STEM in CPS (Guest post by Caroline Pollock Bilicki)

March 18, 2014 at 7:29 pm 37 comments

Caroline Pollock Bilicki, AKA Chicago Mama Blogger, graciously offered to write a STEM guest post, time perfectly today with a CPS press release about the expansion of STEM programs.  Is this new STEM stuff a game-changer for CPS? For some of these schools?

What’s up with CPS’s decision to introduce and ramp up STEM curriculum within district schools?

On its face, the district’s decision to add computer science as a core subject to city high schools seems like a good one. It’s not all that different than earlier administrators’ addition of typing classes to the curriculum.

What is the district really trying to achieve by introducing a curriculum that is heavy on science, technology, engineering, and math? Is it trying to get ahead of a projected shortage of qualified candidates in those fields? Does it reflect a need at U.S. colleges and universities to matriculate students who are able to work at advanced levels of math and science, at a rigor that would make them able to “compete” with their global counterparts?

What is driving this policy?


Despite the persistent idea that our schools are not preparing students for the kinds of jobs the market offers, a look to historical STEM trends suggests that the renewed emphasis on STEM within CPS may be another manufactured crisis.


Back in 1997, a Stanford-educated researcher named Gerald Bracey suggested that the National Science Foundation may have started what could now be traced to the current “inadequacy” in STEM education. When Sandia Labs undertook a study of the issue in the late 1980s, they concluded that the biggest risk to education of U.S. students was the H.S. dropout rate—not the quality of STEM education or number of STEM degrees awarded.


The biggest driver of growth in STEM competitiveness may have come in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. Yet even Congress agrees that the percentage of postsecondary science and engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has remained steady at 17 percent. Is there job growth to justify this kind of subject-matter emphasis? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the the fastest growing occupations are largely medical and vocational—not high-tech. Will increased STEM fluency increase students’ ability to compete for jobs? Will it improve their chances at success?

Perhaps the important question is not why CPS is pursuing this policy, but what it can hope to achieve? How will a renewed emphasis on STEM education affect our children? Will they be better off for having this kind of education? Or will this policy further cream or tier an already stratified system? Who does a STEM curriculum help?


Huelskamp, Robert M. “Perspectives on Education in America.” Phi Delta Kappan. 1993: 74,9.

Bracey, Gerald. Setting the Record Straight. 1997.

CPS Press Release Today:

CPS Announces First Schools to Implement District’s Comprehensive K-12 Curriculum

Schools will Create Pipeline for Computer Science Education from Elementary through High School


CHICAGO — As part of the Mayor’s and CPS’ commitment to expanding access to a STEM education, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) today announced that 46 schools will pilot the District’s new computer science curriculum beginning next fall, the most comprehensive K-12 computer science education program of any major school district in the country.

 The curriculum, first announced in December, will equip students with skills necessary for the 21st Century, creating a pipeline for foundational computer science skills in elementary schools, expanding computer science classes to every high school, and elevating computer science to a core subject. By partnering with, Google, and other technology leaders, CPS will be able to increase the quality of and access to computer science and coding classes.

 “By expanding access to computer science skills and coding in schools, we can help prepare Chicago’s students with the skills and knowledge to succeed in a highly specialized, technical economy,” said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. “Teaching our kids the foundational skills of computer science and coding will not only open up the door to success in virtually any job industry, but will position them as the next generation of innovators that will move our city forward.”

 Under the five-year Computer Science for All (CSA) plan, one in four CPS elementary schools will be able to offer computer science programming for students as early as Kindergarten. At least one computer science course will be offered at every District high school and become a requirement of graduation. The curriculum will be fully aligned with the framework of the Next Generation Science Standards, and the Common Core State Standards in elementary schools. Coding and computer science classes will also be available year round to students across through Chicago City of Learning, a connected learning initiative that incorporates hundreds of partner sites and organizations throughout the city to make Chicago a place of year-round learning inside and outside of the classroom.

 Starting in School Year 2014-15, the initial group of 25 elementary schools will incorporate computer science lessons into their math and science coursework. An additional group of 21 high schools will offer the entry-level computer science course called Exploring Computer Science (ECS). This class has already been successfully implemented in more than 20 CPS schools via the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Information Technology (IT) programming pathway and the Early College STEM Schools.

 Over time, a course based on the Computer Science Principles (CSP) curriculum will lay the foundation for the AP Computer Science exam of the same name. This course will follow and build upon the concepts taught in the ECS course for high school students.

