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Computer Science for All and Silicon Valley: Generous Support or Corporate Takeover?

2018-Lindblom-LAPTOP.jpgComputer science is taking off in K-12 schools, fueled in part by hundreds of millions of dollars and aggressive lobbying from the technology industry.

Cue the concerned chorus.

Is Silicon Valley—currently under harsh scrutiny for its consumer products and services—attempting to reshape public schools to serve its own ends?

How are the tech industry's desires and dollars actually shaping what computer science looks like in real classrooms?

And given rapid advances in artificial intelligence, will a short-term focus on filling today's tech-sector jobs ultimately backfire?

As part of our deep dive on the 'Computer Science for All' movement, Education Week explored those questions with a number of heavy hitters in the field, including:

  • The heads of philanthropic giving at tech giants Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce.
  • Code.org founder Hadi Partovi, who has played an instrumental role in leveraging tech-sector support for computer-science education.
  • Ruthe Farmer, who is a leader at the nonprofit CSforAll Consortium, and Janice Cuny, a program officer for the National Science foundation.
  • University of Michigan professor Megan Tompkins-Stange, who tracks trends in education philanthropy.

Their responses can help inform the emerging conversation about how K-12 educators and policymakers can best prepare students for the uncertain future of work.

The reality, said Farmer, previously an advisor to former President Barack Obama, is that the computer-science education field is currently "like the Wild West."

There's a lot of money suddenly available. The rules of the road are just now being written. Classrooms all over the country are experimenting with how to best teach a relatively new subject. And from creating talent pipelines to cultivating brand loyalty, the country's largest tech companies have a big stake in shaping how the future of computer-science education looks.

See also: Computer Science for All: Can Schools Pull It Off?

"The question has been raised about whether this is a corporate takeover of public education," Farmer said. "I don't think that's necessarily true. But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of motives at play."

Why Silicon Valley cares

To be clear, it's not just the private sector that is supporting K-12 computer-science education.

As part of its 'Computer Science for All' initiative, the Obama White House focused federal attention to the issue. President Donald Trump has extended that support, directing that $200 million in existing federal grant funds be given to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and computer-science education. And some big-city school districts are well on their way to bringing introductory computer-science opportunities to all students (including Chicago, home to the students pictured at right.) 

But without question, the big money is coming from the tech industry.2018-Lindblom-BOYS.jpg

That includes a combined $300 million commitment announced in September by the Trump administration and the Internet Association, a trade group representing global internet companies.

As part of the initiative, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce each will give $50 million to computer-science education over five years.

Their number-one reason: jobs.

Below the surface, though, there are meaningful differences within Big Tech.

Take, for example, Microsoft and Oracle.

In an interview, senior director of Microsoft Philanthropies Jane Broom tied the company's support to both its own long-term workforce needs, and to a broader social mission of expanding opportunity for girls and students from "underserved communities."

Microsoft is just finishing up a three-year, $75 million commitment to computer-science education. Broom said the support emerged out of the company's 2013 National Talent Strategy. The report placed Microsoft's struggles to find qualified workers for its own research, developer, and engineering positions in the context of the broader economy, concluding that expanding access to computer science in high schools was a key part of the solution. 

"We need the talent," Broom said. "Our growth and ability to innovate is 100 percent dependent on the people who work here."

Broom stressed, though, that Microsoft takes a broad view of computer-science education. It's certainly not about training students to use proprietary tools like Microsoft Office, she said, or even specific programming languages. Instead, the emphasis is on computer science as a broad, well-rounded academic discipline.

Compare that with Oracle, which has focused the bulk of its extensive support for computer science education (to the tune of $470 million since 2016, counting in-kind donations of software, according to the company) on providing schools with curriculum, software, and training for a suite of courses primarily focused on Java, the company's own programming language (and the focus of the Advanced Placement Computer Science - A exam.)

Oracle doesn't recommend that schools introduce students to computer science via a "hardcore Java programming class," said Alison Derbenwick Miller, the vice president of Oracle Academy, the company's philanthropic arm.

The courses Oracle supports aren't limited narrowly to Java programming, Derbenwick Miller said, but include concepts and skills that can be widely applicable.

And the company also views computer science as an academic discipline and is committed to expanding access and diversity, she said.

But Oracle does believe that focused programming classes are a key part of the pathways that students need in order to be prepared for the workforce, and it has chosen to focus primarily on Java.

"One computer-science survey course isn't preparing anyone to do anything, just like Algebra 1 isn't preparing anyone to be a mathematician," Derbenwick Miller said.

Pushing Their Own Interests?

Such corporate philanthropy might not be necessary if public education were fully funded in other ways, said Janice Cuny of NSF.

"I think the tech industry has stepped in to do a big service," Cuny said. "It's not like schools have the option of funding computer science through their normal streams."

Still, there remain suspicions that tech companies are supporting computer-science education as part of a longer game: optimizing their market position for years to come, by shaping the content students learn and acclimating kids early to their products and platforms.

Some of that skepticism has come to center around Code.org, a nonprofit that has raised tens of millions of dollars in industry support since its founding five years ago. A June 2017 New York Times article, for example, called attention to the dozens of state laws and policies the organization has helped get passed, including an Idaho law that explicitly said computer-science education in the state should be driven by the needs of industry.

Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi vehemently rejects criticism that his organization is doing the bidding of tech companies, saying his organization "only represents its own mission."Hadi Headshot.jpg

Partovi, pictured at right, said Code.org's policy advocacy—and, more significantly, its curricula and teacher training—are focused on helping students learn a broad set of computer-science skills and concepts that can be used in many different jobs and walks of life. He also emphasized that the Code.org platform hosts a variety of curricula from different sources.

"It would challenge our nonprofit status if the main thing we did was helping one company sell software to schools," he said. "I'm not sure what the IRS would say, and I wouldn't feel comfortable with that."

Broom of Microsoft Philanthropies (a major supporter of Code.org) concurred.

Microsoft President Brad Smith is on the organization's board, and Broom attends most of the meetings along with him, she said.

Pushing specific products or platforms is "never talked about." Broom said. "It's honestly kind of fun to see Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook sitting around the table talking about computer science, but never which tool set to use."

Out in the world, though, the lines can be blurry. Code.org's recent 'Hour of Code' events, for example, featured activities in Minecraft, the wildly popular online game that Microsoft now owns.

There's also the reality that some big Silicon Valley players—most notably, Oracle and Apple—are going their own way.

Some observers believe that's because the companies aren't willing to adhere to Code.org's platform-agnostic stance.

In December, for example, Partovi himself took aim at Apple for its approach to supporting computer-science education, tweeting that the company is focused on getting schools to adopt its own curriculum, programming language, and devices.

An Apple spokesman declined to be interviewed, instead offering a written statement about its Everyone Can Code initiative, which focused on the company's own programming language, called Swift.

"The free program gives everyone the power to learn, write, and teach code using Swift, one of the most popular open-source programming languages that's used to create hundreds of thousands of apps," the statement read. 

The Longest View in the Room

Schools need clarity on why and how tech companies are supporting K-12 computer science for a number of reasons, outside experts say.

"It's really important for schools and families to be able to judge for themselves when a corporate donation is being made for some additional private gain," said Tompkins-Stange, the University of Michigan professor. "It's imperative that people be informed about who will have a voice in the curricula and programs that impact children's learning."

But for the moment, at least, such clarity is still lacking in many quarters.

Take, for example, Salesforce.org, the nonprofit-and-philanthropic arm of the giant customer-relationship-management- software company Salesforce.

Since 1999, the group has given $65 million to STEM and computer science initiatives around the world, it says. The company is a major supporter of Code.org. It's also "adopted" the San Francisco and Oakland school districts, providing millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to support both computer-science efforts and open-ended initiatives of principals' own choosing.

But Salesforce.org CEO Rob Acker wasn't sure how involved he thinks companies like his should be in shaping the computer-science curricula that schools use.

On the one hand, Acker said in an interview, "We need to get in the ring to inform curriculum."

But later, he took a somewhat different position, saying it would be "counterproductive if the tech industry started dictating what curricula are."

Ultimately, Acker settled on the notion of a "partnership between teachers and the tech industry."

But he seemed disinclined to accept critics' contention that the details of such a relationship should be figured out before companies dole out millions of dollars and schools start overhauling their operations.

"My biggest fear is that if we don't do anything, if we debate policy too much, then we never actually get something done," Acker said.

That kind of approach may be typical on the consumer side of Silicon Valley, Tompkins-Stange said, but it runs real risks when applied to public education.

"If corporations are investing in computer-science education, but they're not clear on who should have authority over decisions that affect teaching in the classroom, they're essentially rolling out a half-baked reform," she said.

There's also a longer-term reason to put guardrails around Silicon Valley's involvement, said Farmer of the Computer Science for All Consortium.

There's widespread agreement that the technologies and programming languages taught today could well be irrelevant by the time today's 6th graders hit the labor market.

As a result, there's an emerging consensus on the wisdom of focusing K-12 computer-science education on students' conceptual understanding, computational problem-solving ability, familiarity with manipulating and analyzing data, and experience designing and testing their own technologies.

Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce officials all say they support that vision. 

But how can parents and public schools hold them accountable to it?

And what if the landscape changes, and all the entry-level coding jobs open now are wiped out by artificial intelligence? Or a liberal arts background and strong interpersonal skills end up being what's truly valuable in the 2030 labor market?

Where would that leave schools that have hitched their wagon to Silicon Valley's vision of the future?

There's no doubt that industry has an important role to play, Farmer said.

But it's often not great at taking the long view. And the K-12 sector is often not great at adjusting on the fly. 

That's why she believes educators need to remain central in shaping the future of Computer Science for All, especially at this criticial juncture. 

"If we get this wrong now," Farmer said, "It's wrong for the next 40 years."

Photos (from top):

A student works on a laptop at Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Chicago. --Alyssa Schukar for Education Week

Deandre Crayton, left, and Toy Slaughter collaborate on an app during an introductory computer-science class at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago.--Alyssa Schukar for Education Week

Code.org founder Hadi Partovi --Code.org

An earlier version of this story misidentified the CSforAll Consortium. 

See also:

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