Computing Applications CSTA letter

It Is a Pivotal Time For K-12 Computer Science

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For many, the recent news that enrollments in undergraduate computer science programs are no longer on a downward slide is reassuring, but I seriously hope that it doesn’t begin to undo the good that has come out of our mutual fear, most especially that it does not diminish the commitment across all educational levels to address the serious issues in K–12 computer science education.

Creating real, sustainable change in any area of education is a frustratingly slow process. Public education is a complex bureaucracy where competing ideologies, philosophies, ontologies, and pedagogies vie for attention and control. It is subject to extreme pressures. As a profession, teaching is simultaneously professionalized and devalued. And, in most cases, the employees are overworked, underpaid, and severely under-resourced.

But change is possible. Five years ago, ACM founded the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) with the goal of addressing serious concerns in K–12 computer science education, including the lack of curriculum standards, poor professional development for teachers, common misunderstandings about computer science, student and parent perceptions that there are no jobs in the computing field, and the complete mess that is computer science teacher certification.

Today, CSTA stands as an example that faith, funding, and a whole lot of volunteer support from the top to the bottom can achieve something close to miracles. The guidelines in the ACM Model Curriculum for K–12 Computer Science are now recognized as the defacto national computer science curriculum standards. Thanks to its partnership with colleges and universities through the JETT and TECS programs, CSTA has held more than 96 professional development workshops for teachers across the U.S. The annual Computer Science & Information Technology symposium is the closest thing we have to an annual national conference for K–12 computer science and information technology educators. CSTA’s white paper The New Educational Imperative: Improving High School Computer Science Education provides a cogent, research-supported argument for the role that computer science must play in the K–12 academic canon. Careers in computing resources developed by CSTA and the ACM Education Board have now made their way into every school in the U.S. and several other countries as well. Finally, CSTA’s new report on teacher certification (Ensuring Exemplary Teaching in an Essential Discipline) proposes a new framework for guaranteeing we have the teachers we require with the skills we need in our classrooms.

But something equally important came out of the enrollment crisis. Colleges and universities facing dwindling class sizes began reaching out to K–12 computer science educators and students in order to recruit students directly into their programs, and in doing so, many faculty learned that the assumptions they had been making about what it is like to teach computer science in K–12 were misguided at best and paternalistic at worst.

Many colleges and universities now have ongoing outreach and mentoring programs because they understand that waiting for students to come to them is a recipe for disaster. Interest in computer science must begin long before students sign up for their first university or college courses. It begins in K–12 where other academic disciplines first sow the seeds of interest and engagement.

This increased interest in direct outreach to K–12 has also prompted a greater level of understanding and a spirit of cooperation across educational levels that will benefit us greatly in the long run, but only if we do not lose sight of what we are doing and return to our former isolated complacency.

The next year will be a pivotal one for us. Talk (and hopes) of a new, relevant, rigorous, and more engaging sequence of high school computer science courses (including a new gold standard Advance Placement computing course) and an ambitious plan for teacher professional development could mean a real renaissance for our discipline and field.

As we begin to work toward these goals, the challenges will be enormous as will the temptation to circle the wagons and fire inward. I hope our community has the vision to rise above fragmentation and discord so we can work together to do something important and valuable. We did it when we formed CSTA and I think we can do it again to reframe computer science education.

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