Computer Science For All in San Francisco Schools: 7 Early Takeaways

By Benjamin Herold — April 30, 2017 7 min read
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Since approving a plan in 2015 to make computer science a part of the curriculum for each of its 56,000 students, the San Francisco Unified school system has been at the fore of the national “CS4all” push.

Now almost two years into the initiative, some early lessons have begun to emerge.

“While people here are certainly very excited about computer science, it’s still a nascent field, and sometimes the understanding is still superficial,” said Bryan Twarek, the district’s computer science program administrator.

“We’ve learned that it’s very important to invest not only in teachers, but also administrators, counselors, and other support staff.”

Twarek is scheduled to deliver a status report on the effort Monday at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, held here this weekend. San Francisco Unified’s initiative is also being evaluated by SRI International, which released last June a report on how Year One went at the district’s middle schools.

Prior to his talk, Twarek spoke with Education Week by phone about where things stand, as well as the lessons other districts can take from his district’s experience.

The long-term goal in San Francisco is for every student in grades PreK-5 to get 15-20 hours of computer science instruction each year; every student in grades 6-8 to get about 45 hours of computer science instruction per year; and every high school student to have the opportunity to take a variety of elective computer science courses.

So far, all about 40 percent of the district’s middle schoolers and 14 percent of its elementary students have taken part. Eleven of San Francisco’s 17 high schools, including all of its comprehensive high schools, now offer computer science courses. At every level, those numbers are expected to take another jump next school year.

Following are seven takeaways based on how San Francisco Unified’s CS4all initiative has gone to date.

1. A commitment to equity has meant an early focus on cultivating student interest, as well as removing obstacles that block some students from accessing computer science opportunities.

Twarek said the district wants to get students engaged early, then build on that through persistent exposure to computer science in a variety of formats and settings. Quality assurance has been a point of emphasis, too—Twarek said the district has been careful to not expand too quickly, to hopefully avoid creating bad classes that actually end up turning students off. Early on, the focus has been on creativity and self-expression, using an approach that brings students of varying skill levels and familiarity with computer science together in the same classes.

2. That strategy has garnered lots of enthusiasm.

On surveys, the vast majority of San Francisco Unified students who have taken part describe computer science as “fun, relevant, and challenging.”

SRI International researchers who have observed classes, sat in on teacher professional-development sessions, and surveyed teachers described the program as being off to a strong start.

“Overall, we observed high student engagement with the course material and tasks,” the evaluators wrote. “We saw stronger signs of student engagement in classrooms where the teachers urged students to resolve difficulties on their own or with the help of peers. Classrooms with particularly high student engagement also had less need for behavior management.”

3. But even in elementary and middle grades, where computer science is now mostly compulsory, there are still structural barriers.

It’s been hard to squeeze computer science into the school day.

“Any change to the schedule and what is required is a huge challenge,” Twarek said. “If the school day doesn’t get longer, [computer science] ends up taking the place of something else, or schedules have to be arranged differently.”

Another huge hurdle: providing extra supports to students with specialized needs, including students with disabilities and students who are learning English as a second language. To address this, San Francisco Unified has started investing in training for counselors and paraprofessionals, and it has begun experimenting with integrating computer science instruction into some English-language development classes.

And then there’s curriculum. The district has been using a program called MyCS. In its first-year evaluation, SRI found that teachers were generally following the structure of the curriculum and making use of the resources it provided. But that wasn’t necessarily always a good thing:

“The focus of the instruction,” SRI wrote, “was on teaching a particular programming environment, with less focus on conceptual depth of computing.”

4. The biggest challenge, though, is getting all teachers prepared to teach computer science.

San Francisco Unified’s model in elementary schools is to have dedicated computer science teachers who co-teach with regular classroom teachers, with the idea that those classroom teachers will build their skills and expertise over time. In middle schools, the district mostly relies on dedicated teachers who teach computer science as a standalone subject.

That approach presents less of a staff-development challenge than expecting all teachers to become computer-science instructors right out of the gate. But it’s still not easy. San Francisco Unified offers all its computer science teachers roughly five weeks of summer training, 2.5 hours a month to meet with a “professional learning community,” on-site coaching, and more.

The evaluators from SRI said the professional community is the most important piece.

“The PLC meetings had more impact because they gave teacher opportunities to discuss their experiences and problems with other teachers, problem-solve based on actual experiences in their classrooms, and have input on the content and format of each PLC meeting,” the researchers concluded.

That community-building piece is huge, Twarek agreed. For many teachers, he said, seeing is also believing.

“Early adopters are really helpful,” he said. “When a teacher can see a computer science lesson in their school, across the hallway, they often realize that this is really fun and they can do it.”

5. At the high school level, it’s still difficult to get female, African-American, and Latino students to participate in elective computer-science classes. In San Francisco Unified’s elementary and middle schools, where most of the computer science instruction is mandatory, schools have seen computer-science participation rates that “closely mirror” their overall student enrollment.

But the district’s high school computer-science courses still look much more like the (predominantly white, male) tech-industry workforce than San Francisco Unified’s overall student body, Twarek said.

Asian-Ameican and white students make up nearly 50 percent of the district’s overall high school enrollment, but nearly 75 percent of enrollment in high school computer science courses.

One reason, according to Twarek, is ongoing structural barriers, such as a state requirement that some English language learners use up one of their elective slots (that might otherwise go to computer science) on an English-language development class.

6. Computer science and computational thinking are not easy to assess. So far, San Francisco Unified is using traditional assessments to try to ascertain whether students understand introductory programming concepts, such as loops and expressions. The district is also using portfolio assessments, which are geared towards eliciting student creativity and expression. Neither are necessarily seen as a great vehicle for determining what computer science skills, concepts, and practices students have truly grasped.

7. Scaling a CS4All program brings up a host of additional challenges.

Among the many issues: Building good curricular progressions. At first, every student at every grade level is essentially learning introductory computer science—i.e., 7th graders in a district’s first CS4all cohort are experiencing computer science for the first time. The following year, however, 7th graders in that district’s second cohort will already have a year of the subject under their belts, and they will need new material and lessons.

There are existing computer science standards and curricula that can help map out good progressions and scope-and-sequences, Twarek said.

“But curriculum development is going to be a huge task for many years to come,” he said. “We’re not yet at a point where we’re teaching a whole progression.”

An earlier version of this post contained inaccurate demographic information. The post has been updated to clarify the proportion of Asian-American and white students in San Francisco Unified high schools and computer science courses.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.