How can computer science not be state graduation requirement?

by CalWatchdog Staff | February 20, 2013 9:16 am

compsci2Feb. 20, 2013

By Chris Reed

The reports earlier this month that the state will no longer require eighth-graders to take Algebra 1 and allow them instead to take a somewhat less rigorous course covering algebra touched off a minor flap[1] between those who saw this as dumbing-down standards and those who noted that the less rigorous course was better preparation for new state standardized tests.

But what’s needed is a far broader debate on the wisdom of having high-school graduation requirements that largely reflect the thinking of the mid-20th century.

This is the official California Department of Education list of the 13 year-long courses that students must complete to graduate:

* Three courses in English;

          * Two courses in mathematics, including one year of Algebra I (EC Section 51224.5);

* Two courses in science, including biological and physical sciences;

* Three courses in social studies, including United States history and geography; world history, culture, and geography; a one-semester course in American government and civics, and a one-semester course in economics;

* One course in visual or performing arts, foreign language, or commencing with the 2012-13 school year, career technical education. For the purpose of satisfying the minimum course requirement, a course in American Sign Language shall be deemed a course in foreign language;

* Two courses in physical education, unless the pupil has been exempted pursuant to the provisions of EC Section 51241

Suppose this year we saw a California commission start from scratch in assembling a list of mandatory courses for high school graduation. It would have faced near-universal incredulity from any bright person of any age and everyone under 30 if the list didn’t include a year of computer science.

‘Veneration’ for past or devotion to teacher status quo?

Computers are so central to work, society, our personal lives and more that it is hard to fathom that computer science isn’t a mandatory emphasis of K-12 public education. In an April 2011 joint interview with retiring San Diego State University President Stephen Weber, I asked him about the insanity of not requiring computer science and whether he shared my view that graduation standards were badly outdated.

weber3“Absolutely. One of the frustrations of my life is that it’s so hard to move embedded systems. I can’t imagine anybody if you sat down with a blank piece of paper that would invent the high school curriculum that we have now,” said Weber, who won high marks for turning SDSU into the star of the CSU system and a place with a stronger freshman class than several UC campuses.

Weber credited the inertia to what he called the “strange human veneration for what was done in the past.” Yet there is another reason why California high school graduation rules reflect the values of the Golden State of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years: Changing graduation requirements threatens to put not just a few thousand but tens of thousands of teachers out on the streets.

This is not far-fetched. This is how teachers unions think. Even after the evidence grew overwhelming that bilingual education was a failure that handicapped many students, teachers unions in the Northeast[2] fought bitterly for the retention of the programs. What was best for students wasn’t their priority.

If California high school students were required to take one yearlong computer science program to graduate, that’s a lot of displaced teachers. If state high schoolers were required to take two — which is the strong recommendation of highly successful Del Mar high-tech entrepreneur and school activist Michael Robertson — the displacement would be immense.

But whether the mandate is for one year or two years of computer science, it would be good for kids, good for California, good for America. Everybody seems to agree about the need to promote STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education. Yet few seem to connect this desire for a highly capable STEM workforce with the option of using high-school graduation mandates to promote such a workforce.

When I interviewed Weber in 2011, I asked the San Diego State president about the game-changing “A Nation at Risk” report[3] issued by a federal commission in 1983 that kicked off the education reform movement with this instantly famous description of the U.S. school system: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Weber said he was deeply frustrated that resulting reforms failed to live up to the vision outlined in the report.

‘Nation at Risk’ report touted computer science requirement — in 1983

And what did “A Nation at Risk” grasp was critical in 1983 that still eludes California educators and leaders 30 years later? The importance of computer science and a technologically literate workforce.

The report called for a half-year of computer science to be a high school graduation requirement. The 1983 status quo of limited emphasis on science, technology and math was unacceptable, the authors warned:

“These deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new fields is accelerating. … Computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives . … Technology is radiaclly transforming a host of … occupations. They include health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction, and the building, repair and maintenance of sophisticated scientific, educational, military, and industrial equipment.”

steve-jobs-iphone-apple.handoutIf all this was obvious in 1983, it is 1 million times more obvious in 2013. And yet instead of making computer science a high school graduation requirement, here’s what the state that gave the world Silicon Valley, the iPhone and so much more frets about: what sort of algebra class to make students take.

In so doing, California joins Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia[4] on the list of the 41 states that do not allow computer science to count toward completing high school math or science graduation requirements. Supply your own punch line — at least if you’re not too depressed about the latest confirmation of the horrible stewardship of our leaders.

  1. touched off a minor flap:
  2. teachers unions in the Northeast:
  3. report:,d.cGE&cad=rja
  4. California joins Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia:

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