These cities should follow de Blasio’s plan for computer science education

Only three major cities in the country seem interested in advancing education so their students will have a better shot at co-mingling with their robot bosses. That will have to change as technical knowledge becomes more important to people in the workforce — and as cities around the United States try to become hubs for the startups attempting to produce new and innovative technologies.
First, some backstory. A new education plan from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been announced, and in addition to boosting graduation rates, it will require schools in the city to offer computer science courses within the decade. The courses won’t be mandatory, like they will be in San Francisco or Chicago, but students will at least have the option of signing up for the classes.
An important part of de Blasio’s plan involves expanding school budgets. Capital reports that schools will be given $81 million over a ten-year period to comply with this new requirement. That could help fix one of the biggest reasons many schools don’t have these courses already — dwindling budgets.
As I wrote when Google and Gallup said earlier this year that many students aren’t able to take any classes related to this subject despite parental interest:

More students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school (a sign of belonging to a low income family) than ever before. Yet the schools these children attend receive less than their fair share of state or federal funding, according to a 2011 report published by the US Department of Education.

That could help explain why many superintendents who responded to the survey said there isn’t enough money to train or hire a teacher (57 percent); nor a sufficient budget to purchase necessary equipment (31 percent) or software  (33 percent); nor enough equipment (20 percent) or software (27 percent) already in their schools for them to introduce computer science courses.

All of which got me thinking: What other cities might benefit from expanding their school budgets for computer science classes? And, since the answer is likely all of them, which cities with expanding tech communities fit the bill?

To answer that, I looked at the U.S. Census Bureau data for several cities known for their startup communities, or for their potential growth in the sector. Some are more established (Chicago, Boulder) while others are just starting to be recognized as potential tech hubs (Atlanta, Nashville) by the wider industry.

I was looking for one statistic in particular: The percentage of households within those cities below the poverty line. Gallup’s survey found that many poor parents want their children to learn computer science skills — ostensibly so their kids will have opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to them — and that those schools are the least equipped to offer those courses.

What I found is that a larger-than-average percentage of families in these cities live in poverty. Nashville and Austin fared the best, with 18.9 and 19.1 percent, respectively, of their population falling below the poverty line. That’s slightly more than the country’s average, which the census bureau pegs at 14.5 percent.

Cities like Boulder, Chicago, and Atlanta didn’t fare so well — between 22.6 and 25 percent of their population lives in poverty. That doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given reports that 51 percent of students lived in poverty during the 2012-2013 school year, but that clearly doesn’t make it any less of a problem.

All of these cities have, to varying degrees, become known for fostering tech communities. Perhaps allocating more resources to teaching children the skills that will quickly become necessary for them to hold well-paying jobs could help them bridge the gaps between them and more-established startup hubs.

Though I suppose each of them is off to a better start than Irving, Texas, which handcuffed a ninth-grader for bringing a homemade clock to school. That might not count for much, but it’s good to know there’s space between Irving and New York. That makes the dismal state of computer science teaching seem a smidgen less awful.

Here’s why American students don’t learn computer science

America’s youth isn’t getting a decent education when it comes to the basics of technology, and now we’re seeing some data on why that’s the case.
A survey conducted by Google and Gallup shows that many Americans believe computer science should be taught between kindergarten and the 12th grade. Yet most schools don’t offer the courses due to budget constraints, a lack of teachers, and the need to focus more on subjects included in standardized tests.
The results are another mark against standardized tests, which have become a point of contention among parents, students, teachers, principals, and essentially anyone else who doesn’t profit off their continued existence. Yet these reviled constructs aren’t the only cause of computer science courses’ woes.
Another problem might be the lack of communication between administrators, parents, students, and teachers. The survey showed that 91 percent of parents want their children to learn computer science; less than 8 percent of principals thought demand for the courses was that high. That can’t be blamed on tests — it’s simply the byproduct of a good-ol’ fashioned breakdown in communication.
The rising number of low-income students also contributes to the problem. More students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school (a sign of belonging to a low income family) than ever before. Yet the schools these children attend receive less than their fair share of state or federal funding, according to a 2011 report published by the US Department of Education.
That could help explain why many superintendents who responded to the survey said there isn’t enough money to train or hire a teacher (57 percent); nor a sufficient budget to purchase necessary equipment (31 percent) or software  (33 percent); nor enough equipment (20 percent) or software (27 percent) already in their schools for them to introduce computer science courses.
All those factors combine to create a system where computer science is limited to students privileged enough to belong to schools that value the subject, have the equipment necessary to teach it, and reliable Internet access they can use to complete any homework. The barriers to computer science being taught more widely don’t end with schools; they extend into student’s home lives, too.
None of these problems are unique to computer science. The influence of standardized tests, budget shortfalls, and a student’s lack of resources at home aren’t limited to this one aspect of education held near-and-dear by the tech industry’s top companies. They pervade every aspect of America’s education system — and that means introducing computer science courses shouldn’t necessarily be a goal unto itself, but should instead be another bullet point in any argument meant to overhaul much of this country’s education system.

How deep learning can teach computers Spanish without a tutor

Google has released another paper showing off the power of its deep learning techniques for text analysis. It shows how models can detect similar usage of words across different languages, meaning it can accurately translate words and concepts from one language to another.