The difficult realities of implementing #CSforAll
Districts are adopting different tactics to try to bring more coding into K-12 classrooms
The White House Computer Science For All initiative (#CSForAll) calls for $4.2 billion for teacher training, curriculum development and fostering public-private partnerships in support of computer science instruction.
"In the new digital economy, coding is the new reading and writing — the new literacy — and it is becoming a critical mindset and set of thinking skills for success," says Idit Harel, founding CEO of Globaloria, a company that aims to teach all U.S. students how to code through video game design. "The number of engineering innovation and computing jobs is growing across every industry, yet there’s a shortage of individuals skilled to fill them, and a huge racial and gender disproportion in computing jobs. When we look at the breakdown of computer scientists in the United States, only a quarter are female, 6% are African American and 5% are Hispanic, and female computer programmers can make up to 28% less than men in computing."
Those discrepancies, Harel explains, stem from a fundamental discrepancy around who has access to computer science education. She believes in order to combat disparity, computer science education should be mandatory and part of regular school curriculum for all students, from all backgrounds, in all communities and schools, starting from a young age. It's also up to district, state and federal leaders to prioritize and allocate budgets for CS. "Because computer science is the new reading and writing, it must be funded as such," she says.
Ambitious CS initiatives are now unfolding in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), the first large district to try to teach all students, in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, coding. The SF rollout began this past fall in middle schools, reaching 33% of 6th, 7th and 8th graders, with expansion plans for elementary and pre-K in the pipeline. By the 2016-17 school year, the program is to reach all middle schools students in the district.
“While most of the country is talking about an hour or two of coding here and there, what we’re talking about is a fundamental shift: to make computer science an essential part of the curriculum,” the San Francisco #CSforALL initiative page says. “By beginning in the earliest grades and with all children, we will normalize a discipline that has been long dominated by a selective group of the population.”
On June 9, 2015, the SFUSD Board of Ed approved “Resolution No. 155-26A2: In Support of Expanding Computer Science and Digital Learning to All Students at All Schools from Pre-K to 12th Grade.” The resolution was passed, in part, because information technology is the fastest growing job sector in San Francisco. It accounts for at least 30% of San Francisco’s overall job growth since 2010, the board noted, and the city’s tech employment rose 51.8% between 2007 and 2012.
At the same time, the regional tech industry remains largely white and upwardly mobile. It’s 76% male, 88% White or Asian American. At the time of the resolution’s passing, only 5% of SFUSD high school students were enrolled in a computer science course.
Claire Shorall teaches at Castlemont High School in nearby Oakland and leads computer science at the district level for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Her position allows for a single streamlined approach, she told Education Dive, by having a dedicated person at the district level committed 100% to CS.
"We didn't want it to be siloed within other departments," Shorall explained. "Having a point person is important to being able to catalyze the work." In the OUSD, Shorall said, partnering with outside organizations has been key.
"Code.org has been instrumental in Oakland," she siad. "All of our teachers are going to be trained in person in Salt Lake City this summer; Code.org is paying to fly people out, and then providing a five-day in-person training. And for me, as an individual they've facilitated a network for me, so that I have a sense of community."
An Education Trends report from the Education Commission of the States recently analyzed what individual states are doing to address the growing need for computer science in K-12. The report found 14 states require a student to be allowed to fulfill a math, science or foreign language credit for high school graduation by completing a computer science course. And since the report was published, at least four states, Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota and New Jersey, have passed policies allowing a CS course to fulfill a math/science or math course requirement for high school graduation.
"Anecdotally it appears that more schools and districts are interested in offering computer science and coding," said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, one of the report's authors. "However, given the sheer number of districts (13,491) and public schools (98,271) in the U.S. it would be difficult to quantify if 'most schools and districts' are ready to try to achieve #CSforAll goals."
Zinth explained a primary hurdle to implementation is a lack of qualified instructors, especially for smaller and rural schools. It can be also difficult to justify a full-time CS teacher to teach a limited number of students or sections of CS courses. Educators also can lack access to high-quality professional development.
"[The Computer Science Teacher Association report] Bugs in the System identified barriers for candidates to get into CS teacher prep programs, and noted some certifications allowing teachers to teach CS may not require teachers to have mastered appropriate skills," said Zinth. "The report also cites barriers to those holding CS degrees who want to earn a CS teaching credential."
Zinth said teaching coding in K-12 classrooms can help fight inequity in opportunity. "It is wrong for high-quality CS learning experiences to be limited to children in the most well-resourced schools, or to children of well-connected parents who know how to effectively advocate for their schools and districts to offer CS programs," she said. "Offering CS across a broader array of schools can also help increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in CS-related majors and occupations. Making CS enticing and providing high-quality learning opportunities will help increase the diversity — both by gender and by race — of those pursuing CS degrees and careers."
Additionally, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia all give special recognition like a diploma or award to high school graduates who earn certain computer science credits.
"People often misunderstand ‘computer science’ to represent a very specific job or skill-set like writing code," George Moore, Chief Technology Officer at Cengage Learning told Education Dive. "We need to broaden this perception to reflect the wider application of computer science in our world today."
Arkansas is already a step ahead. There, Governor Asa Hutchinson passed a law requiring all public high schools and charters to provide CS classes in the 2015-16 school year, allowing them to count towards meeting math credit requirements for graduation. There, $5 million was allocated to making the initiative work, and teacher training programs were a key part of the plan.
“Of all the big-ticket items we’ve dealt with this legislative session, this relatively small-ticket item may have the greatest long-term impact,” Hutchinson said in a February 2015 press release. He is a co-chair, alongside Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, of Governors for Computer Science. Hutchinson previously made computer science education for all a central campaign promise. Arkansas also created a free online education portal, Virtual Arkansas, to help teachers and students. The portal reports 200 districts and over 30,000 student now use it.
Educators who use the portal do so for various reasons, including teacher shortages, a desire to provide additional course scheduling opportunities to their students, or the opportunity to offer a digitally enriched curriculum. Districts that partner with Virtual Arkansas also fulfill requirements outlined by the state’s Act 1280, also known as the Digital Learning Act.
"This was the first comprehensive law passed in the United States with such requirements," said Anthony A. Owen, Coordinator of Computer Science for the Arkansas Department of Education. The state went from having around 1,100 students enrolled in computer science courses in the 2014-2015 school year to around 4,000 in the 2015-2016 school year, an increase of 260%.
The reaction from students has been overwhelmingly positive, he said. "The biggest challenge for any state looking to roll out statewide comprehensive computer science education will be building teacher capacity," Owen said. "The statement I repeat to educators in our state is, 'Do not be afraid that your students may know more than you about computer science; in fact your job is to encourage and facilitate your students’ education to a point where they do know more than you! Help them learn the basics and teach them how to continue expanding their knowledge base without your direct instruction.'"
For schools that might be apprehensive, Owen recommends a bold approach. And for policymakers, a few perspectives are key to keep in mind when considering CS.
"My recommendation would be to look at your educational system," he said. "Consider the world’s changing economy and the technological displacement that is only going to grow in the workforce, then make choices that properly support today’s students and prepare them for this changing economy and gives them the skills they will need to be a productive contributor within tomorrow’s workforce."
It's also important for school systems to consider how they will build teacher capacity and actively growing student interest. "Educational initiatives live or die based on the support and excitement generated by leaders, educators, and students," Owen said. "Those that are being proactive and excited about CS are or will be ready, while those that are not will have struggles."