Posts Tagged computer science

Teach Real Algebra Instead of Wasting Time with Fun Apps

Published by — “The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

Emmanuel Schanzer majored in Computer-Science at Cornell University.  With such a high-value degree, he knew he could sail into a lucrative, snazzy job.  But he was keenly aware that he was a C.S. hotshot (my word) because he’d entered college with good math skills already under his belt.  No one codes who doesn’t understand algebra — you know, the hard stuff that looks like a Slavic language with some numbers thrown in.  To get a lot more kids, especially ill-prepared urban kids, into the bright future that comes with computer science, someone had to build up their math first.

So later on, Schanzer would create Bootstrap’s curriculum.  Because — buyer beware! — most of the apps and programs that currently promise to teach kids algebra are fun, but a total waste of time.

“When you hear, ‘This is so amazing!  These apps teach kids to program!’  That’s snake oil.  Every minute your students spend on empty engagement while they’re failing algebra, you’re assuring that they’re not going to college.  Studies show that the grade kids get in Algebra I is the most significant grade to predict future income.”

A Man With a Math Mission

In college Schanzer searched for a way to improve math instruction through real programming, and found Program by Design (PxB, about which I’ve been writing for the last 2 weeks).  While excellent, it’s pitched too high, assuming strong math skills that challenged urban students haven’t yet acquired.  He vowed to redesign it one day — after cashing in on his computer-science degree.

But his years working in the tech sector were no match for his passion.  Plan “B,” then.  With an education degree in hand, he started teaching his beloved algebra in urban schools.  But the programming tools available to his students were maddeningly off the mark.  “First, none of the popular K-12 computer languages/teaching tools had anything to do with math, which seemed insane to me.  They had things called “functions” and “variables,” but they didn’t behave at all like the functions and variables students see in their math classes.  How’s that supposed to help them?  Students were expected to entertain themselves by playing with the tools, but it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to learn.”

“The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

“The goal is to help kids get the computer to do something, because there is an intangible value in being in control.  It’s engaging, no question.  So in the last 5 years, all the sexy languages are drag-and-drop programs, like Scratch and Alice.  I have enormous respect for these tools, as long as they’re a first step towards PythonJava.  But by themselves, they are a terrific answer to just one question:  How do we make it seem easy to code?”

Those programs have built-in blocks of code, represented by icons that kids can manipulate.  But kids don’t interact with the code itself, never mind write it or program.

“Typing code is hard.  If you forget a semicolon, the program doesn’t work.  So the supposition has been that if they play with a tool, it will help them later.  But that’s not programming and it’s not algebra.  Classroom time is valuable.  If you’re spending 50 hours in the course of a year “coding” in block language, you’re stealing time from real learning.  Students get an “A” in high school and then go to college and find programming is something else entirely, and get totally turned off.”

Bootstrap Is Born

Like a good Millennial, Schanzer founded a start-up to solve the problem.  Bootstrap’s programming language behaves like the algebra students learn in class, reinforcing honest-to-God algebraic concepts.  Yes, Bootstrap teaches kids the basics of game building, but only by teaching the math that supports the code.

The materials are free and online, though professional development is available.  Every lesson is cross-walked with the Common Core, assuring teachers that their efforts will result in real learning.  A growing library provides homework assignments and warm-up activities.  Teachers can use each lesson’s script until they’re familiar with the program.  And a pre and post-test measures the learning.

“Teachers know if it’s not real math.  You have to do things the way teachers do it in a classroom.  Bootstrap enforces mathematical behavior — same vocabulary, steps, style as a math book.  This is a math class.”  The fun video on Bootstrap’s homepage shows kids loving the approach.

As luck would have it, Schanzer found himself Boston’s subway one morning and noticed a guy, a German, working with Program by Design.  Lo!, the man was none other than Matthias Felliesen, creator of PxD.  With that chance meeting, Schnazer secured allies in his efforts to get math to urban kids.  Bootstrap started to take off.

And if a Bootstrap student starts to soar, a teacher can point the budding computer-scientist to PxD for more challenge, and a pipeline to college.

Schanzer is fulfilling his college-born dream to propel bunches of kids into bright futures at places like Cornell.  Absolutely, engagement is important.  But the key all along has been to shore up math itself.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street


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Computer Science is Critical Thinking on Steroids

Published by — The “modeling” required by computer science is a widely transferable skill.

