computer science for all

Kicking off ‘Computer Science for All,’ city will add AP classes, software programs

New York City’s plan to provide a computer science education to its 1.1 million students will kick off next year in at least 50 schools, which will offer an Advanced Placement-level class or a software engineering program for the first time.

Starting this month, schools can apply to offer the “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” a one-year course for high schoolers, or a multi-year software engineering program. The programs, which already exist in a few anozen schools across the city, represent the first steps in a larger plan that officials say they will be working on for at least a year.

“This is the first step to build on what we’ve already done,” Debbie Marcus, the education department’s executive director of computer science, said this week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to provide computer science in every school by 2025 in an agenda-setting speech last September. To get there, the city will have to find ways to train hundreds of teachers at all grade levels, help schools develop and choose programs and teaching materials, and overcome barriers to securing Internet access and computers.

The city’s first steps will target schools with leaders who say they’re already prepared to meet those challenges.

Applications for both programs ask schools to explain the technology classes they already offer and the experience levels of the prospective instructors. Schools offering the AP program will be expected to do targeted outreach to girls and other underrepresented student groups, the application indicates.

Marcus said the city also wants to make sure the programs reach a broad spectrum of students, and that all schools — from the most struggling to its sought-after specialized schools — will be considered.

As for the two programs the city is focusing on, each represents a different approach to computer science education.

“The Beauty and Joy of Computing” is a one-year course designed to teach the principles in computer science in high schools. Though it’s an advanced course originally created for college freshmen, the curriculum is designed to be accessible to a broad range of students, said Dan Garcia, a teaching professor at UC Berkeley who co-designed the class. Students who take the course should be prepared for a new AP exam being rolled out in 2017.

If the traditional Advanced Placement Computer Science curriculum is like calculus, Garcia said, then “Beauty and Joy” could be compared to pre-calculus.

The city’s Software Engineering Program is more than just one class. It’s a structured sequence of electives for middle and high school students designed to provide a background in programming, robotics, web design, physical computing, and mobile computing. The program launched in 2013 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is now in 18 schools.

Of course, to reach over 1,800 schools, the city will need to do more than expand these existing programs, and find ways to reach younger children Officials said that these are not the only programs that they will unveil next year and that more information will be released this spring. In the meantime, they are working on a “foundational document” that outlines the city’s plans for expanding the program throughout the city.

Marcus said the document could take up to a year and a half to complete, as the city looks at model programs from across the country and consults expert teachers, researchers, and programmers.

“One of the reasons it’s a 10-year initiative is it’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “Not all programs require this level of commitment on the part of teachers and schools. Software engineering is really in-depth — we’re also looking at lower levels of commitment for teachers to understand a specific concept or tool.”

Marcus said the city plans to focus on training teachers in a variety of subjects to teach computer science, instead of recruiting new teachers who specialized in the subject.

That raises a red flag for Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which helps teenagers land technology internships. She said that it will be difficult for classroom teachers to learn the skills necessary to teach a full computer science course without significant professional development.

“I’m interested to see how they will do this,” Couvares said. “Hopefully that they won’t deliver a watered-down version to students.”

Garcia, for one, said his course’s training is anything but. The “Beauty and Joy” training includes two weeks of in-person work and a two-to-four-week online course during the summer.

“This is not at all a lightweight, one-week situation,” Garcia said. “This is a very powerful, deep course.”

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.