 This program builds off of CPS’ current computer science course offerings, which have already served more than 9,000 high school students over the past 4 years. In 2010, when CPS was revamping the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, Exploring Computer Science became a foundational course in the program. The course is also taught in all five of the Early College STEM schools.

 This effort is part of CPS’ plan to provide access to computer science at an earlier age to bridge the digital divide and gender gap. While computing occupations are among the highest-paying jobs for new graduates, fewer than 3 percent of college students across the nation will graduate with a degree in computer science – and of all students taking Advanced Placement Computer Science, fewer than 20 percent are women and fewer than 10 percent are African American or Latino.


Participating schools include:

Elementary schools: Ariel Community Academy (Pre-K-8); Armstrong International Studies (Pre-K-8); Azuela (Pre-K-8); Bateman (K-8); Daniel Boone (K-8); Carson (Pre-K-8); Chicago Academy (Pre-K-8); Coles Language Academy (K-8); Disney Magnet (Pre-K-8); Edison Regional Gifted Center (K-8); Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy (Pre-K-8); Hamilton (K-8); Henderson (Pre-K-8); Andrew Jackson Language Academy (K-8); Mahalia Jackson (Pre-K-8); Moos (Pre-K-8); Kwame Nkrumah Academy (K-5); Sauganash (K-8); Sayre Language Academy (K-8); Sheridan Math & Science Academy (K-8); STEM Magnet Academy (Pre-K-8); Tonti (K-5); Washington (K-8); Waters (Pre-K-8); Whitney (Pre-K-8).

 High schools: Amundsen (9-12); Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy (9-12); Bogan (9-12); Corliss (9-12); Hancock College Prep (9-12); Julian(9-12); Kenwood Academy (7-12); Lake View (9-12); Lane Tech (7-12); Lindblom (7-12); Marine Math & Science Academy (9-12); Mather (9-12); Morgan Park (9-12); Solorio Academy (9-12); Urban Prep West (9-12); Urban Prep Bronzeville (9-12); Urban Prep Englewood (9-12); Wells Community Academy (9-12); Whitney Young (7-12); U of C Woodlawn (6-12); Young Woman’s Leadership (7-12).

 The program will also help address the skills gap, since approximately one-fourth of Chicago’s jobs are in STEM-focused fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, the U.S. can expect almost 1M new jobs to be created in computer and information technology, yet American universities are only estimated to award 360k bachelor degrees in computer science in the same time period.

 To close the skills gap, the Mayor started five Early College STEM schools, which offer grades 9-14 coursework for students to have an opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s Degree at an accelerated pace in a highly specialized, technical field.  The five corporate partners –Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, and Verizon Wireless – provide mentors, internships, and feedback on the curriculum to teach skills that would be valuable at their company. The schools were chosen specifically to represent each geographic region of the city, so that every student would have equal access to receiving a quality education that will prepare them for success in the classroom and in life. City Colleges’ revamped College to Careers program also aligns students with in-demand career paths to strengthen the city’s local workforce and economy.

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37 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chicago School GPS  |  March 18, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for the guest post, Chicago Mama Blogger!

    On a related note, Lake View High School is host to this year’s Brain Awareness Fair on Saturday, April 26. In partnership with Northwestern University’s Brain Awareness Outreach, there will be neuroscience-related hands-on activities and exhibits for students and parent/guardians to attend during a choice of 3 hour morning or afternoon sessions. The Brain Fair is FREE and is appropriate for K-8 students. It will also give families an opportunity to visit Lake View High School. First come, first serve, registration required.!2014-brain-awareness-fair/cbth

    Lake View’s STEM program sounded promising when they announced it, but not much can be done without funding. Same for computer science or any other “new initiatives” CPS unveils.

  • 2. Counterpoint for discussion  |  March 19, 2014 at 12:34 am

    Too long of a post.

  • 3. jksaf  |  March 19, 2014 at 6:00 am

    It sounds like CPS playing catch- up. Most suburban HS districts have computer science classes and K-8 have some exposure to computer science principles if not a class by middle school.

  • 4. HS Mom  |  March 19, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Computer sciences compared to typing class?!?!

    Reposting article about teacher need in stem

    “The fields of science, technology, engineering and math are referred to collectively as STEM. In order to maintain international competitiveness, ensure the national defense and participate in technological innovation, the U.S. needs a world-class STEM workforce. Yet nearly 3.7 million STEM-related job openings are currently unfilled due to a shortage of qualified workers. Preparing students for future STEM careers requires skilled high school teachers who provide a strong academic foundation….The shortage of STEM teachers is so critical that the Obama Administration has announced its plan to create a STEM Master Teacher Corps External link at the national level.”

