experiences and materials and programs later. Describing the challenges of preparing teachers, Preston continued, “without state certification, without dedicated teacher education programs, and without a job market for computer science teachers, there wasn’t going to be a pipeline.”  At the same time, Marcus stressed that from the beginning, the “pipeline” was designed to prepare teachers who can both teach computer science courses and who can act as leaders and computer science advocates who can support the spread of computer science education from inside the system.

To support the growing group of computer science teachers, the third goal of the new CS4All policy sought to build on and expand the portfolio of computer science programs working in the City. In particular, CSNYC cultivated connections with a number of programs that provided opportunities, often outside of school, for NYC youth to work and learn with technology.  With encouragement and support from CSNYC and the CS4All related funding, these programs turned their attention to developing the materials and the professional development programs that could help to build an “infrastructure” to support a wide range of computer science learning experiences. “Ultimately the idea is to offer a lot of on-ramps of different shapes and sizes that schools can choose from” Preston reported. Ideally, this variety would help to meet the varied interests and needs of different schools and students.

All of these developments contributed to substantial increases in the number of students receiving Computer Science education and taking and passing Computer Science AP exams.  In New York City, almost 134,000 students received Computer Science education in 2017-18, a 44% increase from the previous year.  In addition, the number of students in New York City taking an AP Computer Science exam in 2017 more than tripled compared to 2016, and the number of students passing an AP Computer Science exam increased more than fourfold compared to 2016. New York City public school students also accounted for approximately 7 percent of AP Computer Science Principles exam-takers nationwide; and in a matter of only two years, AP Computer Science has become the third most popular of all Math/Science AP courses in the City. Notably, the students taking the AP computer science exam are among the most diverse of any subject, and, notably, the number of female students taking that exam increased from 379 in 2016 to 2,155 in 2018.

 

Why the rapid expansion?

As Monica Disare reported, New York City’s Computer Science for All “plan progressed from a concept to reality at a notably rapid pace, thanks to a rare combination of factors: a focused and well-connected champion, a growing national focus on career readiness, and the sustained interest of the city’s political leadership at a time when the mayor needs to demonstrate clear progress.” Although the combination might be somewhat rare, these factors coalesced along with Wilson and CSNYC’s deliberate effort to work with the NYC DOE and to cultivate relationships with and engage a variety of other funders, programs, companies, and educators who developed an interest in computer science education.

Like a typical development campaign at a major university or cultural institution, the initial investments in computer science education in the City helped to lay the groundwork for de Blasio’s announcement long before it was made. As a consequence, when the de Blasio administration was exploring which education initiatives to support, CSNYC and other computer science supporters were able to promise to raise half of the funding needed to meet the new policy’s ten-year goals.  The private commitment helped to leverage the public commitment, while the public commitment helped to encourage private donors. As Preston explained, “we were able to convince the City to do this by promising to raise half the money privately so for every dollar they commit they get two, but they can also flip that around and say to donors we can say that the public sector will match every dollar you pay.”

In some ways, though, Wilson and CSNYC were taking a chance by working closely with the NYC DOE during the Bloomberg administration. In fact, de Blasio directly opposed many of Bloomberg’s education policies, including Bloomberg’s efforts to link teacher evaluations to test scores and his embrace of charter schools.  However, Bloomberg’s emphasis on supporting the development and use of technology as an engine of the City and the economy in general was widely supported. As a consequence, computer science education was one initiative on which many could agree. “What’s nice about computer science education is it’s fairly bipartisan,” Preston said, “it’s a rare topic that many people can agree on.”

Beyond this support from what scholars like Tyack and Cuban call “policy elites,” the growth of the computer science commitment and movement in NYC also benefitted from the fact that computer science education can be incorporated and “fit into” many of the existing structures and practices of existing schools. For example, adding one of the AP courses dedicated to computer science education not only fits neatly into a typical high school course schedule, it also aligns with existing AP tests and takes advantage of all the incentives and supports that go with the existing high school graduation and college entrance processes. As Tyack and Cuban explain, these “add-on’s” (like the addition of kindergartens to elementary schools earlier in the 20thCentury) can be put in place without disrupting normal patterns of activity in schools. Furthermore, computer science education fits the conception that many people have of what “real school” could be. Sociologist Mary Metz coined this phrase that helps explain why many “innovations” and practices that challenge conventional educational expectations have difficulty taking hold and spreading.  Thus, computer science learning experiences benefit from the fact that many see them as directly connected to both valuable careers in technology-related fields and to valued academic outcomes in math, computation, and critical thinking.

Nonetheless, both the political support and the ability to add computer science to conventional school structures come with downsides. Embracing political support leverages many aspects of the government infrastructure – making it possible to link to other professional development and preparation initiatives, to build on other DOE trainings and resources, and to get access to data to track progress and inform future planning. At the same time, the computer science work in the City is no longer independent; it’s subject to the requirements and expectations of the DOE and dependent on continuing support from district administrators and politicians who may change as political fortunes rise and fall.

In addition, although computer science education initiatives take advantage of the structures and expectations of conventional schools, the course requirements, standardized tests, schedules, staffing patterns and many other aspects of conventional schools make it difficult to carry out student-centered, collaborative, or project-based learning experiences that many computer science programs seek to develop. Most critically, adding computer science learning experiences into all conventional schools demands a massive investment in the preparation and professional development of computer science teachers. Whether or not those investments will pay off remains in question. Countless reform efforts and literature reviews point to the difficulty of substantially increasing teachers’ skills and abilities through preparation and professional development. Even spreading AP courses in traditional subjects like physics and chemistry across all schools has proven difficult, as very few schools in New York City have the staff to offer these courses.

Ultimately, even if the initiative succeeds in helping 5000 teachers develop the skills and expertise they need to support students’ learning of computer science in 10 years, many of those teachers may leave the system (particularly if the skills they develop end up encouraging and enabling them to take higher paying technology jobs outside schools).  Even with substantial capacity-building efforts like those taking place in New York City, this kind of “revolving door” that makes it difficult for many improvement initiatives to reach and sustain their goals and momentum.

Under these conditions, one might expect relatively conventional CS4All courses and learning experiences to spread rapidly across conventional schools; but how well executed those classes are and how different they are from conventional classes, remains to be seen.

  • Thomas Hatch

 

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