Equity & Diversity

Ariz. District Teaches Coding to K-8 Students

By Liana Loewus — December 08, 2015 7 min read
Third grader Iyana Simmons works on a coding exercise at Michael Anderson School in Avondale, Ariz. The 5,600-student school system, outside Phoenix, is in its second year of teaching computer coding to students in grades K-8.
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While there’s a growing consensus that K-12 students should learn some computer science, especially given the 1 million computing jobs that are expected to go unfilled by 2020, there’s less agreement on how school districts can make that happen.

The Chicago, New York, and San Francisco districts have committed to teaching computer science to students of all ages, but those systemwide programs are rolling out slowly. New York City, which plans to spend $81 million on the project, has a 10-year implementation timeline, for instance.

But an elementary school district outside Phoenix has already gone full throttle with an essential element of computer science: programming, also known as coding. For the second year in a row, every kindergarten through 8th grade student here in the Avondale Elementary district is taking computer-programming classes.

Avondale, whose 5,600 students are largely Hispanic and from low-income families, is the only primary-grades district in Arizona requiring the subject, and one of the few in the country with such a comprehensive, in-school coding program for young students.

While many district leaders nationwide struggle to finance and staff computer science courses, Avondale officials say the transition has been fairly painless—and hasn’t cost them much of anything beyond what they were already spending on technology-related instruction.

“It’s a matter of having some innovative thinkers who are willing to say, ‘Let’s take a look at this. Let’s put this in front of kids and see where they go,’” said Betsy Hargrove, the superintendent.

The district previously had a “technology” special-area class in which students learned keyboarding skills and how to use programs like PowerPoint and Microsoft Word. But in the fall of 2014, the school system turned all of its technology instructors into computer-programming teachers.

The change happened quickly—teachers had just a few weeks to practice the online courses their students would be taking through Code.org, a nonprofit that provides tutorials and advocates for expanding K-12 computer science. Just one of the half-dozen technology teachers in the district had experience in computer programming when the project began.

“At first it was hard—I was a step ahead of [the students],” said Nancy Navarro, the technology teacher at the K-8 Michael Anderson School in Avondale, who had no coding experience when she began. “Then I had one or two students who went home and came back and were ahead of me. But the kids know we’re trying together.”

Coaching Teachers

Grant Smith, the district’s technology coordinator at the time, held weekly professional-development sessions, observed classrooms, and coached teachers individually throughout the year.

Smith, who took a handful of computer science classes in college but is also somewhat self-taught, created a 250-page curriculum for the classes using free programs from Code.org, Khan Academy, and Scratch (a language created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Nancy Navarro, a technology teacher, helps 3rd graders Melani Garcia, left, and Leah Rosales, learn coding at Michael Anderson School. Many of her top students are girls, contrary to a recent nationwide survey that found girls are less confident than boys in their ability to learn computer science.

With that curriculum, students move through the puzzles, or coding challenges, and courses at their own speed. Novice students use a mini-language called Blockly, in which they drag and drop boxes that link together to make code. The more-advanced students create their own programs with JavaScript.

“Almost none of the instruction is direct instruction,” said Smith. “Theoretically, you could have kindergartners and 5th graders at the same level. ... Really, the teacher is there to guide them.”

Student interest in coding is uneven, even in Avondale. According to a survey Smith administered at the end of the first year, only about 35 percent of students said they were interested in taking more coding classes, with boys and girls answering similarly.

Recently, Cindy Hanser, the coding teacher at Avondale’s Centerra Mirage STEM Academy, had her 8th graders making drawings with JavaScript. She gave them examples of codes for drawing Pac-Man and Mickey Mouse, and nearly all students began with those shapes.

But Angelica Silva was quietly doing a drawing all her own: “It’s Mexican food—a plate of enchiladas,” she explained. For her, coding is a creative outlet.

“I love it. I like how we can put our own ideas into it,” Angelica said. “I’m planning on going into the Army. In the Army, they use a bunch of coding to make their own programs.”

