This post marks my 12th anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and, finally, those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Also to the growing number of international readers, I am grateful for your attention to one American’s viewpoint on school reform and classroom practice in the U.S.
As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. I thank her for getting me started on this writing adventure.
For the nearly 1500 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:
1. Write about 800 words.
2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.
3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.
Sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after twelve years, I have found the writing very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling. Even amid the past 18 months of the Covid pandemic and school closures.
To me, writing is a form of teaching and learning. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” “Wow! That is an unexpected view on what I said,” or “I had never considered that point.” Finally, I have learned a lot from simply researching the series of posts about previous school reforms that I published over the past few years called: “Whatever Happened To….”
The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed, logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for readers who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words.
Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its context, both past and present. I do so, and here I put my teacher hat on, since I believe that current school reform and practice are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from earlier generations of reformers’ experiences in coping with the complexities of improving how teachers taught, and how they tried to change schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well-intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up bashing teachers and principals for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.
Expressing my sincere gratitude toward readers for the blogging I have done over the past 12 years is a preface to what I will begin writing in this 13th year of posts. Obviously, I will describe and analyze the effects of the pandemic on a key societal institution and its impact on efforts to improve schools. And how teachers, administrators, and students have been coping with this crisis. Again, thanks to those readers who have taken the time to click onto my blog. I deeply appreciate it.
I have known Bill Plitt since the late-1960s when I hired him to teach social studies as part of a federally-funded teacher training program located at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. We have been close friends ever since. Plitt has directed teacher education programs, taught history for many years in Northern Virginia high schools and has traveled to Israel many times to work with Arab and Israeli citizens seeking peaceful solutions on the West Bank. I asked him to write this post after he told me about the “timeless story.”
Upon reflection of a career in teaching that spanned nearly 50 years, I realize the many ways in which one can teach (and learn). Classroom teaching in Belize as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 60s led to an internship through Howard University at Cardozo High School in DC in that same decade. After that, many years were spent working with teachers in their pre-service preparation and with classroom teachers in their in-service courses, and after a return to the classroom for 12 years until my official retirement, I felt most days were gifts to me.
More specifically, as I look back to the hundreds of students of all shapes and sizes who came into my life, and I hear from them about those moments that meant the most to them, it was not the content of what I had been teaching (somewhat to my chagrin) that they remembered. It was, instead, those experiences found in the deeper realm of caring. To this point, I would say of my own experience as a student through the years that it was those teachers who cared about me that I remember the most.
For many years, I used a now popular book called “I’ll Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I’ve used it with hundreds of groups, from gatherings of three (father, mother, baby) to several hundred in church and school settings. I shared it with nearly every class of high school students I taught as well as every teacher group I led since 1987. It is a timeless story – the story that always draws listeners into it, for it speaks to us all, regardless of age or position. Some hear it more personally than others. No doubt many of you have read and shared this story with students and children of your own. The refrain repeated through the life of a child by the parent is a simple one:
“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.
As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”
Early on I put the verse to music and taught the simple lyrics to the audiences, small and large, so that they could participate in the telling through their own mantras and music.
Over the years, I heard from many of my former students about their memory of hearing that story. One in particular stands out. In 2000, I was leading a “school-within-a-school program” in a high school in Northern Virginia. It was a special program that offered support for incoming 9th grade students who were labeled (mostly incorrectly) as “At Risk.” (Actually, I believe that most 9th graders may fit that burdensome name for numerous reasons.)
On the first day of a new school year, and after taking care of the many house-keeping chores teachers were required to do at that time, I would end my class by reading this story and teaching them the verse. As I did then, and would do every year from 1987 on, I would read those last words of the story, often bringing a powerful moment of silence and, for some, tears. After reading the story, we often felt connected in new and wonderful ways without using words. You might have felt similar moments in your own classroom experiences as you began to see your students, and they to see you as their teacher, in new and wonderful ways. Our time together, no doubt, took a positive route from the very beginning because of that effect I sensed then; I can still feel it today.
At the end of that class in 1987, a student waited rather impatiently, but cautiously, until all of other students had left, before saying to me, “Mr. Plitt. That was the most beautiful story I have ever heard. I am going to share it with my parents.” Now, this student had been labeled as difficult in the 8th grade, labeling which I generally dismissed at the beginning of the school year and continued to withhold judgment on throughout the rest of the year. In retrospect, that exchange at the end of the class changed us both in wonderful ways. We had nothing to prove to each other for the rest of that year. WE had connected as caring people.
