Cracking the Code: Giving More Students Access to Computer Science

By Dr. Loretta Goodwin
October 6, 2016

This post was originally published on American Youth Policy, July 11, 2016

Long, long ago, on a continent far, far away, I was determined to take a course in Computer Science. As I was an Arts Department major at my university in Cape Town, South Africa, I had to apply for special permission to venture into the Science Department. I ventured, signed up, and loved every minute of exploring this whole new way of thinking and solving problems. Fortunately, access to computer science (CS) is increasing for today’s U.S. students, as I learned at a recent Education Commission of the States gathering, but there is still much room for improvement in expanding access to these vital skills for every student.

Allyson Knox, Director of Education, Policy and Programs, US Government Affairs at Microsoft, framed the issue of providing access to CS to all students as a social and economic imperative. She underscored that we need more computer scientists, no matter which industry we’re talking about. Whether it’s the financial, manufacturing or healthcare sectors, there are many more computer science jobs than candidates to fill them.

“Providing access to Computer Science to all students as a social and economic imperative…”

These are jobs with an average salary of $100,000, yet opportunities for students to take CS exist in just one out of every four high schools. She was eager to remind us about President Obama’s recently announced Computer Science for All initiative that seeks to provide students, from kindergarten through high school, the chance to learn CS and gain computational thinking skills. She also heralded the formation of a new coalition, the CS Education Coalition, that is advocating for Congress to provide $250 million in federal funding this fiscal year for K-12 CS education.   In addition to movement at the federal level, states are also doing their part to embed CS in education.

Anthony Owen, Computer Science Education Coordinator at the Arkansas Department of Education, shared what his happening in his state, as well as suggestions for other states:

  • Enact policy to provide the course to all. Arkansas passed unanimous bipartisan legislation requiring every public high school to offer at least one CS course. Students are not required to take the course, but certainly have access to it.
  • Designate a central person to head the initiative. Anthony is that person in AR, and he works with industry, K-12, and higher education.  As he succinctly noted, “You can’t add it to someone’s existing job.”
  • Allow the course to count as a graduation credit. Arkansas Governor Hutchinson worked with the AR State Board of Education to have CS count as a graduation credit. Students can replace one of the math or science credits with CS.
  • Involve industry in the writing of standards. AR educators worked with industry as they determined the K-12 CS standards and courses.  Anthony noted it was not about prioritizing programming languages; there was lots about industry-specific “soft” skills, analytical thinking and problem solving.
  • Address the need for CS teachers. Given that CS is now being offered in all AR high schools, the need for teachers is great.  The challenge was addressed by making a virtual system of instruction available, by providing professional development to teachers, and giving them a stipend to get CS training.

In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN) is striving to provide CS education to every student in K-12.

“We need more women and historically underrepresented groups taking Computer Science.”

Jim Stanton, Executive Director of MassCAN and Senior Project Director at the Massachusetts-based EDC, emphasized the importance of getting all stakeholders involved to provide students with what he termed “indispensable skills in all industries and careers, nationally and globally.” He stressed the need for every student to gain these essential 21st century skills, warning that in the current workforce, 82 percent of those with CS qualifications are male, and 83 percent are White or Asian. That is not a sustainable model for filling all the necessary jobs requiring CS, and thus we need more young women and historically underrepresented groups taking CS. He shared some of the priorities that MassCAN has been focusing on:

  • Statewide CS Standards: Massachusetts has adopted K-12 Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards for the state.
  • Teacher Preparation: They are focusing on teacher licensure standards, working on new regulations for all licenses and liaising with key universities to start discussions about teacher preparation programs to help teachers meet the new standards.
  • Teacher Professional Development: They are tackling teacher professional development, contemplating what a sustainable funding model would be to scale professional development, and how they can modify existing programs to build greater teacher confidence and competence.
  • Building Coalitions: They are working on building effective coalitions, including the business community and state leadership, to think about how best to make a collective impact on scaling CS.
  • National Leadership: They are focusing on national leadership, engaging with the White House, and the National Science Foundation, to make CS a part of a national agenda.

As he concluded his remarks, Jim stressed that “national engagement is a game changer. Change can’t happen with multiple players doing their own thing.”  Although the path forward will not be without challenges, at the national and state levels there is a recognition of the urgency of expanding student access to computer science.  These students are fortunate to begin their exposure in K-12 already, not having to wait until university, as I did! Let’s keep this momentum going …

Additional Resources:

As part of learning Computer Science, students are learning how to code.  One resource mentioned by a presenter was

College Board will be launching a new course in Fall 2016: AP Computer Science Principles.

ECS Resource: State Integration of Computer Science into High School Graduation Requirements

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