The coding initiative has added next to nothing to the district’s costs, Superintendent Hargrove said. Avondale already had 1-to-1 technology, funded through a voter-approved initiative, so the devices were in place. The curriculum itself has been free, apart from the time Smith devoted to it.

“I’d definitively say that if [other districts] have access to devices, their students could literally get on today and start this process,” Hargrove said.

Bridging Gaps

From within Avondale’s coding classrooms, there are no visible traces of the wide racial and gender gaps that characterize the field of computer science.

A recent nationwide survey from Google and Gallup found that girls are less confident than boys in their ability to learn computer science, and less likely to believe they’ll have a job one day in which they’ll use the subject.

That finding plays out in Advanced Placement high school classes across the country, where boys made up 78 percent of the exam-takers in computer science this year. Only about 9 percent of the test-takers were Hispanic.

But many of Avondale’s classrooms are made up almost entirely of Hispanic students.

Likewise, Navarro says that many of her top students are girls, as are about three-quarters of the students in her after-school coding club. Recently, one of her female students left the district, but then returned because her new school didn’t have a coding program. “I felt so honored when that student came back for the code,” said Navarro. “She says she wants to be a computer programmer.”

There’s some evidence that getting students coding early could eventually help reduce the field’s gender and racial inequalities. A recent study by the company Code School found that a majority of adult coders became interested in computers before they were 16 years old.

With the K-8 students in Avondale, coding class is an “equalizer,” said Hargrove, who recently won the Computer Science Teachers Association’s Administrator Impact Award.

“It doesn’t matter what your background is, or how successful you’ve been in other areas. Everyone is at the same spot when they start,” she said. “Students who have gaps in their learning in other content areas now have a systematic, sequential approach to learn something new.”

Many English-learners and students with special needs have been particularly successful with coding, Hargrove said.

Training Debate

The idea that teachers can (and should) start leading classes without being proficient coders themselves is controversial, however.

Some Avondale teachers say they’ve done fine with limited training—and even enjoyed the process of learning as they go.

“Yeah, I’ve been stumped,” said Michael Coppers, a coding teacher in his first year at Avondale Middle School. “But I say, ‘You know what? I’m going to have to check the answer key.’ And that engages students.”

But Hanser, the teacher at Centerra Mirage, has a degree in information technology and said she couldn’t do her job without it.

“That would be like me teaching math or Spanish,” she said. “If your code is messed up in JavaScript, do you have a syntax error? I don’t know how anyone knows how to troubleshoot” without a coding background.

Mark R. Nelson, the executive director of the national Computer Science Teachers Association, said it’s tough to find K-12 teachers with computer science backgrounds, in part because people with those skills can get paid more elsewhere. The key is finding teachers who are interested in computer science and inclined to teach it, he said, and giving them professional development.

As with any new program, Avondale still has some kinks to work out with coding. For one, the district has a strict teacher-evaluation system in place, and it is working through whether the instructional requirements should differ for teachers leading these self-paced classes.

Gauging student learning has also been a sticking point.

“Sure, you can say kids have completed this many levels, but it doesn’t mean they know algorithms, loops, anything,” said Smith, who now works for Emerald Data Solutions, based in Park City, Utah, as a consultant to districts looking to implement coding. “Students can keep guessing and guessing until they get it right.”

Eventually, Smith hopes coding teachers will turn to project-based assessments. “It’s just going to take more time than we thought,” he said.

That challenge is pervasive in K-12 computer science, according to Nelson. “We really do lack good tools to assess computer science learning,” he said.

Even so, district administrators say they’ve seen benefits.

“While we don’t have test scores that say we did this, we can say that kids are more confident, they have more self efficacy,” said Hargrove, the superintendent. "[In language arts], kids say, ‘I’m a really good reader because I got an A.’ But students taking coding say, ‘I’m an expert because I can solve problems time and again.’ ”

Above all, Coppers argues, coding teaches his students how to think.

“Most of what you see in here is called debugging,” the Avondale Middle School teacher said between classes recently. “That applies outside the classroom so much, and it applies in all the areas they’re learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as In Ariz. K-8 District, All Grades Learn Computer Programming


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