Later, that student kept in touch with me. He was awarded a scholarship upon graduation from high school, and throughout his continuing studies that led to a degree in business, we stayed in contact. After working with neighborhood teenage boys for some time, who probably reflected his own school experiences, he decided to return to graduate school and completed a degree in counseling. A year later, he was hired as a counselor to work with students with special needs in a local high school.
He connected with me on Facebook, as many others have over the years through some form of social media. Underneath a picture of him, in which he held a copy of “I’ll Love You Forever,” he wrote, “I have my own copy now!” He let me know that he had shared the story and song with his “special needs” students who had the same reaction to it as he had experienced.
It was truly a gift that keeps on giving. I wonder how many others who crossed the threshold of my classrooms have done the same thing with this little book that shows the simple power of love and caring.
Some years ago, when I thanked Bob for producing this book, he said, “I never planned on it being a book that would sell. My publisher said I’d be lucky to sell 1,000 copies.” The first year, it would sell 100,000 copies. In subsequent years, he sold a million copies and has done so ever since then. It has also been translated into a wide variety of languages. Personally, I’ve used the Spanish version with mothers in small villages in Mexico as well as with Arab women in Palestine. They all get it! Bob also said in a return letter to me that he and his wife were never able to have children of their own, and they even lost two still-born babies. I believe that their story reaches many of us even more deeply because of that personal sense of loss. They passed on their own love and sense of caring as a gift to others.
I must note in light of this classroom discovery of the gift that never stops giving and stressing the “habits of the heart”, I also gave my students the opportunity to apply the skills of a historian and a geographer to the content of the curriculum. I owed this approach to instruction from the early days as an intern teacher in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, and practiced and refined this approach in my role as a teacher over the next four decades.
I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II and because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s Eastside where as a young white teacher I taught history to mostly black students.
I was a politically and intellectually naïve 21 year-old teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures. At Glenville High School, I invented new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history. My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth.
It was also at Glenville that I encountered someone who engaged me intellectually. Oliver Deex, Glenville’s principal, a voracious reader and charming conversationalist, introduced me to books and magazines I had never seen: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.
Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.
After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Case-Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–I had two offers, one to teach at a Connecticut college and another to stay in public schools. I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.
I took a one-year job in 1963 as a master teacher in history in a federally funded project located at Cardozo high school in Washington, D.C. to train returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in all-black schools. It was a big risk to move my family for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and ambitious) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years.
Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons. The pilot Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching was a teacher-driven, school-based, neighborhood-oriented solution to the problem of low-performing students.
Master teachers in academic subjects trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach while drawing from neighborhood resources. Once trained, the reform theory went, these ex-Peace Corps volunteers would become crackerjack teachers who could hook listless students through creative lessons drawing from their knowledge of ghetto neighborhoods and personal relationships with students and their families.
As luck would have it, the Project got funded each year and I continued to teach at Cardozo High School, eventually directing the program. Coping with uncertain funding opened my eyes about how politically and bureaucratically complicated it is to engage students, involve parents and residents in improving their schools, and negotiating the district office. The complicated intersection between school, students, community, and organizational bureaucracies became concrete as we spent time with families and in neighborhood centers near Cardozo.
It took four long years for me and other advocates to convince the D.C. superintendent and school board that recruiting and training Peace Corps returnees benefited a district that had to scramble every year to staff all of its classrooms. The superintendent finally agreed to take over the program in 1967 re-naming it the Urban Teacher Corps and expanding it from recruiting and training 50 new teachers a year to over a hundred annually.[i]
After this exhilarating but exhausting experience at Cardozo. I returned to teaching in another D.C. high school. I wrote a book about the Cardozo experiences (To Make a Difference: Teaching in the Inner City, 1970), and created with co-author Phil Roden a series of U.S. History paperbacks for urban students (The Promise of America, 1971). After two years of teaching, the D.C. deputy superintendent invited me to head a new department aimed at revitalizing the entire District’s teaching corps. I was now a certified reformer.
[i] In 1966, the U.S. Congress had authorized the National Teachers Corps, based on the model we created at Cardozo High School. I served on the Advisory Board for the National Teacher Corps. In 1971, after four years of recruiting and training teachers in this school-based program, a new superintendent abolished the program. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ended federal funding for the Teacher Corps.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next. This originally appeared in Education Week, June 30, 2021
As best I can tell, plans for post-pandemic schooling are mostly proving to be a stew of ambitious promises and jacked-up business-as-usual outlays. From new counselors and class-size reduction to facilities and curriculum projects, systems are busy adding staff, enhancing facilities, and improving curricula. While these are all good things, largely missing is what has long seemed to me the biggest opportunity to improve teaching and learning: fundamentally rethinking how schools make use of instructional talent.
When it comes to instructional talent, efforts have focused more on adding, allocating, professionally developing, or evaluating staff than on rethinking how we can better use the talent we have. Yet the pandemic is a good reminder that not all teachers are equally skilled at all the tasks they’re asked to do. We’d be better served, I suspect, by reimagining the teacher’s role so that schools can provide more high-quality instruction, without asking each teacher to excel at so many different things. A half-century ago, when teaching talent was plentiful and the demands on teachers were more uniform, the notion of the do-everything teacher might’ve made more sense. Changes in the larger economy, the profession, and the resources at our disposal mean this is no longer the case.
After all, teachers perform many tasks in the course of a day—from lecturing and facilitating discussion to grading quizzes and filling out forms to counseling distraught kids and monitoring the cafeteria. No one believes all these instructional activities are equally valuable. Yet when I work with teachers, they almost unanimously report that they have never been part of a disciplined effort to unpack what they do each day in an effort to increase the energy devoted to the things that matter most. Having an exquisitely trained early-literacy teacher watch students eat lunch, fill out forms, or teach addition—simply because she’s a “2nd grade teacher”—is a bizarre way to leverage scarce talent. Figuring out how to let individual teachers do more of what they’re already good at is a powerful place to start the improvement process.
Elsewhere in schooling, there are telling examples of what it looks like to use staff time and energy well. At a well-run football practice, players may do film study with an assistant coach, lift weights with a conditioning coach, and practice techniques with a position coach. There are a lot of similarities in the work routines of an accomplished high school orchestra or debate team. In short, it’s wholly possible for schools to figure out how to leverage staff more effectively; it’s just not the way teachers’ work has traditionally been organized.
The pandemic has also shown us that it’s time to reimagine the geography of how teachers teach. Remote learning makes online instruction or tutoring in any subject available whenever and wherever it’s needed (of course, the value rests on the teacher’s knowledge and competence at remote instruction). This means that education premised on full-time, in-classroom teachers need no longer be the universal default—and, as we learned this past year, some students and teachers fare better when they’re online. Abandoning the presumption that teacher-and-student-in-classroom is the right model for all students or all learning makes much else possible, including models that provide curated online offerings alongside in-person options, offer relationships with far-off mentors, create cohesive civics classes of geographically disparate students, or simply use remote delivery to provide quality calculus instruction to students in schools or communities where local instructors aren’t available.
And it’s time to rethink who can teach. Today, early-career transience, professionals routinely working into their late 60s, and the prevalence of midcareer transitions make it increasingly bizarre to see education systems intent on recruiting 22-year-olds and hoping they’ll teach full time into the 2050s. It’s not that this model was “bad,” just that it’s not an especially good match for the realities of the professional labor market in the 2020s. Meanwhile, balky licensure systems, seniority-based pay, and factory-style pensions create big practical burdens and financial penalties for engineers, auto mechanics, or journalists seeking to enter teaching midcareer. Even aside from those seeking full-time roles, one can imagine a raft of opportunities in 21st-century America for senior citizens, grad students, or stay-at-home-parents who may be eager to take on part-time work as tutors or coaches—providing a pool of skilled, flexible labor at affordable rates.
Practically speaking, of course, any of this requires retooling job descriptions, hiring protocols, licensure, collective bargaining agreements, teacher-of-record requirements, salary schedules, and more. That’s one reason why we tend to focus on the things that are easier and simpler to do (like simply adding staff). But if there were ever a moment when changed dynamics, enormous needs, and a torrent of cash made something bigger both timely and feasible, this may be it.
Ask teachers for their definition of success and invariably they will say that if their students do well in a job or career, start and raise a family, and live a full and satisfying life, they would be proud of what they accomplished. But how do teachers come to know about students once they left school. While some students do stay in touch with teachers after leaving their elementary or secondary school classroom, most do not. Those that do often bring sunshine to their teachers’ day. While students are the centerpiece of classroom teaching, once they leave, memories are all that teachers have. Flashes from past interactions with particular students inside and outside classrooms, fragments of memories and smells stay with teachers.
Decades ago, Ann Staley, an English teacher and poet, was in one of my Stanford University classes. Off and on for the past 35-plus years we have stayed in touch with letters, then email, and occasional visits to her Oregon home. It is a friendship I treasure. She has published at least five volumes of poetry and writes from time to time about a teacher’s life, students, and teaching English.
Staley penned this poem about what she remembers about her years of teaching. It is about her memories of teaching and what matters to her. She has given me permission to publish it.
