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A Decade of ACM Efforts Contribute to Computer Science For All


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President Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama discussing his Computer Science for All plan to give students across the country the chance to learn computer science in school.

Credit: www.whitehouse.gov/blog

In late January, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve $4.1 billion in spending in the coming fiscal year to support the Computer Science for All initiative, aimed at providing computer science education in U.S. public schools. Obama pointed out computer science is no longer "an optional skill" in the modern economy," yet "only about a quarter of our K12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) schools offer computer science. Twenty-two states don't even allow it to count toward a diploma."

While many organizations have contributed to the national effort to see real computer science exist and count toward graduation requirements in U.S. public schools, former ACM CEO John R. White said, "ACM has been there from the beginning." Indeed, White contends Obama's Computer Science for All initiative "in a way represents the culmination of more than a decade of effort initiated by the ACM."

Computer science education in public schools has been a main focus for ACM since the 1990s. "This concern for, and commitment to, K12 computer science resulted in the formation of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA, http://www.csta.acm.org/) in the 2004 timeframe," noted White. "Supporting the launch of CSTA moved ACM's efforts from a series of task forces concerned with K12 computer science education to a national effort focused on supporting and growing the community of computer science teachers."

CSTA founding director Chris Stephenson, who now is head of computer science education programs at Google, said that even before the official formation of CSTA, its future leaders were working to raise the national consciousness regarding CS education. She said the ACM Model Curriculum, published by the ACM K12 Task Force in 2003, was "a germinal work, making the argument that computer science was a rigorous academic discipline with a body of knowledge that could and should be reflected in computing courses in schools."

In 2005, CSTA published its first official white paper, The New Educational Imperative: Improving High School Computer Science Education (http://bit.ly/1O1haT1), which Stephenson described as a "companion piece to what eventually became the CSTA K12 Computer Science Standards" (https://csta.acm.org/Curriculum/sub/K12Standards.html), addressed the link between K12 computer science education and national technological competitiveness and "provided a strong call to policy makers to begin addressing computer science education at the state and local level."


"ACM has been there from the beginning," said former ACM CEO John R. White.


White recalled that in 2007, these myriad CS education efforts were augmented with the creation of the ACM Education Policy Committee (EPC, http://www.acm.org/public-policy/education-policy-committee), an organization "focused on education policy as it related to K12 computer science" with the goal of seeing "real computer science exist and count in U.S. high schools."

Among the organizations joining the effort to get CS education into public schools are the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT, https://www.ncwit.org/) the National Science Foundation (NSF, http://www.nsf.gov/), and Code.org, as well as corporations such as Microsoft and Google.

White said two major events "really helped move the K12 computer science education effort into high gear." One was the release of the CSTA/ACM-EPC report Running on Empty, which highlighted the deplorable state of computer science education in the 50 states; the other was Congressional action to create Computer Science Education Week (https://csedweek.org/), an annual program dedicated to inspiring K12 students to take interest in computer science launched by the Computing in the Core Coalition and now organized by Code.org. "These events, along with NSF's efforts to nurture the emergence of new high school level computer science courses, set the foundation for a real transformation in high school-level computer science education."

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Early Days

In 2005, Cameron Wilson joined ACM as director of the ACM Policy Office in Washington, D.C. He recalled that early on, he, ACM CEO White, and CSTA's Stephenson wanted to evaluate the state of CS education in U.S. public schools, only to learn "computer science really isn't represented in K12." In trying to pin down what was keeping CS education out of schools, they asked, "what are the policy implications? Why doesn't computer science education really exist in the K12 space? Is this a curriculum problem? Is this an image problem? Is this a policy problem? The more the community at large looked at these issues, it was definitely all of those."


"What we've seen in the past three years is this impressive groundswell of interest ... to take computer science seriously or to do more to boost computer science instruction."


That was the impetus for the formation of the ACM Education Policy Committee (EPC), chaired by Robert ("Bobby") Schnabel, who only left the group in November to take on the roles of ACM CEO and executive director. The goal of the committee, Wilson said, "was to unpack the policy issues around computer science education and to figure out what we could do to advance the field in K12 education."

It took several years to find their way, Wilson said, "in terms of figuring out just what are the policy issues, because it turns out in education that policy and implementation, which means what actually gets taught, are deeply linked so the policies that are at the state or federal or local level are all contributing to an ecosystem of what actually gets taught in schools. Part of our goal was figuring out what are the policy levers that you would need to pull to expand CS K12 instruction."

