Educators, Tech Industry Leaders Collaborate to Develop K-12 Computer Science Framework

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Business and government leaders, including President Barack Obama, have been drawing attention — and investments — to support computer science education. Now a coalition of industry and education organizations have created guidelines to help educators teach the discipline.

Announced Oct. 17, the initiative aims to guide educators, states and districts in teaching the concepts and practices around computer science thinking. The authors also hope the effort can help policymakers and district leaders shape decisions in computer science education.

The project is led by a committee that includes Code.org, Cyber Innovation Center, National Math and Science Initiative, Association for Computing Machinery and Computer Science Teachers Association. The work is also supported by companies including Apple, Google and Expedia, as well as education organizations including the CollegeBoard, Teach For America and STEMx.

The gaps in computer science opportunities, particularly for students of color and women, remain striking: A Gallup poll, cosponsored by Google, released this week indicates that only 47 percent of black students have a chance to take computer science classes in school in contrast to 58 percent of white students.

The framework’s founding writers

The team authoring the 300-page framework included state representatives, teachers, districts and researchers, and the group sought feedback from 100 computer science educators.

Alfred Thompson, a computer science teacher at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, NH, volunteered to be on the writing team that spent 11 months putting together the framework.

“The community needed something like this sooner rather than later to take advantage of the momentum [in computer science],” Thompson says. “This is a tool for building standards.”

Disagreements came up, particularly around what was appropriate for students in grades K through 8, Thompson says. It was hard to decide what the age group was ready for developmentally, he says. The group picked its wording with care to ensure the guidelines did not inadvertently leave out either certain students or even computer science subjects.

“The whole process is about believing computer science is for everybody,” Thompson says.

Turning words into action

The computer science framework consists of four grade bands (K-2nd, 3rd-5th, 6th-8th and high school). It covers core concepts like networks, algorithms and programming to practices in testing computational artifacts and defining computational problems, according to the committee leading the effort.

On its website, the committee clarifies the framework isn’t a set of grade standards. Rather, it is a guide for developing standards that schools and states can use for professional development, curriculum or extracurricular programs.

For example, by the end of second grade, in the category of “data and analysis” students should understand: “Everyday digital devices [including cell phones, digital toys, and cars] collect and display data over time. The collection and use of data about individuals and the world around them is a routine part of life and influences how people live.”

Before advancing to fifth grade, they understand authentication and cybersecurity, hardware settings and troubleshooting computer hardware problems.

By one measure from Code.org, one in four schools teach computer science. Rhode Island is one state with computer science education efforts already underway. The state’s Office of Innovation leads Computer Science for Rhode Island with the goal of teaching computer science in every public school by December 2017.

Octavia Bell, who works as the office’s director of strategy, advised indirectly on the framework. Bell was connected with a member of Code.org, one of the organizations part of the framework’s steering committee.

Her office hasn’t had any conversations on how this framework will affect policymaking, but Bell doesn’t dismiss its potential impact on how districts think about providing professional development opportunities to help teachers teach computer science. For starters, the framework offers district leaders some guidance defining what computer science actually means.

“I think we will really have the conversation about [computer science] standards,” Bell says.

California is one of 14 states nominating writers to develop and provide feedback on the framework. Sheena Vaidyanathan, who teaches computer science for grades K through 8 in the Los Altos School District in Los Altos, Calif., was involved through her roles as advisor to Code.org and board member of Computer Science Teachers Association.

Like Bell, Vaidyanathan believes that the framework proved a valuable exercise in answering, “Exactly what do we mean by CS?”

“Computer science has been around, but K-12 computer science is not that established. This kind of comprehensive look at a K-12 program has not existed,” she says.

Vaidyanathan says the framework turned out the way she envisioned, and her hope is that educators will use it to consider CSTA’s standards. “My hope is that state by state or school by school will adopt this,” she adds.

To be continued

The challenge, however, is “at this point everybody is at a different stage,” Vaidyanathan says.

Schools that have already implemented pieces of the framework or other standards may need to review their curriculum, she suggests.

New Hampshire educator Thompson is in his twelfth year teaching computer science. A former Microsoft evangelist, he suspects the committee will not revisit the framework for three to five years.

Thompson expects to see a lot of enthusiasm now that the framework is public, but he foresees critics, too — especially those pointing to insufficient research to support their decisions.

“Quite frankly there just isn’t enough research on computer science education, period. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s not like we can wait 10 years for people to do enough research. We have to start somewhere,” he says.

“We’ve got a good framework to work with. Now the test is whether we can find enough teachers to put into action and really give it a run.”

The full framework document is available here.

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