When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced every child in New York City schools will learn computer science within 10 years, Fred Wilson sat smiling in the audience.
The prominent venture capitalist, who founded the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education, known as CSNYC, was there to watch the mayor formally endorse Wilson’s own ambitious goal: to provide computer science education to all.
The path to de Blasio’s announcement spans two mayoral administrations, a number of big donors, and a gaggle of tech industry insiders who worked on smaller computer science pilot projects throughout the city. But it was largely Wilson, met by a receptive mayor, who created and eventually funded the underpinnings for de Blasio’s splashy announcement.
It “was really a reveal of something that’s a long time in the making,” said Michael Preston, CSNYC’s executive director. “It wasn’t the mayor’s office deciding it was priority without a ready group that was there to support it.”
Whether New York City is to begin rapidly expanding access to computer science education, and to reach all students by 2025, is up for debate. Even its staunchest supporters recognize the challenges ahead, including raising about 70 percent of the private money needed and finding, then training, thousands of new teachers.
But the plan progressed from a concept to reality at a notably rapid pace, thanks to a rare combination of factors: a focused and wealthy 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.
Still, some question whether computer science is at the core of what New York City students need, or whether the announcement served as a flashy way to skirt harder education problems, like the persistently struggling schools in the city’s poorest areas.
“Is this necessary or is this another example of public policy driven by private philanthropy?” asked David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at The CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. “I don’t think this was one of the more pressing issues.”
The announcement brought a wave of positive press at a time when de Blasio is beginning a new fight for control of the city’s schools. Last year, de Blasio was granted only one year of mayoral control, which means he will have to re-convince state lawmakers this spring that he should run the district.
Critics also note the pilot programs have left many questions about computer science education unanswered.
“Everything is about, let’s drop in a curriculum, let’s get a bazillion teachers trained,” said Mike Zamansky, a longtime computer science teacher at Stuyvesant High School, whose curriculum sparked Wilson’s early interest in computer science education. “Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?”
Under Bloomberg, the beginnings of an idea
To understand the moment that de Blasio took the stage at Bronx Latin proclaiming computer science for all, one must look to the Bloomberg administration and keep an eye on Wilson.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a “tech guy” who invited industry giants to events at Gracie Mansion and understood the importance of teaching students technological literacy, said Zamansky, who founded Stuyvesant’s computer science program over 20 years ago. Bloomberg also courted big donors and grew the Fund for Public Schools, which raises money for New York City’s schools.
The movement towards tech fit in with his administration’s ideas for modernizing career and technical education and its push for small schools. As the city moved to close Washington Irving High School for poor performance, it made plans for the Academy for Software Engineering, which opened in the Irving building in 2012.
That high school, where every student takes computer science each year, emerged from conversations with city officials that Wilson had begun more than two years earlier. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering opened in 2013.
Another pilot program selected 20 schools in 2013 to begin teaching computer science and software engineering, funded partially with a $1.6 million gift from AT&T. The city’s goal then was to provide 3,500 students a computer science education by 2016.
The number that de Blasio now targets is 1.1 million by 2025, an increase in scale that is surprising even to those at the heart of the computer science education initiative.
“Nobody expected it to happen as quickly as it did,” Preston said.
The test pilot era
What happened to cause such a jump?
Outside of City Hall, attention to so-called STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math — was steadily growing nationwide. Cities like Chicago and San Francisco announced widely lauded programs to offer computer science in city schools.
In New York, the vision to provide computer science to all, many said, can be traced to the founding of CSNYC in 2013. CSNYC, funded by Wilson’s private family foundation, has had a hand in funding and promoting many prominent computer science programs that have popped up across the city since. The foundation’s stated goal was to eventually bring computer science education to students citywide.
“Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work,” said Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which is funded by CSNYC and places teenagers at internships at businesses such as JPMorgan Chase and American Express.
As the pilot programs worked out the kinks of computer science education, City Hall became increasingly interested in expanding computer science into more schools.
During the mayor’s first year, de Blasio was primarily focused on other initiatives like universal pre-K, though officials from the mayor’s office said he kept an eye on the software engineering pilot program. In 2015, top officials’ focus shifted to older students, and specifically on how they could expand STEM and professional opportunities, Preston said.
By this spring, CSNYC and the mayor’s office were working out how they might scale the computer science initiative in earnest, and by the summer of 2015, public money was committed for the following fiscal year, Preston said. Wilson helped to secure the private funding, which included contributions from the Robin Hood Foundation and AOL.
Not out of the woods yet
There is a big difference between expressing interest in computer science and taking action to spread it across the city’s largest school system in a meaningful way.
Tracy Rudzitis, a teacher at The Computer School on the Upper West Side, helped develop curriculum for the software engineering pilot, knows the city’s limitations firsthand. In her school, with more than 400 students, the Internet connection is so poor they are lucky if 30 students can use the WiFi at once. Their school is fortunate because the parent association funded a computer lab. Others have fewer resources.
“It’s one thing to say we’re going to do all this,” Rudzitis said. “It’s another to actually do it.”
The city’s immediate goals include expanding the software engineering pilot program, starting a separate pilot in an elementary school — since young learners haven’t been a focus of most of the city’s initial forays into computer science — and starting more extensive professional development for teachers. In the coming months, the city will release more details in a strategic plan.
Meanwhile, many are questioning the scope and viability of the plan’s early outline, especially the need to attract and train 5,000 teachers. Currently, no state teaching certification exists for computer science, which Brenda Strassfeld, the chair of mathematics education at Touro College Graduate School of Education, said could make the initiative — which she strongly supports — “fall flat on its face.”
There is also the question of how the city plans to raise additional funds. Right now, though the city has an extensive list of donors, only about 30 percent of the private funds have been raised. AT&T does not have plans to donate any more funds to the project, but they may consider doing so in the future, said Marissa Shorenstein, the company’s president for New York State.
In order to scale the program, the city will need to find more funders. But it also needs people like Sara Lissa Paulson, a librarian at P.S. 347 on the Lower East Side, who was inspired after reading a book about the importance of coding.
Paulson taught herself how to code, then started an after-school program to teach her students. She soon found that it forced students to be precise and to learn through problem solving.
“There’s a kind of magic about it,” she said.