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Survey: Principals Differ on Definition of Computer Science

There is little agreement among administrators on what computer science is, how it should be taught, and what kind of requirement it should fulfill.

That's the upshot of a recent survey of 500 high school principals and assistant principals

The online survey, conducted by the Computer Science Teachers Association and Oracle Academy, asked administrators about computer science opportunities being offered at their schools. [UPDATE: More than 20,000 people received the survey, for a response rate of 2.5 percent. Respondents came from 47 states.]

While 78 percent of respondents said their schools offer computer science courses, the departments responsible for those courses varied. Fifty-three percent of participants said computer science was the purview of Career and Technical Education, while 42 percent attributed it to the business department. About 24 percent said the math department was responsible for computer science, and 10 percent said it was under science. (Respondents were asked to check all departments that applied.) 

According to the survey, 92 percent of respondents said students could count a computer science course toward graduation. Of those, nearly three-quarters said it counted as an elective course, and 27 percent said it counted as a technology course. Just 13 percent said it counted as a math and 6 percent said it counted as a science.  (Again, respondents could check more than one answer.) 

As I wrote last year, computer science advocates have been pushing states to allow the courses to fulfill core math or science requirements, in the hopes of encouraging more students to participate.

No Consensus

Perhaps the most telling part of the study was where it asked which kinds of computer science courses the principals' schools offered. The survey gave six courses to choose from (i.e., Intro to Computer Science, AP Computer Science, and Robotics) and then a space to write in other computer science courses offered that were not listed.

The respondents listed over 100 other courses. Those included digital citizenship, fashion design, engineering, keyboarding, and video production. 

In a press release on the results, CSTA wrote:

"This broad use of 'computer science' to encompass curriculum and courses that would not be considered 'computer science' at a college/university or professional level indicates a need for educational community consensus on a common definition of computer science education and curricular content, lest we lead students or teachers to believe they are preparing students for college and careers when in fact, they are not."

Income Gaps

In another key finding, though not a surprising one, the groups determined that "better-funded schools are offering CS to their students at a far higher rate than low-income schools." In fact, of the schools where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 37 percent did not offer computer science at all. Of the schools where the majority do not qualify, just 16 percent offer no computer science.

There's more to cull through, so take a look at the data set, as well as CSTA's explanatory summary


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