Kathi Fisler has been teaching Computer Science at Worcester Polytechnical Institute for 13 years, a veritable aeon in this young field. “The world wide web came out when I started graduate school in 1991. There were no phones, and what laptops there were, especially in schools, were “paperweights.” Who knew what to do with them?

All told, the field of Computer Science (C.S.) is only 60 years old. Math, Literacy, Science and History have been developing for millennia. And back in the 1990s, only people going into the field studied computing. But then the electronics market exploded as devices got smaller, faster, better, and ubiquitous.

She muses, “Now it’s a totally different world. But while the C.S. community is trying to get a handle on what broad education might prepare students for the digital world, there’s no single definition of what Computer Science even is. With so many interpretations, some colleges say no, we won’t give you credit for taking the computer-science AP course. So how do you make a standard test so colleges know what to expect, without common expectations?”

Well, first and most importantly, understand the giant distinction between coding and programming. Media efforts are trying to attract kids, especially girls, to coding. But coding is to programming what spelling and grammar are to writing — structurally essential, but not the point. They’re tools to make it work. A whole lot of thinking and designing needs to take place first.

Fisler and her colleagues call the design work “modeling.”

In the 1990s Fisler’s husband, also a computer scientist, was a grad student at Rice University, working with Matthias Felliesen’s team just as they began to invent what became Program by Design (PxD, discussed in last week’s column). PxD was an effort to undo the damage done by well-meaning high schools that taught students to code, in whatever computer language, as if learning grammar and spelling would somehow add up to real writing in the end. It was, if you will, bass ackwards.

Since Fisler was literally married to the work, the all-male team asked her to join them. They wanted a maximally diverse group of computer scientists, students, and K-12 teachers to develop an online, free high-school and early-college curriculum. PxD delays the specific issues of coding to the latter stages of learning. Instead, it starts with helping students think through solving problems with data, in computer-science terms.

For the record, the leaders of that original team have stayed with PxD, far flung though they all are; Felleisen is now at Northeastern University.

Let’s say you’re going to write a program.

Fisler says, “The first question is: What is this rich set of data I’m trying to process? What PxD does is expose students to increasingly rich kinds of data and let the programs proceed from there. Let’s start with simple data, like a shopping list.”

Okay, so what do you want to do with the data? Or as Fisler would say, “How do you want to organize the data narrative?” A super-simple program might sort the list alphabetically. A database might know where each item is, to the program uses the list to map an efficient route through the grocery store. Perhaps you’re sophisticated and want to track your lists, so your program asks if you meant to pick up coffee, since it wasn’t on your list.

The PxD curriculum keeps upping the complexity of the data sets, moving on, say, to family trees. Adding a person to a party list is easier than adding a person to a family tree, because family members come with other connections. What the data means to you and what you want to do with it informs the model you develop.

Implementation is next. How am I going to get this done? Once you figure that out, you have your model, a plan that includes the purpose, the data and the strategy for accomplishing the purpose.

With the model in hand, it’s finally time to concentrate on the code — the grammar, syntax, spelling — that will make the program itself work.

Fisler makes an analogy to my writing. First, I outline extensively so I’m clear what point I’m trying to make, what evidence I’m using, and how I will structure the argument. This “modeling” is the hardest and most time-consuming part. When I’m ready to code, I do it in English, in a sloppy but concrete first draft. Lastly, I polish, call it “debug,” so my little verbal machine works, which is to say, does what I want it to.

In ed-speak, this is critical thinking on steroids.

Because modeling has also been around for millennia. Computer science gives a name to the time-honored sequence of thinking, designing and writing, independent of any specific computer language. It’s the “broad education (that) might prepare students for the digital world” — the ultimate transferable skill. And the skills involved in modeling are much more useful, intriguing and fun, for all academic disciplines, than learning strict compliance with the rules. For that reason, along with so many others, students as young a 6th grade should be learning computer science, using Fisler and PxD’s approach.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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In US Schools, ‘Incorrect Answers are Un-American’

PPublished by — Methods are about HOW to solve problems, not solving problems themselves.

