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The nation’s largest school districts are rushing to fill the coding gap

On a recent Friday afternoon at a Brooklyn public school, the children of Sabrina Knight’s second-grade class listened intently as she referenced a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to relay the meaning of algorithms.

Moments later, a student volunteer walked back and forth across the room to demonstrate looping, a technical term used in the field of computer programming.

“Thumbs up if you got it,” Knight said, as a flurry of 7- and 8-year-old hands, and thumbs, shot up in the air. “Open up your computers and thumbs up when you see the blue screen.”

Students grabbed their headphones and flipped open yellow laptops issued to Park Slope’s PS 282. The rest of the lesson would be devoted to coding, as the class of 15 used simple equations to command cartoon characters to move across their monitors.

Knight’s young class is one in a growing number of public schools across the United States that are introducing computer science education into their curricula, in part to make up for the educational disparities among female and minority students that contribute to a professional void in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Such gaps have been recognized at the federal level. In January, President Barack Obama announced he would push to introduce a $4 billion initiative called Computer Science For All, which seeks to bring computer science education to many of the nation’s public schools over the next decade. Negotiations for the program’s budget are ongoing on Capitol Hill.

Why coding matters for kids

“The good thing about computers is they develop so many different levels of children’s thinking,” Knight said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour. “Just in the coding alone, you’re reading, you’re writing, you’re using spatial reasoning, you’re using problem-solving, you’re using creativity. So just in general it helps with metacognition.”

PS 282 does not fit the mold of the typical school that might offer a computer science curriculum to its students.

More than half of the school’s nearly 900 students are from low-income families, according to the school’s principal Rashan Hoke. The school’s population is also racially diverse: 60 percent of students are black, 25 percent of are Latino and 10 percent are white.

Data cited by the federal government show only a quarter of America’s nearly 100,000 public schools are using a form of computer science in their classrooms. Few of those programs serve low-income students. Hardly any of the programs that exist require that students take computer science classes and those that do will most often focus on the high school level.

Nationally, fewer than 15 percent of high schools offered Advanced Placement computer science courses in 2015. Of the 50,000 students who took the A.P. exam, less than a quarter were girls and roughly 13 percent were minorities, according to statistics released by the White House.

Meanwhile, last year, the U.S. left more than 600,000 technology jobs unfilled, a number that White House officials link to a dearth of computer science programs for students in public schools. This particularly affects students of color and female students: in the professional world, less than one in three employees working in the tech sector are women and three percent of tech employees are black.

But in recent years, a wave of districts across the country have begun to put an increased focus on changing those imbalances.

The federal Computer Science for All program launched this year with $135 million from the National Science Foundation, funding that will initially target professional development courses for principals and teachers interested in bringing computer science to their schools.

The program aims to fill job shortages, level out the playing field for minorities and girls and to train 10,000 teachers in the coming years while doling out funding through a competitive grant process.

“That’s the public piece of it,” Kumar Garg, senior advisor to the deputy director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the PBS NewsHour. “Those are investments that they can do starting even outside the budgetary process. It means that we can jump start the initiative even as we’re making a case to Congress.”

U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he visits students from Newark, New Jersey taking part in an “Hour of Code”? event at the White House in Washington December 8, 2014. The event honors Computer Science Education Week.
Photo By Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The White House is also drawing in funding support from a profusion of interested parties, with technology leviathans like Facebook, Microsoft and Apple and nonprofits such as Code.org among dozens of groups committing a total of $60 million to the national program and teacher-training efforts in the realm of computer science.

And while the plan begins, many of the larger school districts of the country already are beginning to take the initiative on their own, in places like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as less-populated areas in Hawaii, Idaho, Arkansas, Rhode Island and elsewhere.

At least 30 school districts have committed to proliferating computer science education, mostly in high school classrooms, a figure that represents more than 1 million students, according to a spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Three of the nation’s largest districts – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago – have taken steps on their own during the last several years, in some cases self-funding campaigns to introduce computer science to students, and in others offering a combination of public-private partnerships and training initiatives funded by nonprofit organizations and publicly-held corporations.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest public school district, was first to introduce the concept to some of its high school students, a years-long process that began as a pilot program through the work of researchers at University of California Los Angeles. In 2014, the district committed to expanding the initial effort as an elective to some of its 640,000 students.

Following suit in September, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration released a plan to offer computer science education to New York City schools during the next 10 years, bringing the idea of robotics, coding, circuitry and algorithms to 1.1 million students, though the endeavor is optional for students.

The Chicago Public Schools Board of Education took their plan a step further, when in February members voted to make computer science an official part of the district’s curriculum.

For 400,000 Chicago students, computer science education will now be a graduation requirement, mandating that every high schools student take at least one class on the topic over four years.

More than 28 states have passed laws allowing computer science to be made a part of respective curriculums, up from only 10 states just a few years earlier, Kumar said, a trend that many officials hope will bridge racial and gender disparities that now exist in the classrooms and professional fields.

“For us, this really comes back to the equity story,” Kumar said.

