Chicago Is Making Coding Education Mandatory. Is That a Good Idea?

“Just make it a requirement.”

That’s what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the government should do to make education in computer coding and programming available to public school students.

“You’d be amazed to if you make the goal, how much all the other choices will be made to get to that goal,” he told people attending a tech event in October sponsored by the Washington Post.

Emanuel wants the federal government to make the same mandate he is attempting to implement back in his home city. Chicago Public Schools is rolling out computer science classes at all levels of education, and the goal is eventually to require some mandatory computer science education in order to graduate from high school.

Should we bristle at the idea of yet another inflexible government mandate in public education or commend Emanuel for recognizing how important computer education is for today’s students as they prepare to enter the work force?

It’s interesting to note that Emanuel’s advocacy falls on the side of what parents say they want and in opposition to what administrators think is in demand. An August poll by Gallup and Google found that 90 percent of parents see computer science education as a good use of school resources, and 67 percent, like Emanuel, want it to be a mandatory core subject. But only 8 percent of school administrators realized or thought that parents wanted it as a priority. A Gallup director called it “shocking how huge the disparity is between the demand we’re seeing in this study and what’s actually happening in schools.”

We are seeing louder, more obvious pushes for computer science education in schools. This isn’t about how to teach kids to use computers; it’s about teaching kids the basics of coding and programming technology, teaching kids to build things like web sites and apps and even to program robots. Adults, regardless of whether they have kids, have probably heard of‘s push for computer science education in schools and President Barack Obama’s endorsement of its aims. On Monday, Microsoft unveiled a tutorial program to help kids learn introductory coding with the assistance of the beloved Minecraft game.

It’s very easy to make a compelling argument that coding education ought to be available to students in all schools—public, charter, private, or otherwise. But it’s also very easy to be unsettled by Emanuel’s suggestion of adding yet another mandatory core education requirement in order to graduate high school, particularly a demand made via a federal order.

And that’s not necessarily even what computer science educators want. To learn more about the development of computer science education, Reason interviewed Julie Flapan, director for the Computer Science Project at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. This program is responsible for the development of the Exploring Computer Science curriculum that has been used or adapted for use in school districts in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

For Flapan and Exploring Computer Science, the mission isn’t mandates so much as it is simple access in public schools.

“Computer science has historically been at the advanced placement level,” Flapan says.  “It appealed to students who already had exposure to computer science and already showed an affinity to math and science.” When they examined the demographics, there was a very obvious gap in who was studying computer science, and women and minorities were being left out. To the extent schools that served poorer students had computer education at all, it was focused on the student as a computer user, teaching data entry and how to use Microsoft Office, Flapan says. It’s at schools with better resources where students can go beyond basic computer use to learn actual programming and data analysis.

The mission of Flapan’s program is to change that attitude and make computer science education more available to minorities and female students and to counteract stereotypes that push students away from learning the subject.

“We wanted to develop a computer science course that opened all students up to the ideas of what computer sciences are,” she said. “We felt all kids should have this exposure. It shouldn’t be just kids who have access to summer camps or after-school programs.”

And there are practical, marketplace considerations as well. It’s not just about providing equal access, but trying to adapt education for what the American economy is evolving into. There’s a huge educational emphasis on STEM-related fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematical occupations. Flapan notes that within these fields, half of all the jobs are actually going to be in computing.

“At the rate we’re going right now, by 2020, we have a projection of about 1.4 million more [computer science-related] jobs, but only about one-third of our students are being educated to meet those needs,” Flapan says.

To be clear, though, this push is absolutely not about operating on an assumption that all high school students are bound for college, at least not at UCLA’s Computer Science Project. Part and parcel of trying to end stereotypes about who should be learning computer science and coding is not assuming these students are all on some sort of college computer engineering track. Some may finding coding education in secondary school a helpful precursor for vocational training or entering into the job market.

“The idea is, there are many different pathways for students to pursue,” Flapan says. “If they don’t know what the pathways are, they won’t be able to pursue them. Not everyone has a linear pathway. Some may want to go straight into the workforce. We’re preparing students for both college and career.”

