Computing and the Common Core

K-12 computer science education might get a boost from a recently released document called the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). This initiative is historic for the United States. For the first time forty-eight governors have come together to propose a common set of English arts and mathematics standards — which are key drivers of the curriculum students are exposed to — for their states. Until the common core standards initiative, state standards were generally disconnected from each other.

The exciting news is that computer science is listed as a potential fourth course in their model pathway, which is described below. Or, put another way, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is proposing that computer science be part of the students’ core curriculum. States are not bound by these standards or this model, and this doesn’t mean that once the draft is made final computer science will count as a mathematics credit in high schools across the nation. But political momentum for the initiative is building and being a part of it gives computer science a much needed boost.

To better understand how computer science fits into the Common Core State Standards Initiative we need to dive deeper into policy landscape and context.

Most education policy discussions revolve around standards and a student’s "core" curriculum requirements. Every state has standards for education, and many assess student progress toward meeting these standards. But each state sets is own standards. For example, a Virginia 11th grade mathematics standard might be in a different grade in North Carolina or might not exist in another state. The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes the main cause of the problem is that we’ve given states too much flexibility on setting standards and too little in implementing them through rigid testing requirements. The initiative is part of an attempt to change this dynamic.

The second piece of the policy framework revolves around core curriculum — i.e. what "counts" toward a student’s requirements for high school graduation. Of the states that have credit requirements, many are moving toward a "four by four" plan. For example, students will have to take four courses of mathematics and four courses of science to graduate. Typically other disciplines such as English arts, social studies, etc. are in the "core."

When it comes to computer science education in K-12 we have two major policy issues: 1) most states do not have specific computer science standards, and 2) if computer science courses are in schools, they don’t count toward a student’s core credits. Some states like Texas, Georgia and Virginia have moved to count computer science courses in high school as either a math or science; however, in most states computer science is an elective. This leaves computer science courses starved for attention, resources and student interest.

The mathematics standards in the draft document are split by grade level from K-8; certain concepts would be taught in certain grades. In high school, the framework splits the remaining standards into threads to be taught in some sequence. To help guide course development in high school, the initiative developed a model four-course pathway for mathematics, which is part of the Appendix to the standards. The standards only reflect three years of courses, but the model reflects what they would consider appropriate courses for additional study. Computer science is one of those additional courses in the mathematics pathway.

ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association have met with the leaders of the initiative and advocated that it computer science should be part of a student’s core subject. The draft of the common core standards initiative gives us a foothold in meeting this goal.

Now the community can support this breakthrough by sending letters for support for the inclusion of computer science in the final document. The initiative is taking comments on the draft until April 2. There are two ways to comment. The first is by taking the survey, which as an additional comment area where you can express support for computer science. (Follow this link and click on the "submit feedback" to get to the survey.) The second is by sending letters to commonstandards@ccsso.org.

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