What schools have done so far

Los Angeles, which some view as the model for the broader national roll-out, first initiated a computer science pilot program in 2008 among a small, select number of schools, with a curriculum based on studies conducted by researchers at UCLA.

“We said, ‘There is no course at the high school level that is really introducing all kids to computational thinking, the problem-solving and the basic concepts and the applications of computer science,’” said Jane Margolis, a senior UCLA researcher whose team worked on the project. “On one extreme, there was keyboarding, and on the other extreme, A.P. computer science.”

The Los Angeles district’s initial plan now will further introduce computer science modules as high school electives, relying heavily on professional development support from Code.org, an organization that has poured millions into similar efforts across the country since the nonprofit formed in 2013.

Representatives at the NSF and members of the the Obama administration said the federal undertaking will use examples from programs already in place, a foundation that will allow the push to bring computer science to schools to begin with professional development programs.

According to interviews with school teachers and administrators, organizational heads and members of the White House team in charge of rolling out the various programs, many of the districts considering the proposition of  introducing or expanding computer science education in schools are facing the same challenges.

“I think there’s a huge question about how you get more teachers,” said Janice Cuny, NSF’s program director for computing education. “There’s a scramble to put it into schools in a very short period of time. There’s this new topic that we don’t have teachers in place to teach. How do you do that, what’s the best way to train a history teacher who wants to do computer science?”

Third-grader Osiel Dominguez, right, attends an event for students to learn to write computer code at the Apple store in New York on Dec. 9, 2015. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

While those questions remain unanswered, the NSF will continue employing a model it has used since the concept of expanding computer science was first broached, a combination of competitive grants to expand professional training to several thousand teachers and a curriculum-based approach that is already being tested in Chicago, Cuny said. The NSF has also worked with the College Board to standardize and expand Advanced Placement classes in high schools.

So far, Cuny said, the programs in place have trained about 2,000 teachers, but NSF is hoping to add another 1,000 to 2,000 to that list this summer.

“I think there’s a lot of teachers who are interested,” she said.

Before Sabrina Knight began teaching young students how to code at PS 282, she spent much of her eight-year career as a reading specialist and literacy teacher at charter schools in Brooklyn.

After signing up for a one-day professional development seminar and conducting research and conversations with fellow teachers who had taught computer science classes, Knight said she decided to change direction after noticing the need among students in public schools. The last time she had taken a coding class was in one of her own undergraduate courses in college.

“We just muddled through it and figured it out,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of teacher training that I found on how to use the stuff in the classroom.”

Similar scenarios are playing out across the country, with some districts mandating professional development courses ranging from one day up to a week.

Los Angeles is currently working its way through the details of a master plan that would require prospective computer science teachers to fulfill professional development classes for a compulsory period of time, according to Derrick Chau, the district’s director of secondary instruction. 

New York City, the largest school district in the country, will initially take a less formal approach, putting an emphasis on professional development classes for 5,000 teachers without mandating specific training schedules. The plan will be funded by an $80 million public-private initiative that would introduce computer science. Hoke, the Brooklyn principal, said his school’s efforts have been more holistic while it waits for financial support from the district.

Students from the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in Bronx, N.Y. practice coding. Photo By Michael D. Regan/PBS NewsHour

Students from the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in Bronx, N.Y. practice coding. Photo By Michael D. Regan/PBS NewsHour

Using a combination of outside grant money and an active group of parents and teachers who were attracted to the idea of bringing computer science education to the school, PS 282 was able to feather the concept in to the school over the last 18 months with only a few teachers willing or able to conduct computer science lessons. Until recently, when New York committed to funding computer science, that may have been their only path.

“I don’t know of any programming that was happening in the building that was coding-oriented,” Hoke recalled.

Code.org to the rescue?

Code.org says it has worked with 100 of the largest school districts in the country with tens of millions of students participating in its Hour of Code initiative, while it has trained 25,000 new teachers to give lessons on computer science across all grade levels.

Along with Los Angeles, Brenda Wilkerson, program manager of Chicago’s local Computer Science for All program, also credits Code.org with helping to fund and expand programs and professional development classes for the city’s public school teachers since 2014.

Wilkerson said the non-profit also assisted in launching a stipend system for free web training and other professional development classes, which has drawn from a wide swath of the district’s teachers with little to no background in computer science education.

By maintaining a steady group of teachers willing to learn computer science school administrators were able to make their case to the Chicago Board of Education to install the subject into the district’s curriculum, requiring every high school student to take at least one computer science class during a four-year period.

“Any teacher that comes, we’ll train them,” Wilkerson said, who noted that the next question the districts had to answer was how to sustain a program for all of its 650 schools.

The contrasts in methodology may show the uncertainty over the potential success of President Obama’s stratagem. Cameron Wilson, chief operating officer for Code.org, has been attempting to introduce schools to some of those tactics during the last three years and to establish a framework at the local and state levels.

“Our main role on all of this has been to try to bring attention to the issues around computer science education and to help change the landscape for people who want to reform computer science education,” Wilson said. “The grassroots side is really taking off. Thousands of teachers are really excited and want to bring this to their community.”