Why NYC’s Public School Computer Science Curriculum Isn’t Clicking

This year December 5th through December 11th was the first time Computer Science Education Week was a citywide effort throughout New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio used the occasion to remind how well it dove-tailed with his Computer Science For All initiative, which promises that by 2025 “all NYC public school students will receive meaningful, high‐quality Computer Science (CS) education.”

What the Mayor neglected to mention was that Computer Science for All, as it’s currently being implemented, is not even up to the level of a free, online course. Just ask my seventh-grade son.

The Mayor also neglected to mention that Computer Science for All is a White House initiative. President Obama, in his 2016 State of the Union address, promised “every student the hands on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.”

The website goes on to add:

Parents increasingly recognize this need — more than nine of 10 parents surveyed say they want computer science taught at their child’s school. However, by some estimates, just one quarter of all the K-12 schools in the United States offer high-quality computer science with programming and coding.

President Obama and Mayor de Blasio swear that their respective Computer Science for All programs will graduate students who can step out of public school and into a well-paying job.

That’s an awesome idea. Except there are a few problems with the execution.

To start with, most press releases use “Computer Science” and “Computer Programming/Coding” interchangeably. They are not the same thing.

Computer science is a “discipline that involves the understanding and design of computers and computational processes…. (It) ranges from theoretical studies of algorithms to practical problems of implementation in terms of computational hardware and software.”

Computer Programming and Coding is a “creative process done… to instruct a computer on how to do a task.”

When politicians talk about high-paying jobs you can just “step into,” they are talking about the most low-level coding jobs. (Worth noting, however, is that Google says that this knowledge base isn’t enough for a job with them and coding “boot-camps” are now conceding that their introductory courses will require more study for even entry-level positions.)

In other words, that Hour of Code that NYC School Chancellor Carmen  Fariña was so proud of teaching earlier this month, is, in a nutshell, nothing. Would you offer an Hour of Reading or an Hour of Math as being even vaguely adequate for the 21st Century job market?

What about a whole semester of Computer Science? Considering  that this discipline requires high-level math skills just to get started, followed by in-depth theoretical study, it’s safe to say no one is walking out of an NYC public high school ready to take a job as a computer scientist.

Well, not now, no. But in 2025 they will be! Right?

After all, the Mayor promised that over the next 10 years, the DOE will train nearly 5,000 teachers who will bring CS education to the City’s 1.1 million public school students.”

But over the next 10 years Computer Science and Computer Programming will have changed so much that any curriculum designed today (or, more likely, over the next few years, as it winds its way through the bureaucracy) will inevitably be out of date. Then what? Back to the drawing board for another decade? Insistence on teaching outdated curriculum because, well, it’s been bought and paid for? How exactly will that benefit students?

School-wide computer curriculum is a topic dear to my heart. I don’t know anything about it. But my 7th grader does. He started teaching himself to code when he was in 2nd grade, using free online resources. (He even aggregated them to help other kids.)  I generally don’t understand what he’s talking about. But I do understand that people have been paying him to code (not computer science; remember, there is a difference, no matter what the government says) since he was 10 years old. My son has skills other students should also have the opportunity to acquire.

And Mayor de Blasio’s computer science initiative will not give New York City schoolchildren that opportunity.


What do you think?

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