Big-name companies like Delta Airlines, UPS, and Starbucks are clamoring for expanding computer science education at the K-12 level. But according to a recent report from the nonprofit Code.org, just 6 percent of high schoolers are enrolled in foundational computer science classes, and only a little more than half of high schools offer the courses.
Experts have identified major hurdles to expanding computer science, including finding and training teachers; big gender and racial disparities in course enrollment; and keeping up with a fast-changing field.
The challenge: It’s difficult to write curriculum
It’s a misconception that K-12 curriculum needs to mirror exactly where the technology is at any given moment, said Pat Yongpradit, the chief academic officer at Code.org.
“Core concepts like algorithms, programming, data, data science, ethics around technology, artificial intelligence, they’re all the same, no matter the technology,” he said.
“It’s a great problem, because who wants a static curriculum like we see in other subjects?” where students often don’t grasp the relevance of what they are learning, he said. “A fast-changing curriculum keeps things exciting for students.”
There are a lot of free resources for teaching computer science, he added. Many are created by Yongpradit’s own organization, Code.org, but others come from big tech players, like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and more.
The challenge: It’s hard to find computer science teachers
This is a tough one, especially given that there are teacher shortages across the board, said Charity Freeman, the associate director of teacher training for the Discovery Partners Institute at the University of Illinois.
“We are looking for a teacher that can stand in front of a classroom and can support students who are already learning computer science, but we also need math teachers and English teachers and social studies teachers,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to prioritize computer science when it’s acknowledged as an elective when you’re still trying to fill vacancies” in core subjects.
The Chicago school district, which made computer science a graduation requirement several years ago, has worked with research institutions to develop a sequence of courses to help teachers feel comfortable leading introductory classes. Issues remain, however, because the training doesn’t prepare educators to teach more advanced computer science classes, said Kristan Beck, the director of computer science in the district’s office of early college and career education.
What’s more, the coursework to obtain a computer science endorsement is rigorous and time consuming. The school district is working with Discovery Partners Institute and others to make it more “teacher friendly,” Beck said. DPI received a grant from Amazon to provide tuition support for teachers who want to get the endorsement.
Despite these efforts, teacher training remains a struggle for districts, Beck said.
At the elementary level though, teachers may not need extensive training, said Rebecca Gratz, an instructional facilitator in computer science for elementary schools in Loudoun County, Va. Gratz herself has “zero background” in the subject, she said.
Instead, she used resources like YouTube, Code.org, and BrainPOP, to figure out the basics. Helping elementary teachers offer computer science in their classes is about showing them those resources and helping them develop “the confidence that they can do this,” Gratz said.
The challenge: Closing longstanding gender and racial disparities in coursetaking rates
One of the reasons Chicago made computer science a graduation requirement was that the district was looking to “change the face of who was in computer science classes,” Beck said, to include more females and students of color.
There are now more girls taking the first of two AP Computer Science courses, she said, though the district is still working to get more female students into the second, more rigorous AP class. But the district struggles with getting “Black and brown young men” into computer science class, Beck said. “We’re really working hard to really invite those students into this space and show them that they belong here, that they’re welcome, that this is cool.”
Students need to be able to see the connection between a career they are interested in that doesn’t necessarily seem to involve computer science—say, agriculture—and computer science topics, Freeman said.
Research shows that familiarizing students with computer science topics in elementary school can smooth the way for participation later on, Gratz said.
“If we don’t expose them by a certain point in their elementary career, they’re significantly less likely to go into these different courses, and to go into these different paths,” she said.