Can the ‘Hunger Games’ of Coding Solve America’s Tech Worker Shortage?

It seems like the perfect solution to a national crisis: At a time when the United States needs a million computer science graduates within the decade—and college costs are spiraling upward—a French telecom billionaire is about to open a state-of-the-art, tuition-free computer coding academy in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The innovative school, simply called 42, doesn’t care about secondary school grades or SAT scores and provides free dorms for up to 300 low-income students. Although it has a goal of educating 10,000 coders over the next five years, 42 won’t have faculty or a syllabus, but it will have classrooms stocked with the latest Apple computers.

For entrance to what seems like a programmer’s utopia, there’s just one qualification: Students have to compete in what’s been called a Hunger Games–style do-or-die competition against other prospective students and take intelligence tests “to make sure the brain works,” as tech entrepreneur Nicolas Sadirac, the school’s director, explained to the Chicago Tribune.
That is where the problems begin, according to critics.



Obama’s budget gives $4 billion to K-12 computer science programs

By Michael Collier | EdSource

President Obama’s $4.1 trillion federal budget released Tuesday would give a major boost to computer science programs in K-12 school districts in California and across the nation, science advocates said.

As a prelude to his budget announcement, Obama sent his chief technology officer, Megan Smith, to Oakland’s Skyline High School on Monday to announce a $4 billion science initiative, known as Computer Science for All. Smith chose the Oakland district as the first district to visit because of its emphasis on computer science.

The goal of the effort is to provide students from all backgrounds the opportunity to work toward careers in computer science, with salaries that are 50 percent higher than the national average salary of about $55,000, according to 2014 U.S. Census figures.

University of California pressured to count computer science toward high school math requirement

By Katy Murphy and Sharon Noguchi Bay Area News Group
December 13, 2015 | Contra Costa Times

Claire Shorall, teacher and computer science manager for the Oakland Unified School District, helps some of her students on a coding exercise in their computer science class at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. Shorall co-teaches the class with full-time teacher Mana Jabbour. The school district has dramatically expanded the computer science offerings this year. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Claire Shorall, teacher and computer science manager for the Oakland Unified School District, helps some of her students on a coding exercise in their computer science class at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. Shorall co-teaches the class with full-time teacher Mana Jabbour. The school district has dramatically expanded the computer science offerings this year. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

It’s the backbone of Silicon Valley’s world-changing tech industry, but — like journalism and geography — computer science is considered just another high school elective by the University of California.

Now, a powerful coalition of technology leaders, state politicians and high school teachers has taken aim at the university’s influential set of high school courses required for admission, pressuring UC to count computer science as advanced math, alongside calculus and statistics.

They say elevating computer science would encourage more California high schools to offer it — and more students to sign up, preparing them to enter fields with few women and minorities.

Chicago Is Making Coding Education Mandatory. Is That a Good Idea?

“Just make it a requirement.”

That’s what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the government should do to make education in computer coding and programming available to public school students.

“You’d be amazed to if you make the goal, how much all the other choices will be made to get to that goal,” he told people attending a tech event in October sponsored by the Washington Post.

Emanuel wants the federal government to make the same mandate he is attempting to implement back in his home city. Chicago Public Schools is rolling out computer science classes at all levels of education, and the goal is eventually to require some mandatory computer science education in order to graduate from high school.

Should we bristle at the idea of yet another inflexible government mandate in public education or commend Emanuel for recognizing how important computer education is for today’s students as they prepare to enter the work force?

It’s interesting to note that Emanuel’s advocacy falls on the side of what parents say they want and in opposition to what administrators think is in demand. An August poll by Gallup and Google found that 90 percent of parents see computer science education as a good use of school resources, and 67 percent, like Emanuel, want it to be a mandatory core subject. But only 8 percent of school administrators realized or thought that parents wanted it as a priority. A Gallup director called it “shocking how huge the disparity is between the demand we’re seeing in this study and what’s actually happening in schools.”

We are seeing louder, more obvious pushes for computer science education in schools. This isn’t about how to teach kids to use computers; it’s about teaching kids the basics of coding and programming technology, teaching kids to build things like web sites and apps and even to program robots. Adults, regardless of whether they have kids, have probably heard of‘s push for computer science education in schools and President Barack Obama’s endorsement of its aims. On Monday, Microsoft unveiled a tutorial program to help kids learn introductory coding with the assistance of the beloved Minecraft game.

It’s very easy to make a compelling argument that coding education ought to be available to students in all schools—public, charter, private, or otherwise. But it’s also very easy to be unsettled by Emanuel’s suggestion of adding yet another mandatory core education requirement in order to graduate high school, particularly a demand made via a federal order.

