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.