Gas station without pumps

2014 November 24

A seat at the table

Mark Guzdial in #Gamergate as a response to re-engineering: BPC as a conspiracy to change computing wrote

We in the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) community are aiming to achieve a similar kind of social engineering that the Gamergate supporters are complaining about. I am part of a vast, international (though maybe not particularly well-organized) conspiracy to change computing culture and to invade computing with many women and members of under-represented groups. We are “actively plotting to influence” computing. The Gamergate supporters argue that the conspiracy is about “artistic aspirations.” In BPC, we say that we’re about social justice, equity, and diversity. From the perspective of the “engineered,” the difference in purpose may not make much difference. One of the pushbacks on the call I shared to eliminate nerd culture was, “Can’t we just shape/change nerd culture?” Do the nerds want to be changed?

What might a response to BPC look like? Might well-prepared, privileged male and white/asian CS students complain about efforts to give seats in classes to women or under-represented minorities whom they may perceive as less-prepared?

I have no objection to giving seats in classes to anyone capable of  learning the material, but I believe that this needs to be done by increasing the number of seats, not taking them away from other students.  I’m all in favor of expanding the pipeline, but not of holding back those who have already started on the path, so that others can “catch up”.

There’s a general awareness that there’s a problem, but there’s less conviction that it’s an important problem or that there’s an obvious way forward to fixing it.

I agree that the problem of gender imbalance and racial imbalance in CS is an important one, but I’m less convinced than Mark that there is an obvious, equitable way to fix the problem. He seems to think that lotteries are the way to go:

In NPR When Women Stopped Coding in 1980′s: As we repeat the same mistakes, Mark wrote

I understand why caps are going into place. We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming. What else can CS departments do? We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable.

I disagree with him strongly on this. I responded on Mark’s post with the following comment:

I’m not sure that I agree with “We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming. What else can CS departments do? We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable.”

Granting access to a limited resource to those whose prior achievement is highest seems to me to be highly equitable. Denying higher achievers because they are of the wrong race or gender does not.

Increasing the resources available for teaching, so that we don’t have to restrict who majors in a field seems like a good strategy, as does providing slower on-ramps for those who did not have good early training. But denying entrance to those who may have dedicated their lives to the field, just because others did not have (or did not take) the opportunity to reach that level of achievement—that does not seem “equitable” to me.

Note: I may be biased here, because my son is a white male majoring in computer science who has been doing recreational programming as a major activity since he was 10 years old. I would be very offended if he had to win a slot in the major by a lottery—college admissions alone is enough of a lottery these days.

Are we then to tell students not to form any intellectual passions in middle school or high school, because doing so will get them labeled as “privileged” and denied further opportunity? Or should they only form passions for things that no one cares about, so that no one will try to take their passions away from them?

Although I’m not fond of sports analogies, it is common for people to point out the absurdity of the lottery position by suggesting that the same be applied to sports teams. The football teams at the Big 10 schools should not consist of those privileged athletes who started young, got the best training, and had the best performance in high schools, but should be assigned by lottery to anyone who is interested in playing, even if they have never picked up a football in their lives. Why should only those who had the good fortune to be large, fast, and strong be allowed to play?

Michael S. Kirkpatrick countered my comment with

It’s often so hard to be objective when it comes to perceptions of equity. As Anatole France observed, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” The open question is whether those students truly are higher achievers, or if they are just starting from an advantageous position. In that case, would it not be more equitable to give the opportunity for students who did not have prior opportunities?

His argument makes the assumption that primary goal of college education is a social justice function—to provide opportunity for those who have not previously had it. While a generous impulse, this philosophy taken to extremes results in eliminating grad schools and upper-division courses to create more freshman courses, and even replacing freshman courses with remedial courses, resulting in college as very expensive high school (or, in the case of some athletes in scandal-ridden schools, grade school).  Increasing opportunity is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be allowed to kill off the other great things about universities: like the opportunity for people to stretch their minds to the limit, to share ideas with other intelligent and passionate people, and to advance the state of the art. While universities do serve an important role in aiding social mobility, it is not, in fact, their primary function in society.