An adapted version of the Exploring Computer Science course is what the Chicago Public School system intends, eventually, to make mandatory. The curriculum for Chicago’s version of Exploring Computer Science is available online here (pdf). Adapted with the assistance of folks at several Chicago colleges, the course starts with basic computer education and training with Microsoft Office software, then shifts to using computers to solve problems, web design (where students will learn how to create web pages), introductory computer programming, data analysis, and even basic robotics.

Numbers for the 2013-14 school year for Chicago had 4,377 students enrolled in this course at 30 schools. Chicago currently has 112,007 secondary school students enrolled. Assuming each student will have to take a single course, enrollment is going to have to increase seven-fold to 28,000 students per year.

That’s a lot of program scaling, and it’s not as though teachers can simply be shifted from some other course to computer science. As a field of education in public schools, Flapan notes, computer science is still relatively new, and there’s a significant amount of professional development needed. Furthermore, computer science is a constantly evolving field. The classes then will have to be flexible and adjust to wherever the technology goes in the outside world. If any of today’s parents got any sort of computer science education in school at all, it was likely at a time where schools had Apple II computers using floppy discs. School districts can’t just implement a computer science program, dust off their hands, and move on.

As such, when asked about whether Emanuel’s suggested mandate was a good idea, Flapan sees both good sides and bad. On the good side, because her program is devoted to increasing access to computer science to female students and minorities, requiring a class to graduate would eliminate a lot of barriers. “When we leave it up only to students, parents, or teachers, we reinforce certain stereotypes over who could be good at computer science,” she says.

But while Emanuel may flippantly declare “choices will be made to get to that goal” to wave away concerns about program scaling, it’s a serious issue for computer science educators. This may be why, as Flapan explains, there is not a consensus among educators about making classes mandatory. Just because every high school in the country is ordered to provide computer science classes doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any good and that students will learn from them. Imagine trying to learn introductory computer programming from a barely-trained teacher who just lectures from the text.

“You want to make sure of a level of quality,” Flapan says. “You want to have a structure in place to make sure schools can put it in their master schedules. There’s a whole infrastructure we need to put into place. It’s a tough one.”

Chicago’s Public Schools, despite having a disastrous debt situation and a massive pension liability problem, is pushing forward with this experiment. The unanswered question is whether the program will be scaled properly, get the infrastructure and training experts say they need, and whether those kids will actually get the computer science education their parents say they want them to have.

Op-Ed: Equity in computer science education vital for California

By Julie Flapan | Oct. 15, 2015
The San Diego Union-TribuneClick here for the Op-Ed.

I learned an unexpected lesson about education reform while watching my kids compete to build the tallest LEGO tower. My youngest stacks one LEGO on top of the next, making it the tallest – for a split second – before it tumbles to the ground. My older child, having experienced this loss several times, crafts a sturdy base to sustain the tower above, making it the tallest and most long-lasting. This “scaffolding” provides a strong base of support, so that no matter how high the tower grows, it has a solid foundation from which to build.

As an education equity advocate, I’m reminded of the importance of scaffolding as New York City and other large urban school districts like Chicago and San Francisco are making ambitious plans to scale up computer science education so that it’s available to all students.

Computer science has become the latest “shiny new thing” in education. Computer science is driving innovation across all industry sectors, yet, Silicon Valley is lamenting low diversity numbers in their workforce, and high numbers of underprepared job applicants.

To scale up computer science education, we need a thoughtful approach that 1) ensures equal learning opportunities for all students, 2) prepares teachers so that more are qualified to teach it, and 3) makes sure that computer science counts toward graduation and college admission. These are some of the fundamental support structures that require adequate funding to ensure computer science education is meaningful, equitable and sustainable.

Nowhere is scaffolding more important than in curriculum. Students need building blocks from which to gain an understanding of deeper concepts. In our haste to fill schools with computer science, some misguided efforts are focused on scaling up Advanced Placement Computer Science. That reform alone would be like taking an AP Calculus class without ever having taken math – almost impossible for most of us.

Many students – disproportionately girls, low-income students and students of color – have no prior exposure to computer science and therefore are not prepared for these AP courses. According to Level the Playing Field Institute, while African-American and Latino students are 59 percent of California’s public school students, they were just 11 percent of last year’s AP Computer Science test takers. And though girls represent half of our high school population, they accounted for only 22 percent of AP Computer Science test takers in 2014. What accounts for this uneven participation rate?

