Computer science is widening the education gap

Minority students are in danger of being made technologically rich but cognitively poor.

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When I agreed to read Stuck in the Shallow End, I thought I would experience a somewhat pleasant journey down memory lane. After all, I was one of the students you just read about; I have been there -- or so I thought. As I began to read, the critically important message of the book immediately hit me, and my understanding quickly turned to anger and frustration: costly and highly touted technology and computer education programs, billed as closing the minority-majority education gap, are not only failing, they are actually widening the gap in a dangerous manner.

Sadly, the misuse of technology is not new. Years back, I shocked many in the K-12 mathematics teaching community by saying that calculators would be widely misused and, in most cases, preclude higher- level thinking and understanding. Indeed, I have seen young clerks at stores use calculators to calculate eight times ten. One told me that he could not complete my sale because his calculator was not working, and I had purchased six items. (I just added the prices for him.) I often ask K-12 math teachers, how do you find the square root of a number? They have no idea and believe that there is no value in knowing because, after all, the calculator will do it for you. In a high school math book I actually read the statement: "The correlation coefficient is what you get when you push the correlation coefficient button on your calculator." What a travesty. The misuse of technology precludes good mathematics. And as we have learned from the case studies in this book, this misuse is derived from and leads to signifi cant inequities.

As a professor at Rice University's Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics, I have taught undergraduate and graduate students in the computing sciences for more than three decades. I know firsthand that minority representation is not increasing in these fields -- it is actually decreasing at the graduate level. The simple and convenient scapegoat would be the failing K-12 schools or, more broadly, society in general, but to leave it at that does not acknowledge the particulars of what is happening in K-12 computer science -- to leave it at that is not acceptable. Every educator and educational policy maker should read Stuck in the Shallow End, and in doing so they will see how naive we are as a nation in thinking that we are on the right path.

Over the years, I have developed an extreme dislike for the expression "the best and the brightest," so the authors' discussion of it in the concluding chapter particularly resonated with me. I have seen extremely talented and creative underrepresented minority undergraduate students aggressively excluded from this distinction. While serving on a National Science review panel years back, I learned that to be included in this category you had to have been doing science by the age of ten. Of course, because of lack of opportunities, few underrepresented minorities qualified.

In high school I was one of the "best and the brightest," but my teachers, counselors, and administrators never recognized it. I did not fit their idea of the model student, and being of Mexican descent certainly did not help. Many now consider me an "exception," a university mathematics professor who is Chicano. But I maintain that I am not that unusual, and there are many underrepresented minorities out there with similar or more creativity who could follow the same path if given the opportunities. If we identify and nurture all students who show innovation and creativity -- even though, like me, they may not fall under traditional notions of the "best and the brightest" -- we can produce "exceptions" to the point that minority scholars and scientists are simply the norm.

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