Computing Profession

The Danger of Requiring Computer Science in K-12 Schools

Mark Guzdial has changed how people think about computer science in schools in the United States. Their successful video and Hour of Code event in December has attracted enormous attention. There are more calls for computer science in schools, and more states are making computer science count towards high school graduation (including some odd efforts to make computer science count for foreign language credit).

Some are now calling for computer science to be a required subject for U.S. school children. Lawmakers in California are considering Bill AB 1530 which would add CS to the required course of study for grades 1 to 6 (roughly, six to nine years old). quoted Ashley Gavin, the curriculum director at Girls Who Code, insisting that computer science be mandatory in schools. "You make it an option, the girl is not going to take it. You have to make it mandatory and start it at a young age."

We are not ready to make computer science a requirement for all children in the United States — even if it’s where we might want to be one day. We don’t know how to do it, and if we simply made it a mandate today, we would not achieve our goals.

I have written before about how far behind other STEM subjects we are in computer science. In the U.S., maybe one high school in ten has a computer science teacher. Far fewer schools serving grades 1-6 have CS teachers. If we mandated computer science tomorrow, where would we get the teachers? Who would to teach CS to so many teachers?

And what would they teach? I recently spoke with Roy Pea at Stanford about the California legislation. Roy was one of the first to study how children learned to program. He said that when schools first started creating programming classes in the 1980s, teachers often didn’t know much about programming themselves. So, they tested students on what they could test. One of Roy’s examples was, "What are the dimensions of a 5.25 inch floppy disk?"

Here in Georgia, we were one of the first states to use the CSTA Model K-12 Curriculum to design a computer science set of courses ("pathway") in high school. The initial course was "Computing in the Modern World." But soon after adoption (2007), the professional development budget was cut dramatically. Too few teachers learned to teach the new courses. As the curriculum were revised, the learning objectives were lowered. Most of the CS content was removed.  The new (2013) initial course is "Introduction to Information Technology," and learning objectives now include the skills necessary to run a customer support call center ("Determine the best method to maintain a customer list and communication platform.")

While we can argue that computing is important for everyone, requiring computer science in K-12 schools really means everyone. Tony Dillon in South Carolina’s Department of Education worries about the lower end students. South Carolina already has a requirement that every student must take computer science, but as Roy Pea would predict, the requirement can currently be met with courses in CAD or Photoshop. Tony is worried about the impact on special education students of raising the CS standard. For these students, a high school degree is a challenge, and if they are successful, the degree helps them get a job. Do we know how to teach CS to students with learning or development disabilities? Can we confidently state that, without CS, those students should not earn a high school degree?

I doubt that Ashley Gavin is right. Girls might take CS if it’s available. Studies like Stuck in the Shallow End show us how female students and members of under-represented minority lack access to CS classes. Our first step is to provide access. If computer science counts towards high school graduation, then schools have a reason to offer it. We can improve (in most states, "create") CS teacher certification to offer schools a way to identify well-prepared teachers. Will a girl choose to take a high-quality CS class as an option for meeting a math or science requirement? I think so. A single all-girls school in Tennessee sent so many girls to the AP CS, they made Tennessee the top state in the US for female AP CS exam takers. When 90% of schools don’t offer CS at all, we can’t know how much will change if we provide access.

The argument for requiring computer science of all higher-education students is much stronger. Every campus with a Computing department has faculty at-hand who know fundamental CS — no professional development needed. Many (if not most) of our undergraduates will likely need knowledge of computing including some programming at some point in their future careers. There is likely a productivity cost of not having that knowledge, even for today’s college-educated workers. If we can’t make the case on our campuses, when the argument is so much stronger, why would we think that it’s better or easier to push CS on all the K-12 schools in the U.S.?

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More