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Tackling the Challenges of CS Education

Chris Stephenson on the complex challenges that continue to plague the computer science education community.
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CSTA founding Executive Director Chris Stephenson

Chris Stephenson isn't afraid to tackle complex problems. The founding Executive Director of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), current head of Computer Science (CS) Education Strategy at Google, and recipient of the 2018 Outstanding Contributor to ACM Award, Stephenson has worked tirelessly since the late 1980s to advance computer science education at the K–12 level. Here, she talks to us about the challenges that the CS education community still faces, from building a pipeline of qualified CS teachers to ensuring equitable access to learning for all students.

You've been involved with CS education for decades, but your career path was somewhat winding.

I've probably already had several careers. I started out working as a radio news broadcaster, and then I moved into public television, where I was a researcher for a public affairs show. In that era, personal computers were just coming into use, and I was fortunate enough to be given a computer at work. It opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. After that, I began working as a technical writer, and eventually I was hired by the compiler writing team at the University of Toronto. That's when my true career in computer science education began. At the time, the university was promoting the use of a programming language called Turing, which they'd developed and were using to teach introductory courses. They wanted to make it broadly available to high school teachers and students. My efforts to understand how to achieve this gave me a much better understanding of the complexities of formal education.

In 2004, shortly after you began working toward your Ph.D. in education at Oregon State University, ACM hired you on a part-time basis to start the Computer science Teachers Association.

Starting a new organization was an exciting opportunity. Yet getting anyone interested in computer science, at that time, was a tremendous challenge.

What were some of the specific issues you faced?

There were a couple of factors impacting the situation for CS education. First, there wasn't any kind of broad public understanding of CS education and its potential place in the canon. Also, many of the original CS school programs were disintegrating with the retirement of a generation of teachers, and CS certainly wasn't on the radar of politicians.

Working to launch CSTA was exciting, but "Getting anyone interested in computer science … was a tremendous challenge."

A lot has changed since then—which is not to say there aren't still challenges.

It's been really exciting to see the sea change that has happened. Fifteen years ago, if you asked anyone about what programming language they were using and why, they would talk about industrial relevance. When you're dealing with kids who are at least eight years away from employment in the field, that's not an academically sound rationale. Now, there are so many accessible tools to teach programming, even for very young children.

One of the remaining challenges is that we still do not have a solid pipeline of teachers who can meet the rising demand for CS in public schools. We have also not succeeded in making access to CS learning truly equitable. We've worked very hard as a community to focus on diversity, and we're making some gains in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, but they are not sufficient. I also think that poverty is a bigger and more complex issue. When we talk about equity, very rarely do we talk about socioeconomic issues. We don't like to look at poverty—and I don't just mean in the CS education community, I mean broadly.

What, in your opinion, have been some of the more effective strategies for encouraging diversity?

There are two different schools of thought, and both are valid. One school of thought is to change the curriculum to make it more accessible and engaging to everyone—this is impacting undergraduate education as well as elementary and secondary schools. The other focus has been to change the culture in which the learning takes place. Things like what kind of visuals are in the lab, the language we use to address our students, and whether our classroom culture is more competitive or more collaborative have an impact on whether and which students believe they belong.

What about the challenge of fostering a pipeline of qualified CS teachers?

One of the realities of teacher education is that it is standards-driven. The job of teacher education programs is to prepare teachers to address and achieve state-level learning standards. The other driving factor is certification. So, without standards and without a pathway to certification, there is absolutely no incentive for teacher preparation programs to prepare CS teachers. I think we've seen amazing progress on the standards side, and some states are now starting to address the certification pathway issue because they see that, finally, there is significant demand. But we are still only seeing small pockets of innovation.

"Assessment is one of the areas in which I experience a lot of cognitive and emotional dissonance."

Let's talk about your work with Google, which has launched CS programs like CS4HS, one of the earliest efforts to support the professional development of computer science teachers.

CS4HS preceded my time at Google. In 2008, it was a truly innovative and necessary program. Today, however, there are many groups who are providing professional development for teachers, from Code.org to Mobile CSP. CS4HS is no longer as necessary, so we've transitioned our focus to supporting rigorous CS education research. CS education does not have the deep and wide body of knowledge that other disciplines can rely on, so two years ago, Google launched a program called Computer Science Education Research grants, or CS-ER, through which we provide one-year grants to support innovative research directed at improving teaching and learning in CS in K-12.

What kinds of proposals have come in thus far?

The proposals have been hugely diverse and very rigorous, which is great. We've funded projects that looked at the needs of students in rural areas and how to address them, projects that relate to preparing teachers for new certification exams, and projects that focus on the development of curricular material and computational thinking to be introduced to teachers in their pre-service education programs.

Let's talk about the issue of assessment, which you've commented on before.

Assessment is one of the areas in which I experience a lot of cognitive and emotional dissonance. At Google, we frequently get asked to develop assessments to measure student learning, but I believe that teachers always provide the best assessments. I particularly struggle with high-stakes testing, because while I understand that it originally came from a place of trying to ensure equitable learning for all students, it has become all stick and no carrot. I also see how it affects teachers who feel compelled to teach to the test and students who feel tested to death. Unfortunately, I do not find myself capable of articulating a solution.

Are there other challenges, new or old, that you feel don't get as much attention as they deserve?

When I was with CSTA, we started with the easier problems and worked our way up to the hardest ones. The easier problems were things like creating resources for teachers, addressing teacher isolation, building a community of teachers, and providing ways for those teachers to grow as leaders. Then we moved on to standards, which was harder, but we achieved it. We have also made enormous strides in helping the public understand why CS education is relevant and necessary.

Now it's onto the much more complicated issues of access and equity, and ensuring we have a continuing pipeline of CS teachers.

The challenges that remain are significant, and they are going to take a lot of hard work, but I feel that we're in a space now where all the people who need to be engaged are engaged, including parents, and I'm very, very hopeful. The one little warning bell that rings in my head is that I feel we have about three years to prove that we were right—that students can learn this, that they can learn it effectively, and that it will help them in their futures. Now that we're in the implementation phase, we have to be even more attentive and rigorous in our thinking and our actions to ensure that we're doing the best thing for all students.

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