Jane Margolis, author of “Stuck in the Shallow End,” found that access to computer science education falls along race, gender and socioeconomic lines. Her research identified schools that serve low-income students of color were teaching rudimentary keyboarding skills while upper income schools benefited from the deeper learning provided by real computer science. These foundational computer science skills include critical inquiry, creative problem solving and computational thinking that will prepare students for success in college and careers.

To respond to this disparate preparation gap, Margolis and her colleagues developed an introductory curriculum and teacher professional development program, Exploring Computer Science. Now a national program, ECS democratizes computer science by scaffolding learning so that all students are prepared for more advanced study.

Efforts to scale up computer science can only be successful if teachers are adequately prepared to provide engaging instruction. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is already working to increase the pool of qualified teachers with a new supplementary authorization in computer science. And as we increase the supply of teachers and curriculum, we need more students and parents to build demand.

High school students are already juggling full academic requirements to graduate prepared for college and careers. So it’s hard to know how to make computer science fit in their high school schedules if they don’t see the value in it.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing an approved computer science course to count as a math credit, though there are few courses that meet this requirement. Another way is for the UC and CSU to work together and recognize computer science as an essential 21st-century skill. If universities recognize computer science toward college admission, it will further incentivize students to study it in high school.

California needs to develop a solid approach to integrate computer science in our K-16 system. Computer science education requires a strong base of support that will sustain equitable expansion. Only then can computer science education be strong enough to stay standing, even when the next shiny new thing comes along.

Why computer science matters

Leadership Magazine
By Gary Page and Julie Flapan

From the arts and entertainment to agriculture, healthcare or finance, computer science is driving innovation across all fields. Computer science education provides an opportunity for schools to focus on the deeper learning and problem solving that the discipline of computer science requires. High paying jobs abound for students who have computer science knowledge and skills, preparing them to create the new technologies that drive California’s economy.

Over the last 20 years, states and school districts have worked hard to bridge the “digital divide” by increasing access to technology in schools and communities. But mere access to technology and its existing tools (such as smartboards and iPads) isn’t sufficient. Students need to know how to use technology, and they need engaged computer science learning opportunities to build creative thinking, logical reasoning and problem solving skills that involve computing.

However, computer science learning opportunities are not equally accessible across California’s schools.

Read the full article…

Mere access to technology won’t
bridge the digital divide. Students
need engaged computer science
learning opportunities to build creative
thinking, reasoning and problem-solving
skills that involve computing.

Students Not Prepared for Careers in Computer Science

August 24, 2015
Diverse Issues in Higher Education

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Despite the growing number of jobs that rely on computer science, significant portions of U.S. students never get to take a computer science class at the K-12 level because their schools don’t offer them.

That is one of the key findings of a new Gallup report that found that lack of access to computer science classes was particularly pronounced among low-income students and students of color.

“Many students do not have access to computer science learning opportunities at school, with lower-income students and Black students having the least access,” states the report, titled “Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in U.S. K-12 Education.”

Specialists say the lack of computer science classes in America’s schools has repercussions in areas that range from job market participation to national security. It also lessens the likelihood that students will study computer science in college.

“Basically, we have unequal opportunities for students of color to be well-prepared for the increasing number of jobs that require computer science backgrounds,” said Julie Flapan, executive director of the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools, or ACCESS, a UCLA-based initiative meant to bring about greater equity in computer science.

“They also won’t have adequate preparation should they choose to pursue computer science in college,” Flapan said.

The Gallup report found that Black and Hispanic students were less likely than White students to be able to take computer science classes at school.

Specifically, whereas 62 percent of White students reported having classes dedicated strictly to computer science, only 49 percent of Black students and 53 percent of Hispanic students reported having access to such classes.

When it comes to computer science being taught as part of a different class, 54 percent of White students reported access to such a class, as opposed to just 46 percent of Black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students.

Part of the problem, according to the Gallup report, is that school administrators do not believe there is a demand for computer science education among parents and students.

Specifically, the report found that just 7 percent of principals and 6 percent of superintendents surveyed said the demand for computer science is high among parents. Fourteen percent of principals and 15 percent of superintendents said demand is high among students.

“This perceived lack of demand from parents and students is contrary to the sentiments that students and parents in this study express,” the report states.