The EPC determined it needed to assess the state of CS education for each of the 50 U.S. states, resulting in the 2010 report Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K12 Computer Science in the Digital Age, (http://runningonempty.acm.org/). In that study, Wilson explained, the EPC tried to answer two policy-related questions:

  • To what extent do states have education standards around computer science?
  • Do computer science courses at the high school level count toward a core graduation requirement or are they simply elective?

Wilson worked with co-authors Leigh Ann DeLyser of Carnegie Mellon University (now at CSNYC.org, an organization established in 2013 to ensure all New York City public school students have access to CS education), Mark Stehlik of Carnegie Mellon, and CSTA's Stephenson. Wilson said the report found that "states don't have standards around computer science education generally, and the ones that do exist are really about basic technology literacy and using technology are not focused on allowing students to create technologies." At the time, just nine states allowed computer science to count toward math or science requirements for high school graduation.

Around the same time, the EPC launched Computer Science Education Week as a collaborative, (computing) community-based event around computer science education. The first Computer Science Education Week took place in December 2009 as a joint effort led and funded by ACM with the cooperation and deep involvement of CSTA, NCWIT, NSF, the Anita Borg Institute, the Computing Research Association, Google, Intel, and Microsoft.

Today, the annual Computer Science Education Week is supported by 350 partners and 100,000 educators worldwide, and includes the Hour of Codea one-hour introduction to computer science designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. During 2014's Computer Science Education Week, Obama became the first U.S. president to write a line of code as part of the Hour of Code.

"Computer Science Education Week came first, and then Running on Empty came out, and we bootstrapped both of those things into a new coalition of industry and non-profits called Computing in the Core," said Wilson. "The main goal of Computing in the Core was to help be a steward for Computer Science Education Week, and to help advocate for policies at the state and federal level. At the time, we were just focused on federal policy because we were pretty small, with a shoestring budget, and we just didn't have the resources to work at the state level."

2013 saw the launch of Code.org, a "non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Our vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. We believe computer science should be part of core curriculum, alongside other courses such as biology, chemistry, or algebra."

Recalled Stephenson, "Through its participation in the ACM Education Policy Committee, CSTA leaders helped establish Computer Science Education Week and worked as part of the Computing in the Core Coalition to build a powerful network of education, association, and industry representatives committed to improving computer science education nationally. Policy events in D.C. helped focus attention on education and workforce problems and connect computer science education to the national conversation about jobs. This coalition, including the National Science Foundation, also was instrumental in managing the first two CS Education Weeks, supporting the CS 10K project, and launching Code.org."

Eventually, it made sense to merge Computing in the Core and Code.org, and ACM loaned Wilson to Code.org for a year to help get the new organization off the ground. Since then, said Wilson, now in the permanent roles of COO and vice president of Government Affairs for Code.org, "What we've seen in the past three years is this tremendous groundswell of interest from teachers, from parents, from students, and then from hundreds of school districts and dozen of states, to take computer science seriously or to do more to boost computer science instruction.

"All of the things we did prior to that helped contribute to that overall groundswell. That's what the President has really tapped into; this is now clearly a national movement that's being state-led, and he helped contribute a bully pulpit to it, and also has proposed a substantial amount of funding around this, which Congress will ultimately have to figure out whether they're going to appropriate or not. "

In a joint statement following Obama's announcement, ACM CEO Schnabel and ACM president Alexander L. Wolf observed that ACM "has played a major, seminal role in raising the visibility of computer science education and the need for more attention to it in schools."

The association, they said, "is dedicated to continuing to support the progress of computing education worldwide through its close relationship with and support of CSTA, its world-leading development of computing curricula, and its conferences and publications on computer science education. It looks forward to building on the increased momentum created by [the president's] announcement to partner with all groups that are dedicated to increasing the quality and availability of computing education worldwide."

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Author

Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for Communications.

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Figures

UF1Figure. U.S. President Barack Obama discussing his Computer Science for All plan to give students across the country the chance to learn computer science in school.

UF2Figure. Middle school students at a Computer Science for All event.

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Comments


Ming-Yee Iu

Although I appreciate that code.org has been very effective and has a lot more resources than the ACM ever had, I can't help but feel that something important is lost when the ACM gives up its voice to code.org. The ACM has always been fair and neutral and non-partisan. We advocate for computer science out of a love for the topic. The motivations of code.org has always been a little mysterious. Since ACM initiatives are very much community-driven, I could always email my local university if I wanted to know more about what events were being planned. Code.org seems to be organized in more of a top-down fashion, so we have to wait to see what their engineers have cooked up each year. I think the ACM should endeavor to maintain its separate voice for CS education advocacy in the future because I think there is a lot of value in its independence, trustworthiness, and longer-term perspectives.


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