Computer science push focuses on unrepresented pupils

Computer science push focuses on unrepresented pupils

(Calif.) Equitable access to new technology and curriculum has emerged a key issue for the California State Board of Education as they try for the first time to develop statewide K-12 computer science standards.

During discussions this month on the creation of an advisory committee, Trish Williams–appointed to the SBE in 2011–said that in developing these standards, the board must make sure that access to computer science for all students was in the forefront of the conversation–a position long held by proponents of expanding computer science.

Experts in the field say the emphasis is an important one.

“Historically, there have been huge groups of people who have been completely underrepresented in the computing fields and in computer science education, and that’s something that needs to change so that we’re giving all students access to this foundational field that leads to some of the highest paying, fastest growing jobs in the state of California,” Jake Baskin, director of state government affairs at Code.org, said in an interview. “It’s knowledge that every student should have in the 21st century.”

More than 600,000 high-paying tech jobs across the United States went unfilled in 2016, and by next year, 51 percent of all STEM jobs are projected to be in computer science-related fields, according to federal data. Throughout the country, districts and policymakers have worked to expand K-12 computer science by increasing access to high-quality instructional materials and through professional development.

In California alone though, more than 68,000 computing jobs are currently open in the state, and only 40 percent of K-12 schools offer any course in computer science. Yet even in schools that do, classes are often limited in the scope of what is taught, according to a 2014-15 Gallup survey of nearly 10,000 K-12 school principals in 11 states including California.

States including 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.

And lawmakers in Nevada recently passed a bill that not only creates computer science standards, but also ensures that every high school in the state offers at least one computer science class and that teachers receive professional development in the subject.

Such action addresses the root issue of equity, Baskin said. At the very base level, if a school doesn’t have a computer science class, there is no chance that students will enroll. He did note, however, that there is no clear line of inequity between student participation in computer science in urban and rural schools, or low-income versus middle- and high-income districts.

Rather, much of the inequity is found in participation among racial and gender lines, which are only exasperated by differences among schools in terms of wealth or region.

“Certainly income level is a factor, but even when we look at high-income schools, there are significant differences in participation among race and gender, which speaks to whether the opportunities are equitable,” Baskin said. “There’s no single dimension.”

According to Baskin, slightly more than 10,000 students in California took the 2016 AP computer science exam–a commonly used data point used to show who has access to computer science classes throughout the country. Statewide, about 1,400 were Latino, 146 were Black and only seven were Native American.

Nationwide, only 27 percent of students who took the College Board’s Advanced Placement computer science exam in May were women, up from 23 percent the prior year. Combined, African-American and Latino students made up 20 percent of AP computer science test-takers in the U.S.

“It’s clear that the students who have access to these courses do not match the student population either nationwide or in the state, and we need to do something about that because it’s a foundational skill that every student should have access to in this day and age,” he explained.

Under the guidelines for development recently adopted by the board, the computer science standards must reflect industry standards, contain concepts that can be learned without the use of a computer, emphasize the artistic and creative nature of computer science and focus on solving real-world problems.

And, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, members of the California Computer Science Strategic Implementation Advisory Panel will consider the best and most equitable ways of implementing the new standards, including how to expand the pool of computer science teachers.

Statewide computer science standards are scheduled to be crafted and recommended before Sept. 2018.