And that’s not necessarily even what computer science educators want. To learn more about the development of computer science education, Reason interviewed Julie Flapan, director for the Computer Science Project at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. This program is responsible for the development of the Exploring Computer Science curriculum that has been used or adapted for use in school districts in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

For Flapan and Exploring Computer Science, the mission isn’t mandates so much as it is simple access in public schools.

“Computer science has historically been at the advanced placement level,” Flapan says.  “It appealed to students who already had exposure to computer science and already showed an affinity to math and science.” When they examined the demographics, there was a very obvious gap in who was studying computer science, and women and minorities were being left out. To the extent schools that served poorer students had computer education at all, it was focused on the student as a computer user, teaching data entry and how to use Microsoft Office, Flapan says. It’s at schools with better resources where students can go beyond basic computer use to learn actual programming and data analysis.

The mission of Flapan’s program is to change that attitude and make computer science education more available to minorities and female students and to counteract stereotypes that push students away from learning the subject.

“We wanted to develop a computer science course that opened all students up to the ideas of what computer sciences are,” she said. “We felt all kids should have this exposure. It shouldn’t be just kids who have access to summer camps or after-school programs.”

And there are practical, marketplace considerations as well. It’s not just about providing equal access, but trying to adapt education for what the American economy is evolving into. There’s a huge educational emphasis on STEM-related fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematical occupations. Flapan notes that within these fields, half of all the jobs are actually going to be in computing.

“At the rate we’re going right now, by 2020, we have a projection of about 1.4 million more [computer science-related] jobs, but only about one-third of our students are being educated to meet those needs,” Flapan says.

To be clear, though, this push is absolutely not about operating on an assumption that all high school students are bound for college, at least not at UCLA’s Computer Science Project. Part and parcel of trying to end stereotypes about who should be learning computer science and coding is not assuming these students are all on some sort of college computer engineering track. Some may finding coding education in secondary school a helpful precursor for vocational training or entering into the job market.

“The idea is, there are many different pathways for students to pursue,” Flapan says. “If they don’t know what the pathways are, they won’t be able to pursue them. Not everyone has a linear pathway. Some may want to go straight into the workforce. We’re preparing students for both college and career.”

An adapted version of the Exploring Computer Science course is what the Chicago Public School system intends, eventually, to make mandatory. The curriculum for Chicago’s version of Exploring Computer Science is available online here (pdf). Adapted with the assistance of folks at several Chicago colleges, the course starts with basic computer education and training with Microsoft Office software, then shifts to using computers to solve problems, web design (where students will learn how to create web pages), introductory computer programming, data analysis, and even basic robotics.

Numbers for the 2013-14 school year for Chicago had 4,377 students enrolled in this course at 30 schools. Chicago currently has 112,007 secondary school students enrolled. Assuming each student will have to take a single course, enrollment is going to have to increase seven-fold to 28,000 students per year.

That’s a lot of program scaling, and it’s not as though teachers can simply be shifted from some other course to computer science. As a field of education in public schools, Flapan notes, computer science is still relatively new, and there’s a significant amount of professional development needed. Furthermore, computer science is a constantly evolving field. The classes then will have to be flexible and adjust to wherever the technology goes in the outside world. If any of today’s parents got any sort of computer science education in school at all, it was likely at a time where schools had Apple II computers using floppy discs. School districts can’t just implement a computer science program, dust off their hands, and move on.

As such, when asked about whether Emanuel’s suggested mandate was a good idea, Flapan sees both good sides and bad. On the good side, because her program is devoted to increasing access to computer science to female students and minorities, requiring a class to graduate would eliminate a lot of barriers. “When we leave it up only to students, parents, or teachers, we reinforce certain stereotypes over who could be good at computer science,” she says.

But while Emanuel may flippantly declare “choices will be made to get to that goal” to wave away concerns about program scaling, it’s a serious issue for computer science educators. This may be why, as Flapan explains, there is not a consensus among educators about making classes mandatory. Just because every high school in the country is ordered to provide computer science classes doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any good and that students will learn from them. Imagine trying to learn introductory computer programming from a barely-trained teacher who just lectures from the text.

“You want to make sure of a level of quality,” Flapan says. “You want to have a structure in place to make sure schools can put it in their master schedules. There’s a whole infrastructure we need to put into place. It’s a tough one.”

Chicago’s Public Schools, despite having a disastrous debt situation and a massive pension liability problem, is pushing forward with this experiment. The unanswered question is whether the program will be scaled properly, get the infrastructure and training experts say they need, and whether those kids will actually get the computer science education their parents say they want them to have.