    Science, technology, engineer, math……these are real jobs with a real future. I don’t see how one could possibly question the need of STEM policy and programming within CPS.

    I see Young, Lane and Lindblom on the list. Does that mean that they will create CTE programs within the SE population or start an alternative enrollment process similar to Jones?

  • 5. pantherettie  |  March 19, 2014 at 9:20 am

    HS Mom – the post is somewhat awkward in how it is written when discussing the early college programs. The STEM early college program is not a new iniative involving the schools listed in the post. It’s a program at the following schools – Clark, Corliss, Lakeview, CVCA and Southwest. Lane, Lindblom and WY are just part of the new initiative to encourage STEM education ( which I find kinda interesting as these schools already have a strong STEM program). I don’t think that they will alternative admissions policies as they won’t have a CTE program. Google early college STEM programs to go directly to the CPS website about the program.

  • 6. CPS Parent  |  March 19, 2014 at 9:26 am

    4. HS Mom “Computer sciences compared to typing class?!?!”

    I know that sounds ridiculous at first blush but I think there is some truth to that. Just as typing is a tool so is coding. I know first hand that for many kids computer coding is learned on the fly on an as needed basis. My kid and his peers will teach themselves just enough code (Python) to solve a problem for a school project – usually when calculators, Wolfram Alpha, Excel, etc. don’t do the job efficiently.

    For many students computer coding skills are easily acquired outside of the classroom and probably more rapidly and efficiently without a teacher. Computer Science on the other hand is a much more formal pursuit and is harder to self-study. I think what CPS is emphasizing is computer coding though.

  • […] STEM in CPS (Guest post by Caroline Pollock Bilicki) CPS Obsessed: What is the district really trying to achieve by introducing a curriculum that is heavy on science, technology, engineering, and math? Is it trying to get ahead of a projected shortage of qualified candidates in those fields? Does it reflect a need at U.S. colleges and universities to matriculate students who are able to work at advanced levels of math and science, at a rigor that would make them able to “compete” with their global counterparts? […]

  • 8. mom2boys  |  March 19, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Interesting that Northside Prep isn’t on the list of schools. Northside’s strong CS program is the reason my older son, now a soph, chose to go there. Northside has had an impressive CS program for years now and, in fact, I understood that they had been developing a model for other CPS schools. Lane already has a 4-year CS program as well. A Northside Math/Science teacher left NSCP to help develop/strengthen Lane’s program.

    With the shortage of CS degrees out there, I wonder how CPS will find qualified teachers for all these schools, particularly hs.

  • 9. VMG in Ravenswood  |  March 19, 2014 at 11:40 am

    The optimist in me wants to think this is a good idea. The cynic in me says this is yet another short sighted, underfunded, “throw-it at the wall and see what sticks” CPS program. Interesting to see Amundsen on the list, as at some point last fall, I heard/read that the school doesn’t even have a functioning computer lab. Is there money to buy the tech, hire the staff, develop the curriculum, etc.?


  • 10. Patricia  |  March 19, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    @8 An awesome Northside CS teacher is now head of the Lane CS dept.

  • 11. mom2boys  |  March 19, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    @10, Yes, I believe that’s Jeff Solin (former head of NSCP’s Robotics team).

    One son’s loss, another son’s gain!

  • 12. HSObsessed  |  March 19, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    It seems to me a good idea to ramp up STEM education all around, including trying these K-12 pathways, just because a certain level of education in science, technology, and math are very important for everyone during those years. I think one required computer science class at the high school level is also appropriate. My kid would kick and scream about that because her focus is (sadly) in none of the STEM fields, but maybe the class would spark an interest she didn’t even know she had, or at least spark it in other kids, especially those who are underrepresented.

    Having said that, a very timely article was published today in the Atlantic basically arguing that it’s a myth that there’s a big shortage of graduates in STEM fields, or that jobs are going unfulfilled:

    Excerpt from the Atlantic article:

    (Recent research) “concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: Most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.”

  • 13. southie  |  March 19, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    What’s a good way for a middle school girl to teach herself basic coding, like Java Script?