Back in the 1990s, circumstances so maddened Dr. Matthias Felleisen, he felt forced to create Program by Design (PxD) to bring life back to computer science and algebra, both. Since then, thousands of students have used it to learn the elements of programming, with or without a teacher. Even I could understand its free, online textbook. The PxD target audience were first-year college students, but Felleisen’s team wanted it to be accessible to clever 10-year-olds. The NSF and other major funders continue to be impressed.

The final straw for Felleisen’s frustration was his children’s 10th-grade babysitter, when he was a young computer-science professor at Rice University. The girl was floundering miserably in math, as so many students do. He offered to help and found her gratefully receptive to his methods.

Felleisen is German by birth, so his own training was quite different than what’s available here. In the U.S., “Teachers hand students the functions, but students do not know where they came from or what they are, really. Algebra problems are terribly boring because teachers just use numbers. Algebra can manipulate pictures, or even words. I have nothing against numbers, but I asked if I could help (the sitter) make functions of her own that could that make a movie or a game.”

Animation helps beginning students see how math makes a computer DO something.

“Of course it worked with her, so I knew then that I could and should change algebra.”

“Multiple choice is about right answers.”

Felleisen’s much bigger issue were his frustrating college students. It seemed they’d been taught to drive straight to right answers with virtually no attention to the methods by which answers emerge. No real-world context engaged students in why the problems were intriguing — contexts like animation, Census data, aerospace calculations or video games. What really excites him are the methods or processes that help students work through problems. He gets impassioned, even a bit snarky about American teaching methods, using the word “boring” a lot.

“I grew up in Germany where I was taught by ex-engineers. They were excited because they had no limits on their imaginations. My textbooks were one-tenth the size of American textbooks. They just had the methods for how to solve problems. My math teachers put the subject in context.”

American textbooks, on the other hand, “are huge, filled with big color pictures of all kinds of objects that may convey the idea of a function (a manual meat grinder), or an alternative view of functions (an image of a graph and a rule with arrows in between). They might describe several uses of functions (economics, biology, or programming), often with one-page stories on a person. None of this reaches the kids. In particular, it fails to bring across why a functions are needed and how they are created systematically. Instead, they have pages of practice problems. My training had no multiple-choice. It was always about the method and not the right answer.”

Felleisen gives his students zeros if they get the correct answer, but don’t show work that lets him see their methods and thinking. They get full credit, though, “if your answer is wrong, but your methods are right and you made a small mistake. Yes of course I had math drill, but only early on, when I was very young. From then on it was all about the methods, for algebra, geometry…”

The drive to get the right answer seems to have wiped out most students’ sense of the possibilities and power of both math and the computer.

“A computer is a dumb piece of engineering.”

After the baby-sitter experience, Felleisen gathered a team to develop a curriculum that turned the computer into the learner. “The student, then, is the teacher who tells the computer what to do. The creative person is the student.”

In his own class, his first lesson teaches students how to get a computer to move a cat across a screen. The cat is on the left, positioned in relation to the “x” and “y” axis.

He says, “You construct a function from the little ingredients. When you understand the relationships in your function, the numbers are just incidental. Mathematicians know this. Functions are just little machines. They’re often written as tables where the function of time is to place the cat image at X distance from the right. Every time I make this picture I change the Time and the coordinates. Yes, these are numbers, but pictures are involved.”

Methods are about HOW to solve problems, not solving problems themselves.

So the driving question ought to be: what problem do you want to solve? What real-world context is engaging? When right answers become too important, math is all plug-n-play with functions and not creative acts of imagination.

Worse still, the bee-line drive to right answers cripples the American student’s imagination and appetite for solving problems in all sorts of ways. And that, in turn, produces way too many wrong answers on the all-important tests. Ironic, no?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Schools Making Minorities into the Serfs of the Information Age

Published by — “Education will only prepare people for life in a democracy when education itself is also democratic.”

“Education will only prepare people for life in a democracy when education itself is also democratic.”

– John Dewey, in 1916, Democracy and Education.

“I think minorities are… are scared, you know, to jump into the (computer-science) future because what it looks like is only Caucasians should be in that industry.”

– Nia, an African-American student in a Los Angeles high school.

