California Pushes to Add More Computer Science Classes for All Students

California teachers and administrators have been busy this summer. Educators from across the state have been working on initiatives set by the state Board of Education to increase the number of computer science courses and opportunities for K-12 students. 

While it is generally agreed by parents and teachers that computer science in education is essential, growing this subject is no small feat. Let’s look at what California educators are trying to accomplish and a few barriers that stand in their way.  

The Push for More Computer Science Lessons

The BoE is leading efforts to train teachers, with help from outside contractors, community organizations, and the teachers themselves. The process is being led by Computer Science for California, or CSforCA, a coalition that promotes computer science education in the state. 

The goal for CSforCA is to “ensure all schools have access to meaningful and sustainable teaching and learning opportunities in CS.” This means overcoming knowledge gaps and also deficits in supplies and materials in schools. To increase equity and inclusion in CS, all schools need access to appropriate and valuable classes, mentors, educators, and resources. 

The efforts of CSforCA are being carefully watched by school districts across the country, but also by parents of students within the state.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education recently shared some pretty startling statistics. The vast majority (90 percent) of parents want their children to study computer science in school; however, 20 percent of teachers say their students don’t learn about computer science at all and 30 percent feel underqualified to educate students for a digital future. 

The news of the K-12 push for more CS comes as more universities in the state weigh computer science courses heavier. The University of California, for example, expanded its application requirements to include computer science as an option to satisfy a student’s third year of laboratory science, reports Sydney Johnson at EdSurge. Applicants are required to have at least two years of laboratory science, but a third year is recommended. This is an upgrade from the previous status of computer science on UC applications, where it was considered an elective, the same category high schools in the state use. 

No one is questioning the value of computer science lessons in schools. However, few have figured out how to bring comprehensive CS education to the most populated state in the nation.

Students Need Strong Foundations in Math and Science

Schools can’t just invest in computer science materials and training alone. If they want students to fully understand the material in a way they can apply it, educators need to focus on foundational education.

Other states allow CS in place of science or math credits, point out Niu Gao and Courtney Lee, research associates at the Public Policy Institute of California — and they also require foundational coursework before students can sign up. This means that California schools need to invest in their existing math and science infrastructure and improve it in order to better prepare students to take computer science courses. This isn’t just a computer science problem.  

Many schools and teachers are also starting from scratch in figuring out how to teach computer science. This is where people like Janice Cuny come in. Cuny, program officer at the National Science Foundation, has worked since 2004 to train more than 10,000 computer science teachers, develop relevant K-12 courses in CS, and secure funding for research into how CS should be taught in the K-12 level. Her passion for CS and her understanding of how and why kids drop out of science and math courses drives her to provide resources and information to schools. 

If CSforCA can pull together organizers and community members like Cuny, it will have a much better chance of reaching its goal. 

We Can’t Teach Students Without Adequately Preparing Teachers

One of the biggest challenges facing California school systems is finding teachers to adopt and present the new computer science materials. 

Nikki Navta, VP of K-12 computer science at Carnegie Learning, shared some troubling statistics about the number of teachers who graduate from universities prepared to teach computer science. In 2016, almost 12,000 teachers graduated qualified to teach math and science subjects. Only 75 were qualified to teach computer science. Even if that number has grown significantly in the past three years, there is still a large gap between demand for the courses and qualified teachers.

“We need both state-level certification policies as well as more robust programs in teacher preparation in order to enable K-12 schools to offer sustainable computer science programs and find well-prepared teachers,” Navta says.

As a result, many school systems are rushing to train teachers and upskill existing educators so they can take on the curriculum. Many math and science teachers are doubling into CS educators. 

“In my own experience, I know that as a short-term solution, teachers of other subjects are attending summer professional development workshops to learn the basics of teaching CS,” Maxwell Bigman, former high school computer science teacher, now a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says. “However, a few days is not sufficient preparation to teach a brand new subject. The trend of retraining current teachers is neither sustainable nor comprehensive.” 

Bigman believes that CS education provides exciting opportunities for creativity, for bringing in outside educators and people from non-educational backgrounds. Instead of turning educators into computer scientists, we can tap into computer scientists to find educators.   

Mark Guzdial, professor at the University of Michigan, College of Engineering, has found that teaching CS topics is significantly different from other STEM materials. “We know less about how people learn programming than what we know about how people come to understand algebra, evaporation, bacteria, and Newton’s Laws,” he explains. This makes it harder to develop CS teaching materials and to prepare teachers in such a way that they can effectively deliver that knowledge to students. 

