behind the headlines

Why computer science? The story behind the city’s flashiest new education initiative

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers an education speech, “Equity and Excellence,” at Bronx Latin School, which included a new computer science initiative.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers an education speech, “Equity and Excellence,” at Bronx Latin School, which included a new computer science initiative.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced every child in New York City schools will learn computer science within 10 years, Fred Wilson sat smiling in the audience.

The prominent venture capitalist, who founded the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education, known as CSNYC, was there to watch the mayor formally endorse Wilson’s own ambitious goal: to provide computer science education to all.

The path to de Blasio’s announcement spans two mayoral administrations, a number of big donors, and a gaggle of tech industry insiders who worked on smaller computer science pilot projects throughout the city. But it was largely Wilson, met by a receptive mayor, who created and eventually funded the underpinnings for de Blasio’s splashy announcement.

It “was really a reveal of something that’s a long time in the making,” said Michael Preston, CSNYC’s executive director. “It wasn’t the mayor’s office deciding it was priority without a ready group that was there to support it.”

Whether New York City is to begin rapidly expanding access to computer science education, and to reach all students by 2025, is up for debate. Even its staunchest supporters recognize the challenges ahead, including raising about 70 percent of the private money needed and finding, then training, thousands of new teachers.

But the plan progressed from a concept to reality at a notably rapid pace, thanks to a rare combination of factors: a focused and wealthy champion, a growing national focus on career readiness, and the sustained interest of the city’s political leadership at a time when the mayor needs to demonstrate clear progress.

Still, some question whether computer science is at the core of what New York City students need, or whether the announcement served as a flashy way to skirt harder education problems, like the persistently struggling schools in the city’s poorest areas.

“Is this necessary or is this another example of public policy driven by private philanthropy?” asked David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at The CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. “I don’t think this was one of the more pressing issues.”

The announcement brought a wave of positive press at a time when de Blasio is beginning a new fight for control of the city’s schools. Last year, de Blasio was granted only one year of mayoral control, which means he will have to re-convince state lawmakers this spring that he should run the district.

Critics also note the pilot programs have left many questions about computer science education unanswered.

“Everything is about, let’s drop in a curriculum, let’s get a bazillion teachers trained,” said Mike Zamansky, a longtime computer science teacher at Stuyvesant High School, whose curriculum sparked Wilson’s early interest in computer science education. “Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?”

Under Bloomberg, the beginnings of an idea

To understand the moment that de Blasio took the stage at Bronx Latin proclaiming computer science for all, one must look to the Bloomberg administration and keep an eye on Wilson.

"Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work."Maurya Couvares, the co-founder of ScriptEd

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a “tech guy” who invited industry giants to events at Gracie Mansion and understood the importance of teaching students technological literacy, said Zamansky, who founded Stuyvesant’s computer science program over 20 years ago. Bloomberg also courted big donors and grew the Fund for Public Schools, which raises money for New York City’s schools.

The movement towards tech fit in with his administration’s ideas for modernizing career and technical education and its push for small schools. As the city moved to close Washington Irving High School for poor performance, it made plans for the Academy for Software Engineering, which opened in the Irving building in 2012.

That high school, where every student takes computer science each year, emerged from conversations with city officials that Wilson had begun more than two years earlier. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering opened in 2013.

Another pilot program selected 20 schools in 2013 to begin teaching computer science and software engineering, funded partially with a $1.6 million gift from AT&T. The city’s goal then was to provide 3,500 students a computer science education by 2016.

The number that de Blasio now targets is 1.1 million by 2025, an increase in scale that is surprising even to those at the heart of the computer science education initiative.

“Nobody expected it to happen as quickly as it did,” Preston said.

The test pilot era

What happened to cause such a jump?

Outside of City Hall, attention to so-called STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math — was steadily growing nationwide. Cities like Chicago and San Francisco announced widely lauded programs to offer computer science in city schools.

In New York, the vision to provide computer science to all, many said, can be traced to the founding of CSNYC in 2013. CSNYC, funded by Wilson’s private family foundation, has had a hand in funding and promoting many prominent computer science programs that have popped up across the city since. The foundation’s stated goal was to eventually bring computer science education to students citywide.

“Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work,” said Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which is funded by CSNYC and places teenagers at internships at businesses such as JPMorgan Chase and American Express.

As the pilot programs worked out the kinks of computer science education, City Hall became increasingly interested in expanding computer science into more schools.

During the mayor’s first year, de Blasio was primarily focused on other initiatives like universal pre-K, though officials from the mayor’s office said he kept an eye on the software engineering pilot program. In 2015, top officials’ focus shifted to older students, and specifically on how they could expand STEM and professional opportunities, Preston said.

By this spring, CSNYC and the mayor’s office were working out how they might scale the computer science initiative in earnest, and by the summer of 2015, public money was committed for the following fiscal year, Preston said. Wilson helped to secure the private funding, which included contributions from the Robin Hood Foundation and AOL.

Not out of the woods yet

There is a big difference between expressing interest in computer science and taking action to spread it across the city’s largest school system in a meaningful way.

Tracy Rudzitis, a teacher at The Computer School on the Upper West Side, helped develop curriculum for the software engineering pilot, knows the city’s limitations firsthand. In her school, with more than 400 students, the Internet connection is so poor they are lucky if 30 students can use the WiFi at once. Their school is fortunate because the parent association funded a computer lab. Others have fewer resources.

"Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?"Mike Zamansky, computer science teacher

“It’s one thing to say we’re going to do all this,” Rudzitis said. “It’s another to actually do it.”

The city’s immediate goals include expanding the software engineering pilot program, starting a separate pilot in an elementary school — since young learners haven’t been a focus of most of the city’s initial forays into computer science — and starting more extensive professional development for teachers. In the coming months, the city will release more details in a strategic plan.

Meanwhile, many are questioning the scope and viability of the plan’s early outline, especially the need to attract and train 5,000 teachers. Currently, no state teaching certification exists for computer science, which Brenda Strassfeld, the chair of mathematics education at Touro College Graduate School of Education, said could make the initiative — which she strongly supports — “fall flat on its face.”

There is also the question of how the city plans to raise additional funds. Right now, though the city has an extensive list of donors, only about 30 percent of the private funds have been raised. AT&T does not have plans to donate any more funds to the project, but they may consider doing so in the future, said Marissa Shorenstein, the company’s president for New York State.

In order to scale the program, the city will need to find more funders. But it also needs people like Sara Lissa Paulson, a librarian at P.S. 347 on the Lower East Side, who was inspired after reading a book about the importance of coding.

Paulson taught herself how to code, then started an after-school program to teach her students. She soon found that it forced students to be precise and to learn through problem solving.

“There’s a kind of magic about it,” she said.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.