  • 14. Christopher Ball (@skepticismwins)  |  March 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    @12 gets it right. Thanks for the Atlantic link. The author was a vp with the Sloan Foundation, which did research on this issues. When many of these business say there are not enough STEM-educated workers, they mean not enough workers with STEM-related HS training and associates degrees willing to take relatively low-paying work. They are not talking about STEM-field BAs, MAs, and PhDs.

    STEM is more often sTem in practice — everyone focuses on computer technology but the science, engineering, and math get short-changed. And very little focus is placed on educating, recruiting, and advancing teachers in these fields.

  • 15. realchicagomama  |  March 19, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    According to my husband, who is now sick to death of debating STEM education with me, my point got lost in the formatting. So I want to be clear on my position:
    (1) Science, technology, engineering, and math are important subjects. (not sure if engineering is an important subject for 5th graders…)
    (2) The perceived lack of qualified workers crisis that is driving public policy on increased STEM education is fake.

    I went looking for the job growth statistic that CPS referenced in its press release. I couldn’t it with the BLS, but I did reference to a lower number – 778,300: “Computer and mathematical occupations are projected to add 778,300 new jobs between 2010-2020.” Incidentally, this job growth makes this area the 6th fastest growing major occupational group, but it’s ranked 12th out of 22 occupational groups because of it’s relatively small size. According to the same report, community and social service occupations are expected to grow at a rate of 24.2% by 2020. Where is the lobby of social workers? Oh wait….

  • 16. HS Mom  |  March 20, 2014 at 7:32 am

    @14 CB “When many of these business say there are not enough STEM-educated workers, they mean not enough workers with STEM-related HS training and associates degrees willing to take relatively low-paying work.”

    Yeah, no kidding. Many people are now back to “just out of school” salaries just to have a job. Any average kid thinking they are going to land the big job out of school may be greatly disappointed. For most people, I would expect that STEM right along with anything else, is a matter of starting low, getting your foot in the door, gaining experience and working your way up. The program certainly has created jobs for teachers with top colleges embracing the field.

    As far as a “fake crisis” is concerned….I think crisis is the wrong word. It is currently in demand and by nature of being science/tech/math oriented (fields that continually evolve) will continue to be. Big plus to start early on it… previous poster mentioned, kids may avoid it later because they don’t know they have an interest or skill. Why not encourage STEM education?

    “Where is the lobby of social workers?” – Big on need small on pay? Another one of those needs that no one wants to pay for.

  • 17. Chris  |  March 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

    “not sure if engineering is an important subject for 5th graders…”

    Depends what one means by “engineering”. If it is ‘applied basic science’ (which is pretty much what “engineering” means to me), then, yes, it is “important” (less important than the bona fide basic science, of course) at all levels, as that’s what makes it real and valuable to those kids who would say “when will I ever use [algebra/physics/chemistry] when I have a real job”–econ and finance (personal and big) and accounting and-and-and are all just “mathematical engineering”.

  • 18. Christopher Ball (@skepticismwins)  |  March 20, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Think of it this way, if you hear an executive say that we don’t have enough qualified engineers, what he means is “factory engineers.” This is what Steven Jobs was referring to in his oft-quoted remarks to Obama. As Isaacson wrote: “tech schools, community colleges, or trade schools could train them.”

    So the CPS-community college link up makes sense in this context. But you are talking about salaries below the median income for these careers.

  • 19. educator  |  March 20, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Another major issue is the shortage of Technology teachers in CPS, many, many CPS Technology positions are unfilled right now. Where are the teachers that will be filling these new positions?

  • 20. OTdad  |  March 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    @15. realchicagomama:
    I couldn’t agree more with what you think of STEM education at elementary & high school stage.

    As a person in the science/engineering field, I don’t think wasting money on this kind of education can do much good, except maybe attracting students’ interests. In high school, we should stay with the basics and lay a solid foundation in math, science, logical thinking… which will be a big help in college if they want to pursue a career in science and engineering.

  • 21. Christopher Ball (@skepticismwins)  |  March 20, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Ham-fisted all the time: CPS sends investigator to Drummond to grill students without telling their parents.

    Way to build trust.

  • 22. STEM_Mom  |  March 20, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    OK, all you naysayers, what are your suggestions? Stick with the status quo? As a mom to a child currently attending a STEM Elementary School, I applaud the curriculum and think it has been VERY beneficial for my child. My husband is a web developer, and we both agree that the jobs of the future depend upon a strong background in STEM subjects, especially computer science and code skills. I have a hard time understanding how it could possibly be detrimental to focus on this type of curriculum.

