Executive Skills & Strategy Q&A

Q&A: San Francisco Expands Computer Science Classes

By Liana Loewus — August 04, 2015 3 min read
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The San Francisco school district announced last month that it will phase in computer science instruction for all students at all grade levels.

It’s an ambitious plan. Chicago is the only other major urban district attempting to integrate computer science instruction in similarly broad scope—and San Francisco’s plan goes even further by bringing the topic to students as young as prekindergarten.

Funding for the computer science expansion will come from the district, industry partnerships, and a deal with the Salesforce.com Foundation that brought the school system $5 million to increase resources for science, technology, engineering, and math.

Education Week spoke last month with James Ryan, the district’s executive director for STEM, about the new initiative. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the impetus behind this change? Why did the school board vote to make this happen?

Mr. Ryan: Computer science currently in the district is a few courses students can take in high school, mostly when they’re either juniors or seniors, some as sophomores. But it’s 5 percent or less of the students [taking it] and not even at every high school. In middle school, it’s less than half a percent of kids who get exposed to computer science or coding courses, and essentially zero at the K-5 level.

James Ryan In less than five years, he says, San Francisco schools will be offering computer science lessons in all grades.

As we look at who actually takes advantage of computer science in high school, it is a bit of the likely suspects—mostly male, and few Latino and African-American students. We recognize that if we actually want not only more students to take advantage of the computer science opportunities they have in pre-K-12 schooling, but we want that demographic to look like the city as a whole, then we’re going to have to start exposure to the subject matter, concepts, and skills much, much earlier.

The other driving force is the recognition that this is essentially becoming a new basic skill—that computers being used solely for consumption rather than creativity is not where the marketplace is going to be hiring people. They’re looking for people who can use technology to create.

How much computer science will students get at each grade level?

Mr. Ryan: Our initial structure is that pre-K-5th grade will get 20 hours a year—once a week for a semester. That’s considerable exposure. Middle school will get about 45 hours a year, or essentially a quarter-long course. In high school, we recognize that if we actually add another requirement, the plate is already too full and something spills over. So what we’re looking at there is not making it mandatory for everybody to take it, but to make it available at every high school. Our bet, and we think it’s a strong bet, is that if every student gets exposure to computer science every year through 8th grade, we’re going to get a great many more students wanting to continue on and wanting to do more with coding once they get to high school. We’ll start to bridge those gender gaps of who we see in those courses.

You’re starting to implement at middle schools and building out from there. When do you expect to be fully implemented across the grades?

Mr. Ryan: I’d love to do not next year but the following year [2016-17], but I don’t think that’s realistic. But less than five years. It might be three years.

What are some of the major challenges associated with implementing at all grade levels?

Mr. Ryan: One of the largest barriers is having enough adults who can teach this at a rich and rigorous level. So we have to “school up” the people who are going be teaching it, and the union partnered with us on that. Through a grant from American Federation of Teachers, they’ve created a position to help us build the teacher capacity to be able to teach this new basic skill.

The other barriers that we’re going to work to overcome are more structural—finding time in the school day that is already [packed] with other topics, making sure we have enough of the tools, the hardware and software, available to do this.

Then the other piece is keeping our parent community on board with this—making sure we’re transparent all the way so they value it as well as everyone else valuing it.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Computer Classes Get Boost in Calif. District

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