First Person

Yes, any teacher can help the city spread computer science. No, not any training will do

I’m trained in traditional Spanish guitar making. My degree is in philosophy and the history of western mathematics and science. I’ve been a math teacher in New Mexico and New York.

I am also a computer science teacher in New York City. Now, I lead the CSNYC Community Meetup, a group of over 1,200 teachers and technologists who gather to share ideas around computer science education.

My story is a roadmap for teachers who are excited but unsure about participating in the city’s growing “Computer Science for All” initiative. It’s also proof that you don’t need a degree in computer science to get started.

I had the unique experience joining the Academy for Software Engineering, the city’s first computer-science themed school, as a founding faculty member without a background in computer science. In my first year, working with computer science education giant Emmanuel Schanzer, I built a course that bridged mathematics and computing.

The results were encouraging: A pre- and post-test given to 70 students who had taken the course showed that average scores on paper-and-pencil algebraic problem solving doubled for students who had taken the course, while the scores of students in a control group remained flat.

Now, three years after AFSE opened, the city is about to embark on a much more difficult task of providing computer science for all. Building a program at a computer science themed high school or at a screened, specialized school isn’t the same thing as building programs that make sense for an entire city.

As critics have noted, it’s important for computer science teachers to have a firm grasp on the content itself, as well as strong teaching practice. Dropping many teachers into weekend workshops and leaving them to hack together classes with minimal support and no expertise won’t work.

Instead, they will need at least these three things: a supportive community, continued education in partnership with industry and higher education, and mentoring by experienced teachers.

I have benefitted from all of those elements. As I helped develop new courses for our school of diverse learners, I worked closely with many others, including Leigh Ann Delyser, CSNYC’s computer science curriculum consultant, and Sean Stern, a former software engineer and a great teacher.

My community continued to grow. I picked the brains of Mike Zamansky and Tracy Rudzitis, veteran New York City computer science teachers and regular attendees of the CSNYC meetup. I learned one of pilot curricula for an Advanced Placement computer science course from Dan Garcia of the University of California, Berkeley.

The list goes on. Building the Academy for Software Engineering and helping to develop these fledging programs has been an incredible professional experience made possible by finding a community of fellow teachers.

Citywide, we have built a strong community of teachers through CSNYC who can help bring the technical expertise and the results of our curriculum experiments to those who are interested. The mentors I’ve mentioned are also all on hand to introduce teachers to computer science and help them map a transition to deeper knowledge and professional growth.

As this movement grows, we also need to recognize that existing models for teaching computer science must evolve. In the past, self-directed learners made up the bulk of computer science students. We need to put our focus now on developing new pedagogy and curricular materials and testing them in classrooms of diverse learners.

To meet these challenges, we need all hands on deck, especially experienced teachers.

But with the right kind of support, teachers of all backgrounds can play a part in making sure that students get the computer science education they deserve, and that Mayor de Blasio’s announcement is not an empty promise.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.