Monday, October 6, 2014

New laws aside, big hurdles remain for computer science

New laws aside, big hurdles remain for computer science

by Tom Chorneau  Cabinet Report

(Calif.) Although legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last week takes big steps toward integrating computer science studies into mainstream public school curriculum, advocates say California’s education system still badly lags the economic demands of the booming technology sector and other actions are needed.
Expectations from the U.S. Labor Department are that the number of computer scientists in the U.S. will grow by 15 percent through 2022, forcing technology companies to continue to scour the rest of the world looking for new talent.
Meanwhile, ironically, nine out of 10 students attending K-12 schools in California – the acknowledged incubator for the entire high-tech industry – will leave not having taken even one computer science course, according to estimates from the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools.
“The package of bills and the support of the governor sends a really strong message,” said Julie Flapan, executive director of the computer education alliance. “For us – the computer science teachers, university professors and industry professionals – we do see the hard work that starts now to ensure more students have access to computer science education in California.”
Like most of the nation, schools in California have traditionally placed computer sciences within the elective category, choosing instead to focus on core curriculum like math, English language arts and physical sciences.
Driven by concern that only a handful of high schools offer advanced placement courses in computer science and that completion of computer science courses doesn’t count toward high school graduation requirements, the Legislature passed on to Gov. Jerry Brown this summer several bills aimed at fixing those problems.
Last week Brown signed these bills:
  • AB 1764 by Assemblywomen Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, and Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, will allow school districts to award students credit for one mathematics course if they successfully complete a University of California-approved course in computer science. This credit would only be offered in districts where the school district requires more than two courses in mathematics for graduation.

  • SB 1200 by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, which calls on the UC and California State University systems to develop guidelines for high school computer science courses that would satisfy an advanced math subject-matter requirement for purposes of undergraduate admissions. Clear guidelines will help high schools establish advanced computer science courses in a manner that is consistent with admissions standards.

  • AB 1539 by Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, authorizes the California State Board of Education to formally initiate development of computer science content standards for grades one through 12 by July, 2019.

Of the three bills, getting content standards aligned with the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards is likely to have the biggest impact on the school system because the move will formally tie computer sciences into overall educational goals. But, it should be noted, the Hagman bill only allows the state board to begin that process – it does not require it.
Christopher Roe, president and CEO of the California STEM Learning Network, said that if the classes were available, students would enroll – noting the success of the “Hour of Code,” a national movement launched last December promoted by the president and tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft that got millions of students all over the U.S. to engage in coding lessons either at school or at home.
“Students and teachers loved it; they had a great experience,” he said. “There’s research showing that when computer science courses are offered students enroll. So it’s a question of what are the barriers to getting courses at the schools.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing supporters of computer science education will be finding the teachers that will be needed as the instruction becomes more main stream.
State officials agree that the credentialing pathway needs to be updated with corresponding changes to training programs – but creating a compensative package that can compete with the tech industry is likely to remain the biggest challenge.
One option, said Roe, is to create a system that would allow computer science professionals to teach one or two classes without being fully credentialed – an idea, according to the sponsor's website, that is already being piloted in 131 schools with nearly 500 volunteers.
Flapan said there’s a need among policy makers to better understand what teaching computer science is really all about.
“Some people think this is just about teaching teachers how to use computers to teach what they are teaching in the classroom,” she said. “Computer science is really about teaching students to become innovators and creators of technology. It’s about developing problem solving skills, critical thinking skills and computational thinking thinking.”
She said the issue then becomes one of training teachers with the pedagogy and the content understanding to draw out the deeper learning among students.
Most teachers today providing instruction in computer science are credentialed either in math or science but work is starting on a new authorization that would encompass computer science.
Flapan said a proposal for the supplemental pathway is pending before the state’s credentialing commission, which is likely to take time to be further developed because the agency is engaged in a broader top-to-bottom review of its licensing and preparation requirements.
Roe’s organization released this month a report on the status of the education system as it relates to the technology workplace and it includes a proposed plan for improvements – some of which are already underway:
  • Establish standards for computer science education that are aligned and integrated with state’s new Common Core Math and Language Arts standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) has already developed a set of standards for K–12 that can serve as a starting point.

  • Develop strategies to ensure that all K–12 schools have access to the technology, curriculum, and resources they need to provide high quality computer science education.

  • Identify opportunities to build capacity of teacher preparation and professional learning systems to address the shortage of qualified computer science teachers and teachers with sufficient training to incorporate computer science into their lessons.

  • Strengthen partnerships between K–12 and higher education institutions to better align K–12 computer science education with computer-related degree programs.

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