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Programming, Education, and the American Dream

3d65a0bc911de24fde5e58d84b0276af?s=47 Liz
November 18, 2014

Programming, Education, and the American Dream

The learn to code movement has popularized the idea that coding is a skill everyone can learn. It's the American dream: learn the desirable skill and you'll succeed financially. I'll discuss the history of the American Dream, how new programming education endeavors have repackaged it, and how the lack of awareness and analysis of this privileged rhetoric is damaging our culture and workforce.



November 18, 2014


  1. Programming, Education, and the American Dream Liz Abinante • Software

    Engineer, New Relic • @feministy
  2. “Learn to Code” Movement How did this all get started?

    ! Education in America How are we educating children? ! The American Dream What is it and how is it related to programming? ! Educating Programmers Can “anyone” learn to code?
  3. “Learn to Code” Movement

  4. How did this all get started? It’s difficult to give

    a straightforward explanation. It wasn’t just one thing, it was a few things.
  5. Four things: 1. Startup success stories 2. Availability of curriculum

    3. Lower barrier to entry for new technologies 4. Obama told us to
  6. Startup success stories Facebook got its own movie, for crying

    out loud.
  7. None
  8. http://www.forbes.com/sites/afontevecchia/2014/10/02/the-new-forbes-400-self-made-score-from-silver-spooners-to-boostrappers/ “This year, we gave each member of The Forbes

    400 a score on a scale from 1 to 10 — a 1 indicating the fortune was completely inherited, while a 10 was for a Horatio Alger-esque journey. We also did the analysis for every 10 years going back to 1984. Looking at the numbers over time, the data lead us to an interesting insight: in 1984, less than half of people on The Forbes 400 were self- made; today, 69% of the 400 created their own fortunes.”
  9. Availability of curriculum It’s easier to learn something if there

    are different ways to learn it.
  10. Availability of curriculum ! New in-person courses Non-profit Girl Develop

    It offers low-cost classes for women in 2010 Expensive development courses begin offering short (9 weeks) or long (6-9 month) programs
  11. Availability of curriculum ! Free, and aYordable, interactive online curriculum

    Interactive videos or guided step-by-step code challenges Codecademy, Team Treehouse, and Code School
  12. Availability of curriculum ! Enhanced online curriculum with personal mentorship

    Bringing a classroom setting to a wider audience SkillCrush, Code Union, Bloc offer online materials or live sessions, plus mentors
  13. Lower barrier to entry for new technologies “Simple” languages and

    cloud environments.
  14. Lower barrier to entry ! Cloud development environments Alleviating both

    cost and complication
  15. Lower barrier to entry ! Cheaper equipment YWeb Career Academy

    teaches students on $300 Chromebooks
  16. Lower barrier to entry ! “Simple” languages Easy-to-read and well-documented

    languages like Ruby and Python
  17. Lower barrier to entry ! Emphasis on user experience, responsive

    design, and mobile Approaching software based on your interests instead of your skills
  18. Obama told us to “Don’t just play on your phone,

    program it.”
  19. “Anyone can learn to code!” The discrepancy between marketing and

  20. Disclaimer

  21. I was going to be a teacher. Of, like… high

    school. Kids.
  22. I went to a code bootcamp …instead?

  23. I learned my first programming language in 2013.

  24. It turns out that learning to code is not the

    same as programming.
  25. Writing code is nothing more than typing using a prescribed

    set of rules.
  26. Becoming a good writer involves learning from others who have

    done it before you. So does being a good coder.
  27. When you say: “it’s easy” what you think you mean

    is: “it’s easy, I did it, and so can you.”
  28. But what it sounds like to me is: “it's easy,

    I did it, and if you can't, that's your fault.”
  29. Phrases like this place the onus for learning on the

    student, attributing no responsibility to the individual or institution uttering the phrase.
  30. DiYerent students do not excel or fail because of innate

    abilities. Student success is dependent on their educational foundation and opportunities.
  31. Education in America

  32. Achievement, lectures, and learning How do we teach kids?

  33. Then: our recent past “Leveling”: placing students at their current

    level instead of challenging them with more difficult material.
  34. ‘Teachers used a technique called "leveled instruction." Palmer describes it

    as "an approach to literacy in which students spend the vast majority of their time in a text that is at their reading level. So if a student is in fifth grade and they're reading at a third-grade level, they spend most of their day reading texts at a third-grade level.”’ http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/11/11/356357971/common-core-reading-the-new-colossus
  35. Now Common Core standards for reading and math, grades K-12

  36. “The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards

    in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.” http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/
  37. None
  38. The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put

    innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/why-do-americans-stink-at-math.html
  39. Common core isn’t the solution It doesn’t address disparity in

    educational quality or drop out rates. It’s a band aid for a bad educational system.
  40. Student demographics Top performing, low performing, and STEM schools

  41. Top 5 STEM high schools The top 5 STEM schools

    educate 5,711 students nationally. Who are these students?
  42. Top 5 STEM Schools White: 37% Minority: 63%