Specifically, the report found that nine in 10 parents felt that offering opportunities to learn computer science is a “good use of resources at their child’s school” and that just as many—91 percent—want their child to learn more computer science in the future.

“Parents are more enthusiastic about computer science education than administrators realize,” the report states. “Moreover, students have the expectation that they will learn computer science—more than 80 percent say they will likely learn computer science in the future.”

One upshot of the report is that school administrators report that computer science course offerings have increased in recent years and will continue to do so.

Specifically, 49 percent of principals indicated that they expected the number of opportunities to learn computer science to increase in the next three years.

Flapan said computer science classes at the K-12 level will help students irrespective of whether they choose to major in computer science.

“Regardless of whether students choose to pursue college or a career in the tech industry, the skills that students learn in computer science are essential foundational skills, like critical thinking, problem solving, computational thinking,” Flapan said. “These are all essential skills for all students, regardless of what career they later choose.”

Kyla A. McMullen, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Florida, said greater opportunities to learn computer science at the K-12 level will pay off in ensuring greater participation among minorities in computer science fields and thus filling critical gaps.

“We don’t have enough people in the U.S. who are studying computer science and the technical fields,” McMullen said. “It’s a matter of national security.

“The reason why China is hacking us every other day is because we don’t have enough people studying computer science to build the infrastructure we need to ward off those kinds of things,” she said. “In the future we’re leaving ourselves wide open.”

McMullen, who a few years ago became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan, said research suggests more minority students will study computer science in college if they get earlier exposure to it in the K-12 system.

“If a child doesn’t know what are the options for them, it won’t even be something on their mind when they go to school,” McMullen said. “If you never see it, how can you be interested in it?”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

In San Francisco, computer science for all…soon

by Andra Cernavskis
June 25, 2015

CS for all

Classroom volunteer Aimee Menne helps teach one of the only computer science classes currently offered at San Francisco’s Mission High. Photo: Andra Cernavskis

SAN FRANCISCO — Many children in San Francisco do not have regular access to computers in school, let alone computer science classes. The school district is about to change that as it plans to become the first large urban school district in the country to commit itself to exposing every child to computer science starting in pre-kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.

“We are not trying to produce an army of software engineers,” said Bryan Twarek, SFUSD’s computer science coordinator. “We want to open all doors to this industry, and right now those doors aren’t open to everyone.”

Read the full article…

“We want to make sure that when people are talking about computer science education, they are talking about critical thinking and computational learning and not just bringing fancy technology into the classroom,” said Julie Flapan, the executive director of Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools (ACCESS).

While not involved in creating SFUSD’s curriculum, ACCESS works to bring computer science education to traditionally underserved student populations in California. Flapan said that based on what she’s read about the planned SFUSD program, San Francisco leaders seem to understand the difference between just teaching students how to use technology and teaching them how to use computer programming as a form of problem solving.

“Path Not Found”: Report Says Low-income Students Lack Computer Access

By Nikolas Zelinski
Posted May 24, 2015 5:22 pm

 Path not found reportThe Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) has released a report titled a “Path Not Found” that chronicles the lack of computer classes available to lower-income students and students of color in California high schools.

The report finds “the higher a school’s percentage of underrepresented students of color, the lower the likelihood of a school offering any computer science courses whatsoever.”

Nearly 75 percent of high schools with the highest percentages of underrepresented students of color offer no computer science courses, and 75 percent of high schools with the highest numbers of low-income students offer no computer science courses.

This is during a time when the tech industry is booming, and the country’s demographics are shifting. “Last fall, for the first time in history, students of color made up the majority of first graders nationwide,” according to the report.

Read the full article…

According to Dr. Julie Flapan, executive director for the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools, “Upper-income schools have what we call preparatory privilege. Students who have exposure to computers at home, after-school coding classes, or summer robotics camps, are better prepared for the advanced placement (AP) courses that are already offered at their schools.”

“This is why it’s important to expand introductory level courses across the state, to ensure that all students have equal exposure to computer science,” Flapan concluded.

Some success in achieving demographic equality includes a program recently trialed in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), in partnership with the University of California Los Angeles, and the National Science Foundation.

The equity focused curriculum called “Exploring Computer Science” shows participation directly mirrors the overall demographics of LAUSD. The course utilizes interest-based learning at its core, and uses that concept to teach web design, and coding.