ONE TEACHER’S TAKE-AWAY
The file of Thank-You notes,
real time letters, phone calls & visits
with former students,
photos from their weddings,
photos of the children’s graduation,
first day of college.
A series of incredible principals,
all men, who somehow “got me,”
appreciated my dedication to the
profession and my students.
How to use the rest room in 3 minutes,
how to supervise a locker clean-out.
Writing with my students every day,in every class (six of them/day)
(180 students per day).
Still friends with my favorite counselor
and her husband, the Superintendent.
Sharing the concepts of “freewriting”
and “focused freewriting” with students
who, first hated, and then learned to love
Reading student journals,
responding to first drafts.
Challenging the Honors Students.
Lunch Time—thirty minutes—
and Fire Drills,
being invited back to teach
“the poetry unit.”
Just last week, in the hospital, the nurse who was assisting me
On the wall of my home office hangs a letter that I have framed. The letter, dated August 15th, 1964, is from Langston Hughes, a multi-talented writer and activist during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the civil rights movement during the 1960s. He authored novels, created poems, wrote plays, and contributed pieces for decades to the Chicago Defender, a top Black newspaper of the mid-20th century. Hughes was one of the first Black writers to earn his living entirely from writing (see video here).
The letter is brief.
Dear Mr. Cuban:
Your NEGRO IN AMERICA seems to me an excellent book, and I am delighted to be included therein. Thank you!
In the first book I had written, The Negro in America (Scott, Foresman 1964), I had included three excerpts from Hughes’ work (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a short section from his novel, Not Without Laughter, and a prose poem “Song to a Negro Wash-Woman.”
While teaching history at Glenville High School (Cleveland, Ohio) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s I had used Hughes work often in my lessons so when I had an opportunity to write this book in 1962, I included those selections. But to do so, I had to write Hughes’ publishers for permission to use the material. I paid the publishers hundreds of dollars and a portion of those payments went to him. He generously wrote me the above letter. Hughes died in 1967.
I write about this prized letter in 2021 during a spate of media accounts and state legislation seeking bans on teaching “critical race theory” and historical content about slavery and racism injected in the nation’s classrooms (see here). Because I began teaching at the age of 20 in 1956 as the civil rights movement unfolded, I am reminded again that what happens in a person’s life occurs often by chance, not planning. Sure, talent is important. And, yes, hard work is a factor. But events, the times, both of which I had no control over, accounts, in part, for Langston Hughes writing a letter to a young history teacher.
The civil rights movement fueled by an idealism anchored in the American Creed (and a strong economy) brought Blacks and whites together–a quarter of a million marchers in August 1963 at the Lincoln Monument–to press the U.S. Congress and President to ensure that Blacks got jobs and became first-class citizens. The movement lasting into the early-1970s restored hope and helped enact legislation that altered American life and expanded democracy: The Civil Rights Act (1964) and The Voting Rights Act (1965).
As in all school reform periods, larger social movements (e.g., Progressivism in the early 20th century), the civil rights movement spurred, in part, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) swept slowly across Southern schools and spread into northern, midwestern, and western states through the 1960s and 1970s. The nation’s school districts were caught up in desegregating their schools, adding racial content to curricula, and hiring Blacks and other minorities as teachers, principals, and district administrators. Publishers also jumped on that train as it left the station.
Those were the years in which TheNegro in America and the five paperback series Promise of America (1971) filled with multi-ethnic and racial content that I and Phil Roden authored, entered public schools. With no civil rights movement, few of these and myriad other history books containing racial content would have seen the light of day.
But events occurred that moved the nation away from civil rights. The Vietnam War, an over-heated economy, and business-driven fears of about a future workforce unequipped to cope with the changes in industry and businesses switching over to computerized workplaces (recall A Nation at Risk report issued in 1983). Another wave of school reform led by civic and corporate leaders steered state and district public schools toward tougher curriculum standards, increased testing, and coercive accountability measures for both white and Black segregated schools (see here)
Now decades later, another incarnation of civil rights protests sparked by deaths of Black men and women when police used lethal force in Ferguson (MO), Minneapolis (MN), and Louisvile (KY), has yet again, even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic brought Blacks and whites together to push for full voting rights, better health care, well-paying jobs, and wrongs that were not righted a half-century ago. But the nation is far more politically divided than it was over a half-century ago.
