Bay State officials pushing for computer science equity

Bay State officials pushing for computer science equity

(Mass.) State education officials are pushing forward plans to make computer science a core subject that Massachusetts students will need to take in order to graduate.

During a joint hearing of the boards of Elementary and Secondary Education and of Higher Education late last month, members and guest speakers highlighted the need to ensure equity in access.

Prior to unanimously approving of the creation of a workgroup to develop plans to expand and improve upon current coursework, board members noted that far too often, computer science options are still found almost exclusively in middle- to upper-class neighborhood schools–in large part because it is still considered an elective.

"We have unintentionally created a barrier for the expansion of computer science by the way in which we've treated the discipline or the course at the high school level, which has made it difficult for us to do what a lot of educators want to do on the ground," James Peyser, State Education Secretary, said during the hearing. "It's changing the way in which we think about and develop these skills in our young people, so that it is not considered an elective or something that is reserved for certain categories of students or certain classes of people."

In 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 1.3 million jobs will be created by 2022 in fields requiring computer and mathematical expertise, but in 2016 alone, more than 600,000 high-paying tech jobs across the United States went unfilled.

As part of former President Barack Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, $4 billion in funding was made available to states to expand K-12 computer science through professional development and increasing access to high-quality instructional materials.

Throughout the country, states including California, Iowa, Nevada, Washington, Virginia and Arkansas have increased funding for professional development efforts, mandated that schools offer computer science instruction, or worked to integrate computer science standards into existing K-12 learning standards.

Now, about half of states require high school students to take a computer science course in order to graduate.

Lawmakers and education officials in many states have had to take a hard look at ensuring equity in access. In some cases, that meant shoring up broadband in rural schools, while in others it meant establishing computer science courses in districts serving inner city students, whereas others focused outreach efforts in recruiting more girls and students of color into computer science pathways.

Similar issues were brought up during the joint hearing of Massachusetts education officials. One board member pointed out that the majority of computer science options–both traditional classes and after school robotics programs, for instance–are available in upper-class neighborhoods where families are able to provide opportunities for their children to explore such interests outside of the classroom setting anyway.

Because of the high demand for tech-driven careers in the state, officials said that it is important to provide access to every student. According to a 2014 report from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, more than 6 jobs await each person who earns an associate's degree and certificate in computer science and information technology, and more than 17 jobs would be available for each person who earns a bachelor's degree in computer science and information technology.

Donna Cupelo, chair of the Massachusetts Workforce Development Board, told members that it is essential that young people who hope to compete for some of these jobs have at least some of the requisite analytical problem solving and technical skills when they graduate.

“One of the country’s biggest challenges today is preparing today’s students for the jobs of the future, and certainly that is true for Massachusetts as well,” she said. “The jobs in science, technology, software computing, engineering and mathematics are growing at nearly twice the rate of those in other fields, and yet we have far too few young people really focusing on these areas, and that is an issue of equity.

The workgroup approved of by both boards is tasked with crafting a plan to get more high school students studying computer science, and also increasing the number of graduates pursuing computer science and technology fields in college. According to a memo distributed to members of both boards last month, the plan would likely include plans that involve curriculum development, new teacher training initiatives, updated credentialing requirements and the assurance that every student has access to a computer at school.

Plans developed by the workgroup are due in June.