behind the headlines

Why computer science? The story behind the city’s flashiest new education initiative

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers an education speech, “Equity and Excellence,” at Bronx Latin School, which included a new computer science initiative.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers an education speech, “Equity and Excellence,” at Bronx Latin School, which included a new computer science initiative.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced every child in New York City schools will learn computer science within 10 years, Fred Wilson sat smiling in the audience.

The prominent venture capitalist, who founded the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education, known as CSNYC, was there to watch the mayor formally endorse Wilson’s own ambitious goal: to provide computer science education to all.

The path to de Blasio’s announcement spans two mayoral administrations, a number of big donors, and a gaggle of tech industry insiders who worked on smaller computer science pilot projects throughout the city. But it was largely Wilson, met by a receptive mayor, who created and eventually funded the underpinnings for de Blasio’s splashy announcement.

It “was really a reveal of something that’s a long time in the making,” said Michael Preston, CSNYC’s executive director. “It wasn’t the mayor’s office deciding it was priority without a ready group that was there to support it.”

Whether New York City is to begin rapidly expanding access to computer science education, and to reach all students by 2025, is up for debate. Even its staunchest supporters recognize the challenges ahead, including raising about 70 percent of the private money needed and finding, then training, thousands of new teachers.

But the plan progressed from a concept to reality at a notably rapid pace, thanks to a rare combination of factors: a focused and wealthy champion, a growing national focus on career readiness, and the sustained interest of the city’s political leadership at a time when the mayor needs to demonstrate clear progress.

Still, some question whether computer science is at the core of what New York City students need, or whether the announcement served as a flashy way to skirt harder education problems, like the persistently struggling schools in the city’s poorest areas.

“Is this necessary or is this another example of public policy driven by private philanthropy?” asked David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at The CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. “I don’t think this was one of the more pressing issues.”

The announcement brought a wave of positive press at a time when de Blasio is beginning a new fight for control of the city’s schools. Last year, de Blasio was granted only one year of mayoral control, which means he will have to re-convince state lawmakers this spring that he should run the district.

Critics also note the pilot programs have left many questions about computer science education unanswered.

“Everything is about, let’s drop in a curriculum, let’s get a bazillion teachers trained,” said Mike Zamansky, a longtime computer science teacher at Stuyvesant High School, whose curriculum sparked Wilson’s early interest in computer science education. “Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?”

Under Bloomberg, the beginnings of an idea

To understand the moment that de Blasio took the stage at Bronx Latin proclaiming computer science for all, one must look to the Bloomberg administration and keep an eye on Wilson.

"Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work."Maurya Couvares, the co-founder of ScriptEd

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a “tech guy” who invited industry giants to events at Gracie Mansion and understood the importance of teaching students technological literacy, said Zamansky, who founded Stuyvesant’s computer science program over 20 years ago. Bloomberg also courted big donors and grew the Fund for Public Schools, which raises money for New York City’s schools.

The movement towards tech fit in with his administration’s ideas for modernizing career and technical education and its push for small schools. As the city moved to close Washington Irving High School for poor performance, it made plans for the Academy for Software Engineering, which opened in the Irving building in 2012.

That high school, where every student takes computer science each year, emerged from conversations with city officials that Wilson had begun more than two years earlier. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering opened in 2013.

Another pilot program selected 20 schools in 2013 to begin teaching computer science and software engineering, funded partially with a $1.6 million gift from AT&T. The city’s goal then was to provide 3,500 students a computer science education by 2016.

The number that de Blasio now targets is 1.1 million by 2025, an increase in scale that is surprising even to those at the heart of the computer science education initiative.

“Nobody expected it to happen as quickly as it did,” Preston said.

The test pilot era

What happened to cause such a jump?

Outside of City Hall, attention to so-called STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math — was steadily growing nationwide. Cities like Chicago and San Francisco announced widely lauded programs to offer computer science in city schools.

In New York, the vision to provide computer science to all, many said, can be traced to the founding of CSNYC in 2013. CSNYC, funded by Wilson’s private family foundation, has had a hand in funding and promoting many prominent computer science programs that have popped up across the city since. The foundation’s stated goal was to eventually bring computer science education to students citywide.

“Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work,” said Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which is funded by CSNYC and places teenagers at internships at businesses such as JPMorgan Chase and American Express.

As the pilot programs worked out the kinks of computer science education, City Hall became increasingly interested in expanding computer science into more schools.

During the mayor’s first year, de Blasio was primarily focused on other initiatives like universal pre-K, though officials from the mayor’s office said he kept an eye on the software engineering pilot program. In 2015, top officials’ focus shifted to older students, and specifically on how they could expand STEM and professional opportunities, Preston said.

By this spring, CSNYC and the mayor’s office were working out how they might scale the computer science initiative in earnest, and by the summer of 2015, public money was committed for the following fiscal year, Preston said. Wilson helped to secure the private funding, which included contributions from the Robin Hood Foundation and AOL.

Not out of the woods yet

There is a big difference between expressing interest in computer science and taking action to spread it across the city’s largest school system in a meaningful way.

Tracy Rudzitis, a teacher at The Computer School on the Upper West Side, helped develop curriculum for the software engineering pilot, knows the city’s limitations firsthand. In her school, with more than 400 students, the Internet connection is so poor they are lucky if 30 students can use the WiFi at once. Their school is fortunate because the parent association funded a computer lab. Others have fewer resources.

"Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?"Mike Zamansky, computer science teacher

“It’s one thing to say we’re going to do all this,” Rudzitis said. “It’s another to actually do it.”

The city’s immediate goals include expanding the software engineering pilot program, starting a separate pilot in an elementary school — since young learners haven’t been a focus of most of the city’s initial forays into computer science — and starting more extensive professional development for teachers. In the coming months, the city will release more details in a strategic plan.

Meanwhile, many are questioning the scope and viability of the plan’s early outline, especially the need to attract and train 5,000 teachers. Currently, no state teaching certification exists for computer science, which Brenda Strassfeld, the chair of mathematics education at Touro College Graduate School of Education, said could make the initiative — which she strongly supports — “fall flat on its face.”

There is also the question of how the city plans to raise additional funds. Right now, though the city has an extensive list of donors, only about 30 percent of the private funds have been raised. AT&T does not have plans to donate any more funds to the project, but they may consider doing so in the future, said Marissa Shorenstein, the company’s president for New York State.

In order to scale the program, the city will need to find more funders. But it also needs people like Sara Lissa Paulson, a librarian at P.S. 347 on the Lower East Side, who was inspired after reading a book about the importance of coding.

Paulson taught herself how to code, then started an after-school program to teach her students. She soon found that it forced students to be precise and to learn through problem solving.

“There’s a kind of magic about it,” she said.

New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.