The pandemic, with former President Trump calling the virus “the China flu” or “kung flu” weaponized Covid-19 and loosed anti-Asian American acts across the nation. After Donald Trump’s loss in 2020–in the middle of the pandemic–the GOP has become the party where wearing masks during the pandemic and then getting vaccinated against the virus became political acts–Republican controlled “red” states opened up earlier in the pandemic, went mask-less and resisted getting vaccinated as Covid-19 and its variants surged anew in those very states (see here)
Thus, the renewed civil rights struggle over making holding police accountable for their actions in the Black community, resisting voting restrictions, and expanding employment and housing for the poor and homeless, comes during a severely polarized moment in the history of the nation.
As in the earlier civil rights movement, better schools, teachers, and curriculum were on activists’ agenda but within a bitter moment of American history. So no surprise that in many Republican controlled states after former President Trump had called out the teaching of U.S. history as unpatriotic when focusing on events in the past that showed racism and white supremacist actions such as the New York Times 1619Project and the 1921 Tulsa massacre and destruction of the Black community, school curriculum and classroom lessons were scrutinized closely. And the phantom of “critical race theory” was discovered in American classrooms and turned into another cultural war but now located in teacher lessons. No such phantom ever existed in the nation’s classrooms but facts hardly mattered (see here and here).
So at two different times in the past six decades, a civil rights movement has swept across the nation and, as expected, touched public school curriculum and classroom practice.
As a teacher and writer, what I and many others wrote in the 1960s and 1970s was published, read, and used in classrooms as waves of idealism swept across the nation. Not today. In the current moment, attacks from the political right about “critical race theory” being taught in the nation’s classrooms is bandied about as a bogeyman used to frighten both parents and teachers.
Moral of the story: what one writes and gets published depends greatly on when one writes. Nonetheless, every time I look at the framed letter on my wall that Langston Hughes wrote to me in 1964, I am grateful that I taught during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Jennifer Oldham is a Denver-based independent journalist who specializes in coverage of government, inequality, and the environment.” This article appeared in Education Next, Summer 2021
Step into Nicole Reitz-Larsen’s classroom in Salt Lake City’s West High School and see students grooving to “Single Ladies” or zigzagging to execute one of LeBron James’s handshakes. You might think it’s a dance class. It’s not.
Reitz-Larsen is teaching computer science through movement. The former German-language and business instructor found that linking difficult concepts such as algorithms and the binary system to students’ interests helps the students grasp a topic that many were leery about before they stepped into her class.
“I’m always thinking about how to sell it to my students,” said Reitz-Larsen, who learned how to teach the complex subject in three months after administrators asked her to pioneer it at West. “You have those kids who say, ‘I’m never going to use this.’”
Young people who are glued to their phones and laptops for many of their waking hours are often apathetic when it comes to figuring out what makes their devices tick. About one of every three girls and half of boys think computer science is important for them to learn, according to a 2020 Google/Gallup, Inc., survey of 7,000 educators, parents, and students.
The finding came four years after President Barack Obama declared that computer science is as essential for K–12 students as reading, writing, and arithmetic. The announcement gave momentum to a computer-science-for-all movement and propelled industry-backed nonprofits such as code.org to the forefront of debates about what should be taught in schools. Joe Biden, both as vice president and during his 2020 presidential campaign, emphasized his support for having K–12 students learn the subject.
The effort is part of a broader attempt to overhaul and update the U.S. education system. Proponents argue that it’s time to amend the public-school curriculum to reflect life skills demanded by the ever-changing Information Age. Such a reframing is necessary, they say, to ensure students can compete for positions focused on cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and mobile-app development.
After Obama’s high-profile endorsement of code.org’s mission, the organization joined educators and other advocates to help persuade state legislatures to allocate millions of dollars toward new laws that advance its vision that “every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science.”
Some states made more progress than others. Thirty-seven adopted computer-science standards for K–12, and 20 required all high schools to offer the subject. In Nevada and South Carolina, the discipline is now a graduation requirement. New York City committed to making the subject available at every K–12 school by 2025. New rules such as these helped drive about 186,000 students to take Advanced Placement computer-science tests in 2020, nine times more than in 2010.
A 2020 report from code.org found that 47 percent of the nation’s high schools teach computer science. Despite a growing belief among parents, administrators, and students in computer science’s benefits, and millions of dollars allocated to offering it in K–12 schools, gaps in access and participation among Black, Hispanic, and white students persist.
Today, computer-science-for-all leaders acknowledge they’ve hit a plateau and that they need more-widespread buy-in from lawmakers and educators and increased funding to overcome disparities in the U.S. education system that fall along racial and socioeconomic lines.
“Early on, we got all these early-adopter states, school districts, and teachers raising their hands, and there was a frenzy of activity. Now we’re moving into people being told to do it,” said Ruthe Farmer, chief evangelist for CSforAll, a New York–based nonprofit. “The skepticism around how we’re going to get this done is still there.”
Constraining the movement’s growth are a scarcity of well-qualified teachers, particularly in math and science, and competition for resources in cash-strapped school districts. Hard-fought progress was also stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, when states such as Colorado and Missouri reallocated or froze funding dedicated to broadening access to the subject in K–12.
At the same time, Covid-19 laid bare long-standing inequities in access to laptops and high-speed broadband connections necessary to expand availability across cultures and to English language learners, rural students, and those with disabilities.
As advocates remain focused on quantifying computer science’s inroads into public schools, there is a dearth of research that evaluates the effectiveness of different instructional methods for developing such skills. Assessments with which to measure curriculum quality, reach, and relevance are also largely absent.
What’s more, there is no consensus on a robust definition of computer science, with some principals assuming courses that teach office skills will suffice. Some advocates now say it’s time to step back and reassess whether computer-science education really is “for all.”
“We are going really, really fast in trying to get computer science into schools and there absolutely is an urgency,” said Julie Flapan, director of the Computer Science Equity Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We have to have conversations about what’s good for computer science and what’s good for kids. We wrestle with these tensions,” added Flapan, who is also co-director of the CSforCA Coalition. “We need to be mindful about not creating unintended consequences.”
The tradeoffs of adding the subject in K–12 schools are now becoming apparent. In California, computer-science enrollment growth came at the expense of social studies, English/language arts, foreign language, and arts courses, researchers found. The field’s supporters stress the subject must be taught alongside, or integrated into, other core courses, rather than replacing them.
“I don’t think math class or computer science should be an either-or situation,” wrote Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, via email. “Students need math, and they need computer science in today’s world.”
Or Do They?
Some scholars, though, reject the notion that all K–12 students should learn computer science, comparing the movement to other industry-driven efforts to add vocational training to public schools that led to agriculture, shop, and home-economics classes.
“Why would you teach coding to little kids, or even big kids, unless they want to be programmers?” said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
“Because schools are politically vulnerable, this current push for coding for all, for computer science for all, is part of a historical trend to alter schools’ curriculum to meet the needs of a vested interest,” added Cuban, author of The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet? Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.
The debate over the merits of computer science for all in K–12 schools is also occurring globally, said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He said teaching coding is not useful for K–12 students because coding languages change often.
“There is a debate about this that is similar to the one in the U.S.—you have here in Europe a technology industry that is very much pushing for these skills,” said Schleicher, “and educators are pushing back and saying they don’t want to teach for today’s workplaces; they want to teach for tomorrow’s workplaces.”
Schleicher said he does believe that students should learn how to think computationally, particularly as that kind of thinking applies to data science and artificial intelligence. But, he said, using computers just to teach with the tool of the day, like a pen in the 17th century, or a typewriter in the 1900s, is a “time-bound phenomenon” with little relevance for students’ futures.
These arguments point up a fundamental challenge for proponents of the computer-science-for-all movement: defining what the subject is and how it should be taught.
What Is Computer Science?
There is consensus on what computer science is not—basic computing skills such as Internet searching, keyboarding, and using a spreadsheet—but no universal agreement on what it actually is. There are many different definitions, largely because decisions about what and how students are taught are made at the state, district, and school level. New York emphasizes digital literacy; Texas incorporated the discipline into its technical career standards.
Many proponents of the computer-science-for-all movement, which began in the early 2000s, spend considerable time trying to dispel the notion that it’s solely about learning coding.
Coding languages used in developing software are a tool for computer science, educators say, just as arithmetic is a tool for math and words are a tool for verbal communication. At its core, computer science is about learning how to create new technologies, rather than simply using them, advocates stress. It strives, for example, to teach students how to design the software that will make the spreadsheet.
Just as important as coding, backers add, are foundational concepts such as computational thinking. This approach to computer science provides students with a way to solve problems by breaking them down into parts, and it can be integrated across subjects as early as kindergarten.
In some states, computer-science standards overlap with math standards and involve concepts such as sequencing, ordering, and sorting. Standards can also include science concepts such as devising a hypothesis, testing it, refining it, and perhaps redesigning an experiment after “debugging.”
Just as students should learn how to read, analyze, and write text effectively, they need exposure to computer science to become informed digital citizens who understand how technology impacts their everyday lives, said Yasmin Kafai, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Kafai, co-author of Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming, said that a big part of the world nowadays is the digital public sphere, “where we interface through machines.”