  • 23. PatientCPSMom  |  March 20, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Computer Science’s foundation is math, logic, and language CPS needs to make sure that this foundation is there first in the classroom or else STEM is just another fad. Just from an executional point of view where are children going to do their coding homework if they don’t have access to computers or an internet connection at home? Will CPS provide this? Libraries don’t have the space to provide such a time intensive use of computers for so many CPS kids. I am not a naysayer but schools have plenty STEM curriculum in place if you can take advantage of it. My 1st grader can go on several school provided on-line math sites and do algebra or precalculus if he’s able but many in his class don’t go on these sites because parents don’t have internet access at home. So than these kids don’t get the current CPS STEM education and I’m not sure they’ll get any better STEM education at CPS in the future.

  • 24. realchicagomama  |  March 20, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    @ STEM_Mom – Your child is at a magnet school, which means it has at least 1 position specifically funded in service of the STEM curriculum. (I know this because my kids are at a magnet school too.) It is not so much that “focusing on STEM is detrimental,” but the part that comes next: if they system focuses on STEM, it’s going to be to the exclusion of what? Art? Music? Social studies? Mental health? Because the reality of an underfunded system means that it’s often a zero-sum game instead of a balance.

    My husband is a software programmer. My father is a nuclear engineer. I work at a web development company. I _get_ that these skills are important, and that people who have these skills often do important work. But I don’t think they are important to the level of core subject matter, and I think the purpose of education is to help teach children how to be critical thinkers and learners — not to train them for specific jobs based on what a lobby group falsely claims is a shortage.

  • 25. Christopher Ball (@skepticismwins)  |  March 21, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    I second what @23 and @24 say, especially:

    “Computer Science’s foundation is math, logic, and language CPS needs to make sure that this foundation is there first in the classroom.”


    “I think the purpose of education is to help teach children how to be critical thinkers and learners — not to train them for specific jobs based on what a lobby group falsely claims is a shortage.”

  • 26. Ltwain  |  March 21, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Having used a slide rule in college, then a TI SR10, then DEC PDP-8, and IBM 8086 computers, using BASIC, FORTRAN, etc., I don’t think knowing specific things is as important as having a receptive, prepared attitude for learning. All the above are nice little tools to solving problems. But solving problems in a neat fashion is the important thing.

    So Common Core seems to address the critical thinking part. Why dilute everyone’s attention by distracting with STEM programs, military programs, etc. KISS – Keeping it Simple is a terrific mantra that I wish CPS heads would rote memorize. I agree, spaghetti on the wall is all too common at CPS.

  • 27. STEM_Mom  |  March 21, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    From the comments, it seems that many don’t understand what STEM curriculum actually encompasses. Here’s a good breakdown:

  • 28. realchicagomama  |  March 21, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    @27 – I guess I don’t understand why the STEM curriculum, as described in the link you posted, requires a special designation or label? I can start to see the advantage of some exposure to STEM in the high school years and maybe even the middle school years, but again, if it’s the foundational skills described in the link, why the special label? And I still don’t agree with making these subjects core subjects universally across the system.

  • 29. Jill  |  March 22, 2014 at 12:48 am

    It should be STEAM, not STEM!

  • 30. realchicagomama  |  March 24, 2014 at 11:11 am

    And a followup post:

  • 31. Celestia  |  April 16, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    What would increase the percentage of high school graduates? Perhaps the hope that with a high school degree, a graduate might be able to earn more than the minimum wage. What professions rely upon achievement more than educational credentials…information technology, from helpdesk through software programmer (hey, look at Edward Snowden, who managed to disrupt the world having spent most of his adolescence in front of his computer and dropping out of high school.) We are importing kids with computer science talent from Asia who may have limited skills in other areas. Why not seek, nurture and develop that talent here?

    Most of us have one if not more pcs or devices in our homes. In low income homes, a landline might be a luxury. Most of us take for granted that if you need to find a job, you go on-line and fill out an on-line application. A skill tough to practice without a pc at home. Most of us turn to the internet for anything from searching for the right restaurant to the right college for our kids. Why not give those who are most in need of resources, the ability to use the tools which give them the access to the most resources?

  • 32. Celestia  |  April 16, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Continued: Roughly 25% of Americans are college graduates, leaving many people in the pink collar purgatory of retail. I’d rather have someone earning 50k a year in a helpdesk role unaware of the glories of Faulkner, than 19K a year being able to discuss Faulkner with customers who are waiting for their fries.

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