A variant of Kirkpatrick’s argument has often been used to kill off gifted education in public schools (because of a correlation between socio-economic status and identification for gifted programs)—forcing the parents of gifted students to take on educating their children themselves, which only the wealthy (or upper middle class) can easily afford to do. This approach increases the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as the gifted students with less wealthy parents get much more limited educations—defeating the original goals of “equity” that killed off the public programs for gifted students.

There are good reasons why many parents of gifted kids started referring to “No Child Left Behind” as “No Child Allowed Ahead”, as it was much easier for schools to reduce their achievement gaps by slowing down the students who were learning fastest than by speeding up those learning slowest. Guzdial’s approach to rationing CS education seems to be following the same model.

Bonnie responded to Guzdial’s post with comments about what her college is doing to broaden participation, speaking both of successes and failures, and ending with

I just don’t know how we can make up for the poor education they received in K12. And that, I think, is where the true inequity lies.

Here I agree with Bonnie—if the problem is that some students get support early and others get support late, the solution is not to slam the door in the faces of those who got early support, but try to extend early support to more people. For that matter, I’m not in favor of slamming the door shut on anyone.  I don’t buy Guzdial’s assumption that this is a zero-sum game and that the only way we can have more women and URMs in CS is to have fewer white or Asian males. I think that there is plenty of room in the tent still for everyone who is interested and willing to work at learning the material.  We should not be rationing education, but providing enough education that everyone can get as much as they want.

In response to a different commenter, Guzdial wrote

We’re not talking about employees, Ian. We’re talking about seats at the table for students. If you get more women and under-represented minorities enthused about CS, there are still not enough seats at the table. If we’re going to allocate seats based on current ability, we have to get women and URM students to be better than privileged white boys. That’s a really high bar.

You may be under the misconception that computing is a meritocracy. It’s not. It’s not those with the most merit. It’s those with the most privilege.

It is almost certainly true the computer industry is not a meritocracy—but we should be trying to make it one, not rationing out education like butter in WW II. If there are not enough seats at the table, then buy a bigger table with more chairs! That will cost less in the long run than squabbling over who gets seated now.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary! I don’t think lotteries are the way to go, for the reasons you list and because it’s simply not politically palatable. I do think that they are equitable and are worth thinking about (as you do here). Of course, the preferred course is to grow more seats — I completely agree with you there! But what if we can’t? That’s the hard question.

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2014 November 25 @ 05:32 | Reply

  2. I agree that a bigger table is needed. I also think the problem lies with K12, and we in higher ed need to get more involved. However, I think there are differences in the experiences of women and the experiences of minority kids from poor backgrounds when they encounter CS, and trying to glom those two groups together is a mistake. At my university, we get very few women in CS, but the ones we get are pretty similar to their male peers in terms of preparation. White women in our program do as well as white men, Asian-American women are comparable to Asian-American men, and generally, African-American women do better than African-American men, for reasons that are not clear to me. The issue for women of all backgrounds is simply getting them interested in CS, and keeping them in the major. Preparation is really not an issues.
    We have more African-American men in our program than women of any background, and an equal number of Hispanic men. We aren’t having trouble attracting those groups. But they do very badly in the major. Many of them are just scraping by on the edge of the minimum GPA. For those students, poor preparation is the problem. I find that African-American men in our program are less likely to have seen programming in K12 than white women, are more likely to be placed in developmental math, and generally have really bad study skills, I suspect they went to high schools where simply keeping out of trouble was good enough, and not much more was asked.
    So we have two separate problems, really. For women, the social milieu surrounding programming clubs and extracurriculars in the middle school through high school years tends to convince them that computer science is not for them, even though they are well prepared. For kids from poor families, inadequate K12 preparation is the big problem.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2014 November 25 @ 05:43 | Reply

  3. I have to agree with Bonnie in that the problem with University CS is K12 CS. Increase the number of kids in K12 CS and that University table will get bigger because the University will realize there is money to be made. Of course the little detail of there being no K12 CS teachers of sufficient number does sort of throw a wrench in the whole thing.