“We want to provide students in K–12 with an understanding of what that actually is—it’s a designed world, and it makes a difference when you understand how it’s designed,” she added. “It helps to understand its limitations.”
Such skills might help young people feel comfortable working with large amounts of data and empower them to push back against the negative impacts of technology.
After defining what computer science means for their districts, administrators need to decide what outcomes they hope to achieve for their students, advocates say. They acknowledge that in the early years of computer-science education, they overemphasized its role in training future programmers. With a shortage of tech workers in many regions, workforce development has been a powerful argument for offering computer science.
Jobs in computer and information technology are among the best paying in the United States, with the median annual salary for these occupations clocking in at $91,250 in May 2020, more than twice the median annual pay for occupations overall. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that such jobs will be among the fastest growing in the next decade. Yet the vocational approach to computer science turns off some administrators, who believe that K–12 education is more than just training young people for jobs.
“We’ve been using the workforce argument a lot when we talk about expanding computer-science education,” said Leigh Ann DeLyser, co-founder and executive director of CSforAll. “Yet the national survey of school administrators from NCES shows that less than half of school administrators see workforce development in the top three priorities for student education. We were putting out a message that was completely mismatched from what administrators thought was the purpose for kids to be in school.”
CSforAll has worked with more than 146 public school districts serving about 2 million students to conduct mapping exercises that helped administrators shape their computer-science curricula to match their school’s vision for what their students should get out of the subject.
Just like states’ definitions of computer science, visions that undergird state standards vary widely. In Nevada, it’s about civic engagement. In Indiana, school reform. In North Dakota, cybersecurity.
These values and others expressed in state guidelines, such as equity, literacy, innovation, and personal fulfillment, are key to developing curricula that appeals to all students, according to a CSforAll study.
Computer-science curriculum choices abound, with both commercial programs and free options available. While apparently no one tracks which curricula are used most often, the free introductory courses offered by code.org are very popular and currently used by about 1.3 million teachers.
Schools have also widely adopted curricula offered by Project Lead The Way, Codelicious, and Code Monkey. Some curricula feature easy-to-use block-coding programs, such as the MIT-developed Scratch and Google’s Blockly, that allow programmers to drag and drop blocks containing instructions to create animated stories and games.
Some curricula integrate computer science into other subjects. Bootstrap aligns programming concepts in game design with algebra. Project GUTS helps students create scientific models using web-based software.
Advocates suggest it’s best to cultivate students’ interest in computer science in elementary school, citing research that the earlier children are exposed to the subject the more likely they are to want to take it in middle and high school. Teaching computer science in younger grades is still not common, however.
To broaden access to the subject for high school students, researchers developed more basic curricula. Exploring Computer Science, which includes web design, data analysis, robotics, and programming through Scratch, is used by districts in Los Angeles, Spokane, Chicago, and New York City, among others.
Another course, AP Computer Science Principles, was designed, like Exploring Computer Science, in part to interest more women and minorities in the discipline. Teachers can use a variety of curricula to teach the AP course that includes lessons on how to design and program “socially useful” mobile apps, write and talk about ideas, and collaborate with peers. In 2016–17, the course’s first year, AP Computer Science Principles attracted more students than any other AP course debut in history.
Even as more schools and teachers use such wide-ranging curricula, determining their quality is difficult, noted Allison Scott, chief executive officer at the Kapor Foundation, an Oakland nonprofit that researches diversity in technology. “I think there is still a lot we don’t know about the effectiveness of computer-science curriculum overall, due to a few key challenges,” Scott wrote via email, “including the lack of consistent assessments for computer-science courses and the lack of information on the curriculum landscape.”
A December 2020 report from the College Board found that students who took computer-science principles were three times more likely to choose the major in college than peers who didn’t take the course—16.9 percent versus 5.2 percent. Even so, the nonprofit has no information on which curriculum was used in AP classes—it endorses a range of options for teachers to choose from—and whether any resulted in better outcomes, Scott wrote.
Researchers who study how computer-science curricula is used in elementary and middle schools found that teaching approaches range from very scripted lessons to open-ended ones where students are asked to create projects on a blank page.
“In our study, we found really big gaps in learning—for some kids you give them a blank screen and they are not going to push themselves,” said Diana Franklin, an associate professor in computer science at The University of Chicago. “The way people are teaching and the curriculum they use is not sufficient—there is room for improvement.”
Instead of randomly clicking on blocks in an open-ended approach to coding, she said, students first need to be given an example project that uses prompts to walk them through the steps of programming something on the screen and that requires them to write down their observations and predict what will happen with each step.