During the late 1990′s, Dr. Jane Margolis, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, studied why so few women were entering computer science and related fields.  Using a feminist perspective, she unearthed disincentives for women to get under the hood of a computer.  She published her results in the 1999 book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women and Computing.

But in the course of her studies, the equally remarkable absence of certain minorities did not escape her notice.

Actually, to this day, students taking computer science are overwhelmingly White and Asian males.  Hmmmm.

In 2000, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was also worried about why Latino and African-American students were so miserably represented in computer science classes.

More generally, the NSF was super-concerned about students fleeing the field as a result of the bust.  Too few students were in the pipeline before the bust.  They knew that the “tech crash” meant only a temporary decline in the ability of skate-boarding coders to become overnight gagillionaires.  Venture capital went dry, but the need for computer scientists was still ballooning.

So the NSF funded Margolis’ new project:  “Out of the Loop:  Why are so Few Underrepresented High School Students Learning Computer Science?”

She assembled a team of social scientists based in Los Angeles.  They spent three years studying three big, overcrowded, public high schools, following and interviewing 185 students in total, with the blessing and cooperation of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD).

One school was predominantly low-income Latino, and another low-income Black.  The third was also predominantly low-income and minority, but in a swanky neighborhood full of Tinseltown mansions.  Poor kids were bused in from elsewhere.

Studying participation in K-12 computer science (CS) is totally easy because there’s only one course:  Advanced Placement Computer Science (APCS).  Yes, rare schools have created a CS curricula of their own, but they’re all one-offs, not replicated, not nationally recognized.  The APCS course is offered towards the end of high school, to the sort of smarties who take AP, college-level classes.  Only hot-shot juniors and seniors have a prayer of learning a byte of computer science before college.

One of the three L.A. schools had an APCS program with anemic enrollment.  Another had none.  The third — guess which? — had a robust APCS program, mainly filled with students who did live in the mansions but who, for whatever reason, weren’t going to private schools.

The problem wasn’t a lack of computer equipment.  Nationally, the quantity and quality of computers in low-income public schools has vastly improved.  But better equipment does not teach computational skills, nor can it raise low expectations.  Mostly it serves computer “literacy,” helping kids practice word-processing, PowerPoint and spreadsheets.

Computer “science” is the ability to tell a computer what you want it to do and how to do it, in computer language.

Computing is the key to opportunity in the 21st century.  Certain students are sailing into that future — those that Nia the high school student mentioned.  The others are becoming what math Professor Robert Moses calls the “designated serfs of the information age.”

We have yet another ugly racial divide.

Margolis’ team documented a chasm of inequality.  So they formed a new group, the Computer Science Equity Alliance (CSEA), whose mission was to increase minority participation in APCS in the L.A. schools.

For three years, they ran summer institutes for teachers, collected an army of tutors to prep kids for APCS, and conducted Saturday academies.  They got terrific results — quadrupling the number of Latinos and doubling the number of Blacks taking APCS.  By 2007, 8 percent of all California females who took the APCS exam came from L.A, thanks to them.

In 2008, they captured the story of this gargantuan effort in Stuck in the Shallow End — Education, Race and Computing.

But they realized that  APCS, coming at the end of high school, is way too late to nudge more kids into computer science.  Fortunately, after years of working directly with students, CSEA had picked up tons of tricks to intrigue and engage novices in the fun of computational thinking.  So they shifted their attention to assembling these newfound techniques into a 9th-grade course that would introduce and acclimate students to the subject.  A 9th-grade introductory course would at least prepared students to take APCS later on, if they want.  And computer science burnishes any college application, giving these kids a leg up.

And not a moment too soon.  We don’t need more workplace ghettos for people with brown skin and stunted educations.

So next week we’ll talk to a co-author of the 2010 final product of CSEA’s efforts, theExploring Computer Science course.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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We’ll Never Achieve STEM Goals Without Computer Science

Published by —  “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” — Steve Jobs, founder of Apple

Back in the day, the high-tech innovation that rocked my world was a self-correcting typewriter.  Mere keystrokes replaced the black-ink ribbon with a white-out tape so I could erase mistakes by typing.  Absolute bliss for someone living a writing-intensive life.

