Why College Park Doesn’t Lead in Computer Science Education

By Jim Purtilo
Computer Science

Advanced genetics enable crops to feed more people and reduce world hunger. New models of brain cells arm researchers to combat dementia, mental illness and neurological disorders at the most fundamental levels. “Big data” opens windows for understanding the past in ways that historians could never have won by classical methods, while educators exploit data analytics to uncover novel pathways to student success.

Achievements like these capture the public’s imagination as people tune in to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) like never before. This is especially true of young people weighing career choices, which puts a spotlight on STEM education. What’s the preparation to ride that tech wave? Every day brings a wider variety of topics we might study, but there’s one constant. The savviest consumers of STEM education all seek a solid foundation in computation.

Computation is the lens through which all scholars view their fields anew. You don’t sequence a genome, design energy-efficient homes, re-mix electronic music to entertain widely distributed audiences or diagnose an engine’s performance issues without a fearless mastery of computers. Those goals aren’t reached by merely creating more programmers or training people to use one or another application; they come from broad education in computational thinking which is the deep understanding of what such tools can accomplish in the first place.

Computational thinking is a competitiveness edge. You can’t frame a task in a way that invites better outcomes via machine assistance unless you appreciate what the machine can do. It is also a workforce matter. Employees who can’t recognize when they are using the wrong tools or poor data won’t recognize when they produce inferior results; they become the weak link. We thus promote creativity and productivity in all fields today by promoting computation.

In spite of an early lead and good intentions, the College Park campus does not play a strong role in today’s computational renaissance. We are well behind where we might be.

This is one story about the history of computer science education in Maryland – an unsuccessful effort to unite high schools, campuses and industry behind higher expectations for our young. It is told to illustrate relaxed leadership practices that allow us to trail other programs nationally.

High schools got computers before they got curricula

In the earliest days of computers, the only way to learn about them was on a campus, and like most universities College Park created a major in CS (computer science). What was the best high school preparation to become a CS major? Math was a good choice because of how early computers were used, but really such fundamentals prepared you for many things.

The explosion of personal computers invited their incorporation into high schools, and who could blame parents for demanding them? With markets soaring and a frontier atmosphere, everyone with a dream and a PC had a shot at the big time. Of course they came to schools.

But there were as many views of what to teach as there were teachers. Would we teach programming? Never mind that educators were still learning to program, and that even today we struggle to recognize what is a good program for purposes of preparing young people. What about applications? Surely the lore of spreadsheets or word processors was a ticket to a job, went another line of thought. Others said networking and communications made the secret sauce of success. Or maybe hardware repair.

It was when the state stepped in to tame this frontier that we started going off the rails. Maryland was progressive with its early recognition that all students need tech familiarity, a standard that began as keyboarding and today might be reflected in ability to search the internet to answer basic questions. It is a low bar to get over. But with basic tech-spectations for all came state policy to direct tech-inclined students toward training programs, not science.

Administrations of the era measured success by how many “workforce ready” high school graduates tracked directly into influential state industries. This favored curricula that bestowed industrial certifications (e.g., network administration or database management) via “career technology education” (CTE) programs. Soon after turn of the millennium, when industry asked for more workers, the state disqualified computer classes from counting toward its general tech requirement. This was done to channel students to terminal degrees. If a tech-inclined student wanted to count programming toward graduation, then a vocational track was the only path.

That policy was surprising for a progressive state, since it commoditized workers. Maryland assumed training costs so corporations could hire or fire as contracts came and went, without making investments which create stronger employee bonds. The policy also diminished opportunities for college-bound students, since those in ‘college prep’ tracks necessarily self-selected out of programming. While some schools offered fine classes in computation, they were inconsistently designed and inequitably available. They relied on principals to allocate resources for a course which couldn’t satisfy graduation requirements – a tough task in tight times.

Shouldn’t the flagship lead?

After regulations crushed incentives to broadly offer computing, the university scene was bleak. I chaired UM’s CS undergrad program at the time and saw huge differences in arriving students’ preparations. A few had tremendous previous experience obtained as electives. Some knew “tech stuff” but lacked foundations, so unhappily took intro classes they saw as redundant. Most started at square one. All were products of ‘college prep’ tracks, but since computer science did not count as science, and Maryland defined no standard for its content, few students arrived with any realistic expectation of what CS is about. None came from CTE tracks, whose industrial certifications displaced math, Shakespeare and other content needed for flagship success.

Students deserved a full spectrum of opportunities – not just tech training – which meant high schools and universities needed a shared understanding of foundations. With a courage born of naiveté, in 2004 I launched the effort to define a Computer Science Education degree. At first I just wanted to improve my major by populating schools with better-prepared educators, and to raise the bar of their expectations. Over time I came to see the need for broader alignments.

I recruited talented collaborators, and together we promoted a curriculum. We enjoyed strong organic support throughout the community. Maryland State Department of Education, which is responsible for teacher credentialing, was welcoming, as was USM. I felt we worked together in good faith toward shared goals. We all wanted to find the best ways for students to get ahead.