To track students’ progress and understanding of the material, the discipline needs written assessments that are validated, Franklin said. Such tests would allow schools to publish computer-science successes, she added. To help students score well on such assessments, schools would be incentivized to improve their curriculum, she added.
The Teaching Gap
Often, it’s difficult to implement a computer-science program district-wide, and it falls to teachers to promote the subject in individual schools. Many find the discipline intimidating because they weren’t trained in it in college. If teachers don’t fully understand the content, they won’t be able to teach it well, said Anne Ottenbreit-Leftwich, an associate professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University Bloomington.
More than one in three public school teachers interviewed for the 2020 Google/Gallup study said the quality of computer-science instruction that students received in school was fair or poor. Researchers who study the subject said that, often, quality suffers because teachers are expected to add computer science to their already jam-packed schedules.
“We have unfair expectations for our teachers—we say they have to have every student this far on literacy and students this far on math,” Ottenbreit-Leftwich said. “There is not enough time in the day for professional development for computer science, then there is not enough time to teach it.”
Teachers who volunteer to teach the discipline or are assigned the responsibility often receive several weeks of training.
“We are very much behind the curve in growing the numbers of computer-science teachers,” said Melissa Rasberry, a consultant with the American Institutes for Research who serves as principal investigator for CSforAll Teachers. “Very few programs are university based—you could count them on one hand at this point.”
After teachers are trained, they often find that few students understand what their computer-science classes are about. Stereotypes abound around which groups are suited to excel in the discipline.
“I believe that youth today understand that it is mostly white and Asian males who fill the ranks of the tech industry,” wrote Margolis, the UCLA researcher, via email, “and that this negatively impacts their sense of identity and agency in this field.”
Equitable access to computer science in K–12 schools has proved among the thorniest challenges for the computer-science-for-all push, even as proponents say it’s at the heart of the movement.
Disparities in computer-science course participation are difficult to pin down, since most states don’t collect demographic data on student enrollment in such courses, code.org’s 2020 report found. The number of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students taking AP computer-science exams remains low across many states, with several states reporting zero Black or Hispanic female students sitting for such tests in 2020.
From California to New York, advocates recount how they celebrated hard-fought gains in getting courses introduced in high schools, only to see them populated largely by students from middle- and upper-income families. Chicago Public Schools moved the needle on equity, but only by requiring that all students obtain computer-science credits to graduate.
“We set forth with a goal of changing the face of computing to make sure generally more girls, and more Black and brown kids, were taking computer science, and we’ve seen that,” said Lucia Dettori, an associate dean at DePaul University and a founding member of the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science. “But I know from talking to people around the country that just adding the class doesn’t mean more people are taking it.”
Educators are working with nonprofits such as Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and Latina Girls Code to engage a wider range of students. Researchers found that many girls and students of color are looking to use technology for a larger social purpose.
Extracurricular activities such as Hour of Code, Computer Science Education Week, and robotics competitions helped to expose nearly 7 in 10 middle and high school students to the topic, Gallup found. Such programs can nurture interest in the discipline and perhaps prompt parents and students to demand that it be made part of the curriculum, advocates say.
At Salt Lake City’s West High, Nicole Reitz-Larsen is constantly searching for culturally relevant ways to draw more 7th through 12th graders into her computer-science classes. Like teachers nationwide, she recently turned to CodeScty, which uses hip hop to “develop core competencies in computational thinking and coding,” according to their website.
She also enticed students on their way to eat lunch outside, or in the cafeteria, or in commons area, to participate in “robot challenges.” In one instance, students programmed robots to play in hallway soccer games on “fields” created with painter’s tape on shower curtains.
“People walking in the hallways, or other classes, would want to see what my students were doing, and it would interest them in checking out the class,” Reitz-Larsen said, adding, “we never have enough desks for students.”
The educator also works with code.org to train fellow teachers nationwide and answers their questions about how to develop engaging curricula and convince their colleagues that computer science should be more than an elective.
“It’s been eight years since we started teaching it at West, and it’s taken that long to convince counselors in my school that anyone can do computer science,” said Reitz-Larsen. “Now, whoever is in the hallway, I have the same representation in my classroom—I purposefully make sure students are comfortable in my classes, and I tell them to bring their friends.”
Over the past few months, I have “learned” how to interact with robots over issues that I have raised about lousy services I have paid for. Robots answer my questions. And robots call me often. Not a pretty exchange, from my point of view. So this month’s feature cartoons will deal with the slow but steady robotization of human contacts. Enjoy!