    Comment by gflint — 2014 November 25 @ 08:40 | Reply

    • University resource allocation is, by necessity, very slow, because once resources are given to a department they are difficult to claw back. Also, many state universities are being systematically starved of resources by state legislatures, in an attempt to force them to become private universities.

      Because CS has a history of boom-and-bust cycles (about a 14-year cycle), university administrators with any institutional memory are reluctant to dump a lot of resources in at the peak of the cycle, just before the bubble pops.

      Even if administrators had sufficient funds (as they do at places like Stanford and MIT), hiring new permanent faculty and increasing numbers of classes generally takes a year or two, so during periods of expansion the resources will lag the demand and courses will be oversubscribed.

      The problem, then is what to do during the (hopefully temporary) period when the demand for CS courses exceeds the supply.

      State universities have developed various priority schemes for allocating scarce classroom seats, as this is a problem they’ve been facing for a decade or more. Most of the schemes give higher priority to students who are closer to graduation (fewer chances left to get into required courses), to students who require the course for their majors, and sometimes, to a small group of honors students, who get registration priority as a perk to convince them to select the school in the first place and to stay there, rather than transferring to a more selective school.

      Students who register for courses as soon as they are allowed to also end up with priority over those who delay making up their minds.

      The registration-priority systems are far from perfect (some things are still essentially a lottery), but they do allow universities to be explicit about what things are most important in determining who gets scarce resources. The current systems seem to be designed mainly to allow students to graduate as soon as possible, rather than the “seats for the less well-prepared” that Mark has argued for.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 25 @ 17:50 | Reply

  4. Betsy DiSalvo has written a lot about the unique challenges of African-American men in computer science. It’s different than for women or other minorities or even African-American women, I agree.

    We need to improve K12 CS, agreed, but that involves us changing first. If you look at the history of change in secondary school education, it’s a process of high schools copying colleges. That’s how calculus moved into high schools. If we want to see high schools teach CS, we have to make CS a requirement in higher-education. If we can’t do that, if we can’t teach computer science to everyone who gets admitted to higher ed, then we can’t make it work in high school, where more than half of the students won’t go on to higher ed.

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2014 November 25 @ 08:56 | Reply

    • I think this is sort of the chicken or the egg thing. I have a feeling if anybody (higher ed or high school) made the change to emphasize CS the other would follow along. I think it will come down to who can make the change the quickest. Considering both live by bureaucracy “quick” is not relevant. This year 4 out our 40 seniors are looking at CS programs. If the high schools in my little state were to generate 10% of their seniors to CS our state universities would be in big trouble but I have a feeling they would find assets in a hurry. Right now our state universities are building low level CS courses in an attempt to attract kids into the CS fields. I do not think an 18 year old who takes a basic Python course is suddenly going to see the light and jump into becoming a CS major. They need to develop that interest many years before. This means something in the elementary or middle schools to get them started. Now we are back to finding that teacher capable of doing something in the elementary or middle school. This is sort of like someone deciding at age 18 they want to be a car mechanic. It does not happen. They started liking cars at age 8 and built on it from there.

      Comment by gflint — 2014 November 25 @ 10:34 | Reply

      • You have more confidence in state universities than me. Here at Georgia Tech, our enrollment has grown exponentially, so they’re placing caps on the major. Same thing at Berkeley. Our provost and president has told us that we can’t do any additional hiring to deal with the load. Stanford’s administration just told them the same thing. The rise in enrollment is leading to turning students away, rather than growing capacity.

        Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2014 November 25 @ 13:49 | Reply

    • Your calculus example contradicts your claim that “If we want to see high schools teach CS, we have to make CS a requirement in higher-education.” After all, calculus is not a requirement of higher education (except in science and engineering fields). If you made the weaker claim that we need to get more disciplines to require programming before high schools would see it as important to teach, I’d be more inclined to agree.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 25 @ 13:52 | Reply

      • Absolutely — you’re right. From the perspective of high schools, enough of their students are going to go into a major that requires calculus, so it’s worthwhile for them to teach it in high school. That’s the bar we need with computing to make it valuable and desirable for high schools to teach it.

        Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2014 November 25 @ 13:59 | Reply

  5. I’m in favour of a lottery-based system in cases where it’s impossible to decide merit. We do a lot of direct admissions from high schools, and I’m unconvinced that there is much of a difference between a X% high school average and an X+0.4% high school average. Plus, that way lies madness, or at least unofficially super competitive entry requirements. Rigourous entry requirements are fine, but beyond that it doesn’t seem meaningful.

    Even for transfer students, I’ve been applying a GPA screen, but I’m not really convinced that it’s the best way to compare students, in terms of how they do after transfer and also in terms of eventual career success. (This year, we were told to take no transfer students).

    Comment by Patrick Lam — 2014 November 26 @ 07:49 | Reply

    • The programs I’m undergrad director for do not admit first-year students directly to the major—the students have to have taken the equivalent of 10 courses required for the major before they can declare the major. We do have a minimum GPA requirement on those courses, but we don’t have any cap on the number of students in the majors. The reason for the GPA requirement is that we are not allowed to remove students from the major, even if they fail courses repeatedly, and the courses get much harder in the upper division than the lower division (most of the lower-division courses are taught by departments we have no control over: physics, math, chemistry, biology, …). We want a strong indication that students will be able to complete the program before we let them declare the major. As a result of the GPA policy, we have a very good 5-year graduation rate (though a poor 4-year one, as it is very difficult to schedule all the courses in just 4 years, especially with some of the lower-division courses having far too few seats).

      I recently looked at gender balance among the majors and among the proposed majors (students propose a major for advising purposes starting at the beginning, but don’t declare until the end of their second year). There is a gender imbalance (only about 30% female), but that is not due to differential attrition, as there is no significant difference in gender balance between the majors and the proposed majors (the gender balance fluctuates a lot in the proposed majors, which makes comparison a bit tough). The GPA requirement does not appear to be affecting gender balance. Note: the big program (the one big enough to provide meaningful statistics) is bioengineering, which is not primarily a computational program (though students are required to take 2 or more programming classes and a heavy-duty statistical inference course). The bioinformatics program is too small for the numbers to be meaningful (even a 0 would not be statistically significant).

      I don’t have the statistics for under-represented minorities in the proposed major (I’ll have to get those numbers), but in the major the numbers of URMs are around 22% (mostly Hispanic students). That is substantially lower than the campus as a whole (35% URMs)—as with the gender imbalance, about 60% of where we should be to have proportional numbers.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 26 @ 08:44 | Reply

  6. If you want to measure prep, test for the actual prep, not the silliness that is SAT. High school GPA is also useless; look at the grades in the major.

    I come from a country where there are university entrance exams, actual technical exams, to measure high school prep in relevant subjects. It could be done statewide (e.g. one exam for the whole UC and CSU systems together, or separately for the two) or for a cluster of states (various midwestern states have reciprocity clauses where residents can attend either’s state school at resident tuition). You could seriously test people on math and CS, for instance, if CS is the intended major, or physics or chemistry or biology or whatever. A version of this is done in many countries, I don’t understand why it’s not done in the US; even huge countries like China manage to do a nation-wide exam with several subjects, and the tests are very serious and grueling.

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2014 November 26 @ 20:43 | Reply

    • Our major-entrance requirement is the GPA on the courses required for the major that have already been taken, and there must be the equivalent of at least 10 of those courses (labs count as partial courses, so the requirement is actually more like 8 or 9 courses with accompanying labs). I agree that high-school GPA is pretty meaningless, particularly with the rampant, but non-uniform grade inflation.

      I like using grades rather than an exam, for the same reason that I don’t use many exams in my courses—the skills I’m interested in are not well measured by short-duration exams. I want to know what students will do on big projects over an extended period.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 26 @ 22:39 | Reply

      • the skills I’m interested in are not well measured by short-duration exams.

        I hear you. I am a bit (okay, a lot) cynical about grades because at my university I see many students who have good grades yet when push comes to shove they show what is essentially below-adequate proficiency in basic subjects.

        Comment by xykademiqz — 2014 November 27 @ 23:52 | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: