Big Racial, Gender Gaps Seen in Computer Science Education

By Marva Hinton — October 19, 2016 4 min read
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Lack of access to computers and computer science classes contribute to the continuing racial and gender gaps in K-12 computer science education, according to the results of a nationwide survey conducted by the Gallup organization for Google.

Diversity Gaps in Computer Science Education: Exploring the Underrepresentation of Girls, Blacks, and Hispanics” examines, “the structural and social barriers underrepresented groups face at home, in schools, and in society that could influence their likelihood to enter the computer science field.”

This report is part of the second year of an ambitious, multiyear research project. Gallup conducted phone interviews with more than 1, 600 students in 7th to 12th grades and around the same number of parents of 7th to 12th graders in December of 2015 and January of 2016. These interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Gallup also interviewed around 1,000 1st through 12th grade teachers during the same time period. And, more than 9,000 principals and more than 2,300 superintendents were surveyed online.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Black students are less likely than white students to have computer science classes available at school (47 percent versus 58 percent, respectively).

  • Black students (58 percent) and Hispanic students (50 percent) are less likely than white students (68 percent) to use a computer at home.

  • Girls are less likely than boys to be aware of computer science learning opportunities online and in their community. They are also less confident that they could learn computer science (48 percent versus 65 percent).

  • Boys are more likely to be told by a parent or a teacher that they would be good at computer science. (Specifically, 46 percent of boys versus 27 percent of girls were told by a parent that they would be good at computer science; 39 percent of boys versus 26 percent of girls got that message from a teacher.)

The report pointed to access to computer science classes and to parent and teacher perceptions of a child’s interest and ability to do computer science work as possible reasons for the gaps between boys and girls in the subject as well as those between white students and underrepresented minorities. “In general, when students have access to CS learning in school, they are more likely to say they are very interested in learning it—suggesting that exposure to these opportunities is key to piquing students’ interest in the first place.”

When it comes to getting more girls involved in computer science, the report focuses less on access and more on social barriers. While opportunities to learn computer science in school were the same for boys and girls, girls were less likely to be aware of other opportunities to learn about the subject. “While there could be many reasons for the gender awareness gap—including student interest driving awareness—one possibility is that these opportunities are geared toward activities more likely to attract boys, such as gaming, and that the material itself might not resonate as much with some girls. Approaches to increasing the number of students—both male and female—who learn CS should consider material that signals to male and female students that they belong and can succeed.”

Girls may also be reacting to cues from their parents. “Teachers and parents may inadvertently reinforce stereotypes by telling more male students they think they would be good at CS, thus furthering the underrepresentation of females in CS,” the report says.

The chief academic officer for the advocacy group, Pat Yongpradit, said the survey results are not surprising, and they represent a problem his organization has been working to solve.

The Google report was released a day after a group of computer science experts released a framework for what K-12 students should know about the subject and what they should be able to do in the field. Both efforts seek to make the study of computer science more inclusive.

“Obviously, the things that we’ve been doing in the past still have not gotten us to where we want to go,” said Yongpradit. “Rather than just repeating it over and over again and expecting that the approach that really served and attracted white and Asian males would just work for everyone else as well is not going to work, and the Google/Gallup report shows that. They recommend rethinking how we envision computer science, and the framework picks up on that and provides the implementation guidance to make that happen.”

Google and also are teaming up to host a webinar to explore the framework and some of the issues it hopes to address. The online event is taking place today at 3 p.m. EST.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.

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