Many high schools offering “Computer Science” really aren’tDecember 14th, 2010
The following post is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote this semester examining the use of high school computer science classes to increase the number of women in computer science. Yes, the high school I reference is the one I attended.
A major issue in teaching computer science in high schools is that not only do the students not understand what computer science is, but frequently neither do the teachers and administrators. High schools frequently offer classes under the heading “computer science,” that are actually courses on keyboarding or using applications. Actual basic computer science classes are characterized by study of data structures, algorithms, and program design. The figure below shows a course description sheet for “computer science” classes in a California high school. Of the two classes described, neither teaches computer science. The first teaches keyboarding and use of Microsoft applications, while the second teaches website design. While the website design course claims to teach the use of “HTML programming code,” this is a misuse of the term, as HTML is a markup language rather than a programming language and requires no understanding of algorithms or program design.
While the content of these classes may be useful and interesting to many students, they contribute to the stereotype that computer science only involves advanced application use. Students who might have been interested in the mathematics and logic involved in computer programming might never know about it from the impression they get from this school’s “computer science” program. It is fine and useful to offer these kinds of courses at the high school level, but they should not be called “computer science.” Because the difference between computer science and computer-related general market labor preparation classes is not well understood, encouraging more girls to take computer classes as they are now might have the opposite of the desired effect: more girls might get the impression that computer science is only advanced application use, which might turn them off to computer science.
In addition to school administrators, education researchers sometimes misunderstand the difference between computer science courses and courses that teach basic computer skills. The National Center for Education Statistics is careful to note in its publications that classes that teach keyboarding and general computer application skills fall under the category of “General Market Labor Preparation,” as opposed to more advanced computer classes that fall under the category of “Occupational Education” (Levesque 2008). However, the paper “Impacts of CTE on Labor Success” sorts computer science CTE into one category which “included courses in keyboarding taught in high school, word processing, computer applications, and programming” (Bishop 2004) [pdf link]. The problem with this method is that it groups together two often disparate kinds of students: those taking keyboarding classes who intend to apply for basic clerical work, and those taking advanced programming classes who intend to work in high levels of industry. The data resulting from this grouping is skewed. The report claims that computer courses had “large significant positive effects on earnings and wage rates in 2000” (Bishop 2004) [pdf link]. Unfortunately, there is no way to know whether workers who took only general keyboarding classes experienced the same wage increases as workers who took advanced programming classes.
Grouping data this way masks not only the gap in pay between clerical workers and programmers, but also the pay gap between genders. One might claim that women take as many CTE computer science courses as men now, but unfortunately more women take general keyboarding classes while more men take programming classes (Levesque 2008). This contributes to the problem of women in IT being concentrated in low to mid level jobs, while high level IT jobs are dominated by men. If more research separated computer class attendance by both class level and attendance, it would be easier to see the problem.
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