Plus, he adds, we’re trying to build something without clear blueprints on how to do it.

Some Schools Want to Incorporate CS Into Every Class

Reaching equity and total integration of CS classes isn’t going to be easy. Only 39 percent of California schools offer computer science courses, which means only three percent of students are actively enrolled in these classes, reports Allison Scott, Ph.D., chief research officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. 

There are also significant gender and diversity gaps, where groups of students don’t have access to the materials they need or decide to drop out before reaching advanced levels. 

To increase equity, the plan for some schools is to incorporate computer science and coding lessons into other classes — not unlike the strategies that some schools have for reading, where teachers fold reading opportunities into math, science, and even gym classes.

Integrating computer science-based lessons across the board also means these instructors need to learn the materials in order to teach them. Instead of each school having a dedicated computer science expert, every teacher needs a little CS knowledge. This can be frustrating and overwhelming for some educators who are wary of new technology or learning options. 

Brendon Hyndman, Ph.D., senior lecturer and course director at Charles Sturt University, explains that a lack of IT support, infrastructure, and time can cause some educators to ignore technology and tech-based lessons. Even if they are supported, time constraints become an ongoing issue. Initially, there’s the extra training that comes with computer science teaching, and then there’s the retraining and periodic refreshing of the material.

There’s a further issue. School districts set the standards for learning, but it’s the teachers who need to create the actual lesson plans and make the material engaging. If students feel overwhelmed (or worse, bored), they are going to tune out and drop out, opting for other subjects instead. We already see this in advanced math classes, where students assume they’re “just not good at math” when it gets hard. 

“A teacher may have created a mind-blowing standards-based lesson with measurable, data-driven outcomes, opportunities to differentiate instruction and all that good stuff,” says former high school language arts teacher Teagan Carlson. “But it doesn’t mean anything if the students aren’t engaged.”  

One thing is for sure: The state of California can’t just throw money at the problem. There has to be training, integration, and follow-up guides for any new resources. The top reasons teachers don’t embrace technology in the classroom are that they don’t know how to fully utilize the technology and because the tech doesn’t come with lesson plans and use cases they can apply, writes Anne Gläsel at The Edtech World. 

Computer Science Prepares Students for Whatever Paths They Take

Despite the potential hurdles in teaching computer science in California schools, the investments today will be well worth it for the state’s future. 

“Computer science standards don’t promote excessive screen time for kids, or turn our schools into coding boot camps for the tech industry,” says California state director of the Council for a Strong America Susan Bonilla, who is a former English teacher and served on the state’s Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan Panel. “Rather, they help children become problem solvers and creative thinkers for the 21st Century…If we are committed to closing the academic achievement gap, we must close the growing computer science access gap for all students.” 

This is what we at Ozobot have been discussing over the past year. More and more, every job is a STEAM job, from park rangers to museum curators. Computer science prepares students for any career or life path.

Computer science literacy is also required to be an active citizen in society — especially in states like California where a significant part of the economy is based on technological development. 

“As a forward-leaning state and home to Silicon Valley, California’s new standards will not only enable students to understand how their digital world works but will encourage critical thinking and discussion about the broader ethical and social implications and questions related to the growing capabilities of technology,” Trish Williams, former California State Board of Education member said in September 2018 when the computer science standards were introduced.

Not all computer science students will become coders. They will become policymakers, lawyers, regulators and — most importantly — voters.

“Providing meaningful early entry points to coding and CS to all students—not just those who are able to attend after-school or weekend courses in coding—is essential for equity,” says Allisyn Levy, former elementary education teacher. “By planting the seeds of possibility, teachers support and encourage their students, giving them confidence and raising their awareness of the roles CS and coding have in the world today and in the future.”   

Our role as educators is to give students the tools to succeed, in the form of concrete knowledge as well as soft, future-ready skills. Computer science is a subject where those two concepts intersect. 

If you’re a California-based educator or administrator looking for engaging and measurable ways to meet the state’s push toward CS for all, Ozobot can help. Our Educator and Classroom Kits come with teacher training and, beginning this fall, free access to our STEAM learning management system. Click here to schedule a free demo with me and learn more today!

Images by: Wavebreak Media Ltd/©, rawpixel/©, rawpixel, nicolagiordano

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