Today, super-sophisticated computers and electronics are everywhere.  Literally.  Devices are in everyone’s hands (to an annoying extent), implanted in people’s bodies, and managing all manner of data-heavy work like traffic, government databases, massive communications systems, and more.

Electronic technology has become the lifeblood of all developed economies.  Even nature-bound work — landscape gardeners, wedding florists and farmers — use computers for billing, research, ordering supplies, advertising their wares.

Ubiquitous.  Critical to everyone’s daily life.

So you would think that America’s K-12 education system would be frantically preparing students for all manner of computer skills, from software engineers to hardware experts.  But how many schools do you know that routinely offer computer science in their curriculum, to most students?

For years now, the business community has been pushing educators to get more students into STEM fields — without great success.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  The remarkable dearth of qualified employees in these areas means that even during the recent recession, thousands of jobs went begging for lack of trained applicants.

But in last December’s presentation to the Massachusetts’ Governor’s STEM Council, an industry group, the MASS Tech Hub, made the point that the foundational problem is the lack of computer science.  “Computing is both the biggest job sector of STEM today andhas the largest future growth expectations.  ..  Tech isn’t just an industry or a job function, it’s part of nearly every aspect of our economy.”  No STEM job gets done without computer science.

Massachusetts, btw, has perhaps the best trained technology workforce in the country.  Its tech sector produces nearly 20 percent of their Gross Domestic Product.  But they are scrambling for workers.

Between 2010-2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the current 900,000 software engineering jobs to grow by 30 percent.  The 300,000 computer and information systems managerial jobs will grow 18 percent.  Database administrators, 31 percent.  And that’s not even counting the civil engineers or biochemists and biophysicisists.

Hey, it’s not even considering the Information Technology (IT) person that virtually every organization now needs on staff or available for hire.

Ask any business who needs software engineers if they can find workers.  Mighty slim pickings.  Anecdotally, my data pals report that their new hires are largely self-taught.  Schools are very little help with this problem.

So an industry group has resorted to selling computer science via celebrity gods.  Check out the aptly-named video What Most Schools Don’t Teach on  Super-celebrities like Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a basketball and a rap star talk about feeling like superstars when they first could make miracles happen on their computer screen.  Anyone, they assert, can read, do math, and program.  Coding is not the exclusive province of nerds and geniuses.  And even if you don’t enter a STEM field, the skills will support any field you choose.

Oh, and the not-so-subtle underlying message is that you too can be obscenely wealthy, famous, and work in cool places with live bands, pools and free lunch.

It quotes the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple:  “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”

Now that I agree with.

So if computer science is a necessary skill, right up there with reading and writing, why isn’t it pervasive in schools?

For the most comprehensive answer, see Running on Empty — The Failure to Teach K–12 Computer Science in the Digital Age.  It says, for example, that even as “we move toward an ever-more computing-intensive, … most states treat high school computer science courses as simply an elective and not part of a student’s core education.”

Our system is greatly hampered by the fact that “government policies underpinning the K–12 education system are deeply confused, conflicted, or inadequate to teach engaging computer science as an academic subject.”

Only 9 states allow computer science to count towards math or science requirements.

If anything, since NCLB’s demand that all kids perform proficiently, according to state standards, computer science has gotten increasingly pushed out of the school day, at best into elective courses — that displace music and art — or after-school clubs.

There’s no room for computer science in the conventional 6, 7-period secondary-school day, with its curriculum rooted in the 19th century.

Although, Russia, India and Israel, among others, found ways of embedding it in their schools, K-12.

America’s reputation as the nation of innovators is receding.  The K-12 system needs a re-boot, and not just more tinkering around the edges.

Thoughts on a partial solution next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Algebra Can Be Taught as Basic Software Programming

Published by— Creative approaches to algebra — like using computer science and technology — can help improve math education outcomes.


Recently, in the New York Times opinion section, Professor Andrew Hacker asked, Is Algebra Necessary?

Surely he knew the educated, newspaper-reading public would revile him for such heresy.  He states obvious truths, however.  Algebra, and math requirements generally act as linebackers blocking “unqualified” kids from college altogether, and pushing large numbers of students who did manage to get in to drop out.  In high school and college, students fail math courses far more often than other subjects.  Hacker suggests colleges ease their requirements so mathematically-challenged “poets and philosophers” can thrive.

Naturally, the four zillion reader-comments passionately argue that algebra is necessary.  For good reasons.  Many howl that we’d be nuts to continue “dumbing down” the already-low bar that Americans set for most students.

But I applaud Hacker for sparking the conversation.  He’s right that math is a huge problem.   It begs creative solutions.

So let’s consider two complementary ideas.  One has a decent track record, and the another employs technology in a new way.

In the 1980s researchers provided hard data proving that requiring Algebra II blocked most minority and low-income students from any hope of college.  The College Boardresponded with a program called Equity 2000.  The 6 pilot sites included Providence, Rhode Island, where I was then serving on the School Board.

The idea was to eliminate all the “business,” “consumer,” and other dummy-math courses.  Put every 9th grader in Algebra I on the assumption that many could make it, given the chance.  Every high-school student would have 4 years to get through Geometry and the much-loathed Alg II.

Providence decided to back up even further.  All 6th graders went into Pre-Algebra, creating a year of preparation and even more time to plow through the traditional sequence.  If nothing else, the kids would get real math.

While kind-hearted, perhaps, the teachers’ hue and cry about the kids not being able to do the work only strengthened our resolve to raise expectations and boost kids’ opportunities.  All math teachers 6-12 got College-Board training — though surely not enough.

Still, two terrific unintended consequences emerged.

First, apart from the struggling students the program was designed to help, it was a godsend to the smarty-pantses.  My kids were going through the system at the time, so I saw for myself the Brown, Providence, and Rhode Island College professors’ kids, among others, happily booking through the sequence, finishing Algebra I in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th.  Those kids began 9th grade taking Algebra II.  The local exam school, Classical High, had to beef up its math program to keep up with them.

Secondly, teachers started creating classes of slower students who, while not mastering the prescribed full year of a math subject, still got credit for what they did achieve.  This allowed them to move forward, instead of flat-out repeating, which is such a drag — and an invitation to drop out.  Students in Providence’s large schools could be sorted into differently-paced classes, with names like Pre-Algebra Part II.  Kids got through the traditional sequence at varying rates, but as a result, many entered high school ready for Geometry.

And since their math courses were more rigorous, and at the same time more flexible, students failed courses at much less damaging rates.

Bottom line:  In time, Equity 2000 got many more urban kids into college.

But in truth, it only picked up the kids for whom low expectations were the only real problem.  It didn’t much change how math is taught.

The NY Times’ readers insisted on algebra’s importance to teaching logic, patterning, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking — in other words, reasoning.  Absolutely true.

But the great majority of learners — estimated at two-thirds — need to wrestle with a real-world problem, and think it through, in order to grasp the abstract concepts embedded in the solutions.  Math instruction mainly focuses on the algorithms, formulae and procedures to get to right answers instead of thinking through problems.  Programs likeConnected Math make some attempt to use real-world problems to teach algebraic abstractions.

But my now-grown sons, two of whom became software developers, have been arguing since high school that learning computer software programming is essentially learning algebra, only infinitely more fun, interesting, and useful.

And lo!  At the Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA) in Marlborough, Massachusetts, every student 6 through 11th grade takes computer science, in conjunction with math and the sciences, where programming skills come in very handy.  AMSA had to invent the curriculum, because none was available.

Legions of students apply to this charter school, not because they adore math, but just to escape whatever school they would otherwise attend.  This forced AMSA to figure out how to intrigue the “poets and philosophers,” especially among the girls, who arrive full-on hating math and science.  AMSA’s been remarkably successful, enjoying off-the-map state-mandated math-test scores.

Equity 2000 was right-minded, but limited.  It needed far more tricks, options, and new approaches to lure students into the puzzles of mathematical reasoning.

And really, in this day and age, shouldn’t all kids start learning computer-science right about 6th grade anyway?

America’s K-12 educators can’t afford to keep lowering the bar.  Raise it, instead, by all means.  But get creative.  It’s 2012.  Can we really not see the value of computer science as a compelling teaching strategy?

Who are the slow learners here?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.


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Part IV — AMSA, Where Academic Subjects Work Together

Published by — Details about how AMSA uses computer science to blend academic subjects.

Rik and Marcin, 7th-graders, seem positively jazzed about showing me the product of their programing efforts.