Everyone except our campus leadership, that is. By the time our major in computer science education became official – earning approval of a key campus committee in May 2013 – it had weathered all manner of bureaucratic inattention. Eighteen months passed while it languished, virtually untouched, in one trip through my college’s office alone. And this was for a STEM area that Governor O’Malley called an economic priority.

Still, it was approved! And immediately sandbagged. The then-new Provost, Mary Ann Rankin, abruptly announced that all College Park STEM Education programs would be changed to match the “UTeach” model from the University of Texas whence she came. After a nine year process that was mostly spent waiting on bureaucrats, our first official task following approval became redesigning the major to match an incompatible Texas curriculum.

It got worse. By paying stiff licensing fees for UTeach materials, a school obligates itself to do things the UTeach way, yet UTeach offered no CS Ed materials. As a result, bureaucrats put on the brakes to let Texas figure out what it wants to do for computer science education first.

Instead of rolling out a first-in-the-nation program that might have served as a model for others, Maryland went to the back of the line. This left us with an approved major but no administrative willingness to offer its courses or work with MSDE to certify its graduates.

Where we are twelve years into the effort ….

Today other states are finalizing plans to bring computation to all. New York City committed to making computation available to its 1.1 million students. Chicago public schools include computation in its K-8 curricula. In October, President Obama signed the STEM Education Act, a bipartisan measure that affirms CS as a critical STEM science for purposes of infusion in schools.

There has been action in Maryland. While waiting for the flagship, officials reversed a policy of more than a decade and recognized computer classes as satisfying tech familiarity. They grant graduation credit for some programming classes too, though as mathematics, not science. And they adopted a teacher certification exam (previously they offered no standardized body of CS knowledge), though it seems to be based on tech. Our inaction has cost; we would like for a College Park plan to have influenced those actions.

Meanwhile at College Park you won’t find our CS Ed major advertised at the CS web site, or even acknowledged in its official inventory of programs. Since 2013, my college, where UTeach is dubbed “Terrapin Teachers,” has been adapting UM’s STEM Ed programs to the Texas model. Staff understandably focused on remediating venerable tracks (such as math or physics) before taking up an area that is anything but the apple of leadership’s eye, but did recently start work on adapting CS. It isn’t close to being completed.

None of this approaches the broader question I came to ask, which is how we might improve computational thinking among all students. Other universities recognize the competitive edge that comes with a deeper understanding of computation, and they construct learning goals accordingly. At Georgia Tech, often described as a peer, all students of the liberal arts must take several courses involving computation. In contrast, our General Education curriculum is an old-millennium model defined without once using the word “computer.” The most we can say of all graduates is that we hope they know no less about computers than when they arrived.

When the absence of computational best practices among high schools widened preparation gaps among entering CS majors – gaps that impacted our time-to-degree and retention rates – CS faculty endorsed the CS Education major by a unanimous vote, intending it to be part of our strategy for long-range success. (Faculty in the Education College endorsed this jointly-owned program as well, though subsequent adoption of UTeach mandated the elimination of a double major in secondary education.) On the present trajectory, this gap between computational haves and have-nots will not only widen, it risks disadvantaging all of our majors.

Simple business realities.

Campus officials make rational decisions about policies and priorities based upon what offers them greatest value and how they must account for their effort. If CS Ed languished then it is because the individuals involved found greater value in other activities and were not held to account otherwise.

We know the priorities by observation. Provost Rankin found value in UTeach, a program she led in Texas and continued to serve after coming to Maryland. The CS Chairman, Samir Khuller, continues to find greater value in fundraising for a faculty office building than in implementing an academic program for which his unit is responsible. (The building is a worthy goal, but one wonders whether major donors realize their generosity has nothing to do with CS Education.)

The longer we remain stalled, the more opportunity we offer other campuses and companies to study alternatives; we know by observation that some UM faculty working with UTeach find greater value in serving as consultants to others’ projects than in implementing CS Ed here.

Finally we know that this campus finds value in producing technologists over teachers. We are blessed with students who want to teach, and who declare a CS Ed major in spite of barriers to learning of it, but our advisors pressure them to switch to a traditional CS major. This increases our most populous major on campus. A value? UM charges more (in “differential tuition”) for students it sees as having greater future earning potential. It is fair to observe that a practice of squeezing future technologists for more cash looks slightly less awkward than squeezing future teachers for more cash. Regardless, any curriculum alignment that promises more and better CS teachers in the long run must overcome the budgetary self-interest of a provost, dean and chairman who share in a revenue windfall from having more CS majors.

That’s the business reality. Computation struggles in a hostile educational environment simply because bureaucrats find greater value to not doing it.

The curriculum racket is great for consultants and institutes that make a living by delivering change instead of content, but while campus bureaucrats enjoy freedom from accountability, cohort after cohort of kids complete studies – both at high school and the flagship – without enjoying equal access to a computation-centered curriculum that is their gateway to the future.


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