Op-Ed: Equity in computer science education vital for California

By Julie Flapan | Oct. 15, 2015
The San Diego Union-TribuneClick here for the Op-Ed.

I learned an unexpected lesson about education reform while watching my kids compete to build the tallest LEGO tower. My youngest stacks one LEGO on top of the next, making it the tallest – for a split second – before it tumbles to the ground. My older child, having experienced this loss several times, crafts a sturdy base to sustain the tower above, making it the tallest and most long-lasting. This “scaffolding” provides a strong base of support, so that no matter how high the tower grows, it has a solid foundation from which to build.

As an education equity advocate, I’m reminded of the importance of scaffolding as New York City and other large urban school districts like Chicago and San Francisco are making ambitious plans to scale up computer science education so that it’s available to all students.

Computer science has become the latest “shiny new thing” in education. Computer science is driving innovation across all industry sectors, yet, Silicon Valley is lamenting low diversity numbers in their workforce, and high numbers of underprepared job applicants.

To scale up computer science education, we need a thoughtful approach that 1) ensures equal learning opportunities for all students, 2) prepares teachers so that more are qualified to teach it, and 3) makes sure that computer science counts toward graduation and college admission. These are some of the fundamental support structures that require adequate funding to ensure computer science education is meaningful, equitable and sustainable.

Nowhere is scaffolding more important than in curriculum. Students need building blocks from which to gain an understanding of deeper concepts. In our haste to fill schools with computer science, some misguided efforts are focused on scaling up Advanced Placement Computer Science. That reform alone would be like taking an AP Calculus class without ever having taken math – almost impossible for most of us.

Many students – disproportionately girls, low-income students and students of color – have no prior exposure to computer science and therefore are not prepared for these AP courses. According to Level the Playing Field Institute, while African-American and Latino students are 59 percent of California’s public school students, they were just 11 percent of last year’s AP Computer Science test takers. And though girls represent half of our high school population, they accounted for only 22 percent of AP Computer Science test takers in 2014. What accounts for this uneven participation rate?

Jane Margolis, author of “Stuck in the Shallow End,” found that access to computer science education falls along race, gender and socioeconomic lines. Her research identified schools that serve low-income students of color were teaching rudimentary keyboarding skills while upper income schools benefited from the deeper learning provided by real computer science. These foundational computer science skills include critical inquiry, creative problem solving and computational thinking that will prepare students for success in college and careers.

To respond to this disparate preparation gap, Margolis and her colleagues developed an introductory curriculum and teacher professional development program, Exploring Computer Science. Now a national program, ECS democratizes computer science by scaffolding learning so that all students are prepared for more advanced study.

Efforts to scale up computer science can only be successful if teachers are adequately prepared to provide engaging instruction. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is already working to increase the pool of qualified teachers with a new supplementary authorization in computer science. And as we increase the supply of teachers and curriculum, we need more students and parents to build demand.

High school students are already juggling full academic requirements to graduate prepared for college and careers. So it’s hard to know how to make computer science fit in their high school schedules if they don’t see the value in it.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing an approved computer science course to count as a math credit, though there are few courses that meet this requirement. Another way is for the UC and CSU to work together and recognize computer science as an essential 21st-century skill. If universities recognize computer science toward college admission, it will further incentivize students to study it in high school.

California needs to develop a solid approach to integrate computer science in our K-16 system. Computer science education requires a strong base of support that will sustain equitable expansion. Only then can computer science education be strong enough to stay standing, even when the next shiny new thing comes along.

Why computer science matters

Leadership Magazine
By Gary Page and Julie Flapan

From the arts and entertainment to agriculture, healthcare or finance, computer science is driving innovation across all fields. Computer science education provides an opportunity for schools to focus on the deeper learning and problem solving that the discipline of computer science requires. High paying jobs abound for students who have computer science knowledge and skills, preparing them to create the new technologies that drive California’s economy.

Over the last 20 years, states and school districts have worked hard to bridge the “digital divide” by increasing access to technology in schools and communities. But mere access to technology and its existing tools (such as smartboards and iPads) isn’t sufficient. Students need to know how to use technology, and they need engaged computer science learning opportunities to build creative thinking, logical reasoning and problem solving skills that involve computing.

However, computer science learning opportunities are not equally accessible across California’s schools.

Read the full article…

Mere access to technology won’t
bridge the digital divide. Students
need engaged computer science
learning opportunities to build creative
thinking, reasoning and problem-solving
skills that involve computing.