We’re in Karine Laidley’s computer-science class at Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA).  Today is the last day students can put finishing touches on their final projects of a 4-week assignment.The boys are so excited, they talk over one another.  I glean that they’ve been asked to program an illustration of a lesson from any of their other academic subjects.  They’ve been learning Alice, visualization software whose results look like primitive computer-game graphics.  The video’s words are limited to printed text, labels, and comic-book-like dialogue for characters’ conversation.

AMSA requires computer-science courses, grades 6-11.  Programming is never a subject unto itself, but a set of skills that serve projects, research and experiments in other subjects.

So, to motivate her sometimes-reluctant learners, Laidley asked the other 7th-grade teachers to agree to give students extra credit for creating a video about what they’re learning in an academic class.  By doing a bang-up programming job for Laidley, students can also beef up a weak science or history grade.  She says, “This assignment gave us all a little more leverage to get them going.”  Clever.  Motivating modern students to work harder is no small feat.

Rik and Marcin chose to work on a history project, specifically a video to illustrate a particularly grim moment in the career of the ancient warrior Hannibal.

Hannibal and his troops had made the deadly journey across the Alps, hoping that his brother Hasdrubal has managed to bring fresh troops.  But a Roman General had already defeated Hasdrubal’s army.  At the meet, the General unceremoniously tosses Hasdrubal’s severed head to Hannibal, and brandishes a deliciously over-sized and bloody knife.

Just the sort of gory detail middle-school boys would love.  And however much those boys may find history dull, that historical moment will be forever sealed on their memories.

Actually, Laidley hadn’t seen the boys’ first version, and was mildly chagrined that I did.  She insisted they tone it down to be school-appropriate.  Good call, of course, but how fun for the boys to experience their power to make cyber-mayhem.

Another pair, Madison and Allie, dramatized the effects of lighting ethanol on fire, a factoid from science class.  Their video shows the experiment’s setup, the big boom, and the teacher’s shock.  Like the boys, they were into it.

Actually, all courses, not just computer science, exist at least in part to serve the others.  One of AMSA’s best features is that teachers plan together so kids study the same topic through the different lenses of each class.

When studying Hellenic Greece, students go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see Greek art.  They read Plato, Homer and Sophocles in Literature class.  AMSA teaches geography as a separate subject, so they also understand Greece’s land, climate and location.  Instead of covering a bunch of topics on their own, each subject is connected to others, so kids go into topics deeply and from different angles.

AMSA divides academics into two clusters: those that are math-related – including physics, chemistry and math – and the humanities – literature, English language mechanics, history and the arts.  Within each cluster, teachers plan together to feed the kids’ depth of knowledge.

Focusing on the same topic eases the difficulty of a piece of classical literature – or of chemistry, for that matter.  Students retain more information because they’ve handled it in various ways.  In effect, each academic discipline leverages the efforts of the others.  Then, a subject or skill that grabs a kid’s attention can become the dynamo that pushes her to learn related skills from less-loved classes.

For example, engineering is a field having trouble attracting students.  Engineering is about making something or making it work, like bridges, new medical devices, or gene therapy.  But kids no longer play at making forts or doll clothes, and have little experience or love for creating material things.

One of Laidley’s hardest challenges is getting the kids into the hardware and physical engineering of computers.  Her students uninstall the software and then dismantle old, donated computers, recording their observations as they would a scientific observation.  Most students resist the lesson mightily, but they get hands-on experience of the innards of the electronic wonders whose engineering they take for granted.  Most importantly, the lesson always unearths those students who have a knack for working with their hands and are turned on by wires-and-pliers challenges.

AMSA approaches core academics from so many angles, teachers can root out and nourish any personal passions or talents that will help a kid persist in his learning.  The topic strategy allows the school to be highly rigorous because kids can see a whole landscape of a historical period at once, or the interdependence of software and hardware.

As such, AMSA works well with an incredibly diverse student body.  The hotshots have plenty of challenge – which is increasingly rare in public education these days.  But even more impressive is how AMSA successfully ramps up to “Proficient” and “Advanced” those students who came to them with abominable 6th and 7th-grade MCAS scores.

AMSA’s strategy isn’t for everyone, but this school needs to be cloned – soon and often.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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