computer science for all

Kicking off ‘Computer Science for All,’ city will add AP classes, software programs

New York City’s plan to provide a computer science education to its 1.1 million students will kick off next year in at least 50 schools, which will offer an Advanced Placement-level class or a software engineering program for the first time.

Starting this month, schools can apply to offer the “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” a one-year course for high schoolers, or a multi-year software engineering program. The programs, which already exist in a few anozen schools across the city, represent the first steps in a larger plan that officials say they will be working on for at least a year.

“This is the first step to build on what we’ve already done,” Debbie Marcus, the education department’s executive director of computer science, said this week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to provide computer science in every school by 2025 in an agenda-setting speech last September. To get there, the city will have to find ways to train hundreds of teachers at all grade levels, help schools develop and choose programs and teaching materials, and overcome barriers to securing Internet access and computers.

The city’s first steps will target schools with leaders who say they’re already prepared to meet those challenges.

Applications for both programs ask schools to explain the technology classes they already offer and the experience levels of the prospective instructors. Schools offering the AP program will be expected to do targeted outreach to girls and other underrepresented student groups, the application indicates.

Marcus said the city also wants to make sure the programs reach a broad spectrum of students, and that all schools — from the most struggling to its sought-after specialized schools — will be considered.

As for the two programs the city is focusing on, each represents a different approach to computer science education.

“The Beauty and Joy of Computing” is a one-year course designed to teach the principles in computer science in high schools. Though it’s an advanced course originally created for college freshmen, the curriculum is designed to be accessible to a broad range of students, said Dan Garcia, a teaching professor at UC Berkeley who co-designed the class. Students who take the course should be prepared for a new AP exam being rolled out in 2017.

If the traditional Advanced Placement Computer Science curriculum is like calculus, Garcia said, then “Beauty and Joy” could be compared to pre-calculus.

The city’s Software Engineering Program is more than just one class. It’s a structured sequence of electives for middle and high school students designed to provide a background in programming, robotics, web design, physical computing, and mobile computing. The program launched in 2013 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is now in 18 schools.

Of course, to reach over 1,800 schools, the city will need to do more than expand these existing programs, and find ways to reach younger children Officials said that these are not the only programs that they will unveil next year and that more information will be released this spring. In the meantime, they are working on a “foundational document” that outlines the city’s plans for expanding the program throughout the city.

Marcus said the document could take up to a year and a half to complete, as the city looks at model programs from across the country and consults expert teachers, researchers, and programmers.

“One of the reasons it’s a 10-year initiative is it’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “Not all programs require this level of commitment on the part of teachers and schools. Software engineering is really in-depth — we’re also looking at lower levels of commitment for teachers to understand a specific concept or tool.”

Marcus said the city plans to focus on training teachers in a variety of subjects to teach computer science, instead of recruiting new teachers who specialized in the subject.

That raises a red flag for Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which helps teenagers land technology internships. She said that it will be difficult for classroom teachers to learn the skills necessary to teach a full computer science course without significant professional development.

“I’m interested to see how they will do this,” Couvares said. “Hopefully that they won’t deliver a watered-down version to students.”

Garcia, for one, said his course’s training is anything but. The “Beauty and Joy” training includes two weeks of in-person work and a two-to-four-week online course during the summer.

“This is not at all a lightweight, one-week situation,” Garcia said. “This is a very powerful, deep course.”

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.