  43. Top 5 STEM Schools: Minorities Asian American: 79.3% 2 Or

    More Races: 5.1% Hispanic: 11.5% Black: 3.4% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.4% Native American: 0.3%
  44. Top 5 STEM Schools: Impoverished Not Poor: 99.4% Impoverished: 0.6%

  45. 37 kids

  46. But what about the worst schools? Turns out no one

    wants to talk about them
  47. Nationwide literacy rates National trends, race, and socioeconomic status http://www.rif.org/us/about/literacy-facts-and-stats.htm

  48. National Literacy: 4th Grade Above “Basic”: 66% At or below

    “Basic”: 33%
  49. National Literacy: 4th Grade Scoring below “Basic” Percentage of Students

    47% 49% 51% 53% Black Hispanic Native American Impoverished
  50. National Literacy: 8th Grade Above “Basic”: 74% At or below

    “Basic”: 26%
  51. National Literacy: 8th Grade Scoring below “Basic” Percentage of Students

    36% 40% 44% Black Hispanic Native American Impoverished
  52. The important question becomes: Why are we pushing to incorporate

    computer science into public schools if so many students don’t meet the standards for reading and math?
  53. The American Dream

  54. A history of the American Dream What is it? Where

    did it come from?
  55. Coined at beginning of the Great Depression, “the dream [was]

    not only our most precious national possession but our unique contribution to the civilization of the world.” The Epic of America (1931), James Truslow Adams
  56. What do people think the American Dream is? Super scientific

    study where I asked people I know what they thought
  57. “White picket fences… and owning your own house.”

  58. “Striking it rich, becoming a millionaire.”

  59. “Being an entrepreneur.”

  60. “Being your own boss.”

  61. “Nuclear families and not worrying about money.”

  62. “Coming to America with nothing and becoming rich because of

    your own will to succeed.”
  63. “Elon Musk.”

  64. “I’m not sure, but it seems like a lot of

    rich white men know what it is and they don’t want to share it.”
  65. The Epic of America (1931), James Truslow Adams “The dream

    is a vision of a better, deeper, richer life for every individual, regardless of the position in society which he or she may occupy by the accident of birth. It has been a dream of a chance to rise in the economic scale, but quite as much, or more than that, of a chance to develop our capacities to the full, unhampered by unjust restrictions of caste or custom.”
  66. The American Dream is about individual achievement and unlocking your

    potential, barriers be damned.
  67. Educating Programmers

  68. Can anyone really learn to code? Who are we leaving

  69. When computers and the internet were new, there was no

    computer science. People taught themselves.
  70. None
  71. Increasing barriers to entry Due to rising popularity, CS majors

    are implementing GPA requirements for admittance into the major
  72. You can’t learn to code if you don’t have the

    right tools.
  73. To succeed as an industry, we have to stop expecting

    people to be able to teach themselves.
  74. Can you say “anyone can learn to code” to… !

  75. Can you say “anyone can learn to code” to… a

    person with a developmental disability?
  76. Can you say “anyone can learn to code” to… a

    person without a home?
  77. Can you say “anyone can learn to code” to… a

    person who doesn’t speak English & lives in America?
  78. Can you say “anyone can learn to code” to… a

    single parent with no time for themselves?
  79. Probably not.

  80. So what it really means is…

  81. Anyone with suocient privilege, educational background, and access to tools

    can learn to code.
  82. Just like the American Dream, the Learn to Code movement

    isn’t really for everyone.
  83. Bootcamps, startups, and big $ The American Dream, repackaged for

    engineers and entrepreneurs.
  84. Silicon Valley leads U.S. as early startup funding hits 2-year

    high “Research firm CB Insights said there was more than $1.2 billion invested last month, up 56 percent from last October [2013].” http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2014/11/17/silicon-valley-leads-u-s-as-early-startup-funding.html
  85. “The average junior developer makes $73,000…” Dev Bootcamp http://devbootcamp.com/2014/07/01/your-future-after-dev-bootcamp/

  86. “…98% job placement rate 90 days after graduating and a

    $110,000 average annual salary.” Hack Reactor http://www.fastcompany.com/3023456/become-an-ios-developer-in-8-weeks-the-truth-about-hack-schools
  87. “…graduates typically net starting salaries upwards of $70,000…” Flatiron School

  88. http://code.org/stats

  89. None
  90. None
  91. None
  92. None
  93. None
  94. It's the new packaging of the American Dream.

  95. It’s there, ready for the taking: unleash your potential!

  96. But what happens if you aren’t successful?

  97. If you can't learn it, it's your fault.

  98. The dream isn't broken, unobtainable, or privileged, it's for everyone,

    so you must be the problem.
  99. What should we do about this? This is super depressing.

  100. Small changes make a diYerence: 1. Set realistic expectations for

    job and skill seekers 2. Improve schools by supporting education- focused initiatives 3. Cut the hype 4. Don’t buy into the hype
  101. The American Dream should be a positive thing that pushes

    us to do better.
  102. Thanks! Liz Abinante Software Engineer, New Relic @feministy • me@liz.codes