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Focus on equity to ensure that all students are 'computer science material'

By Jorge Valenzuela 12/7/2017

With the dire need for computer science (CS) skills in today’s workforce, one would think that every school in the nation would have a robust CS program. But sadly, almost half of U.S. students do not have access to meaningful CS courses in their schools, and many will graduate from the K-12 system unprepared for life after school.

Those most at risk of being left out will be students who don’t see themselves as “computer science material” – girls, African Americans and Hispanics. That’s why there’s a critical need for schools to provide equitable access to all learners, and the call to action echoes all the way from the U.S. Department of Education to the bipartisan CTE Excellence and Equity Act, which aims to redesign American high schools.

But what does equity in computer science (CS) education look like? And how can you ensure all of your students are being served? Here are three ways you can work toward CS equity in your school or district.

equity video

(This is an adaptation of a graphic by Craig Froehle.)

1. Strategically plan how you will provide CS access to all.

CS equity does not mean that computer science takes place in one class or course. Equity in CS requires an equity mindset and whole-school approach. Schools that identify teacher leaders and relevant CS pathways will have the most impact. That’ll ensure that both teaching and learning occur equitably, in succession and effectively.

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(This chart is from the K-12 Computer Science Framework.)

Not sure how to get started? There are a number of organizations to turn to for help.

Code.org is a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities. It offers an abundance of free CS curriculum and professional development resources.  

K-12 Computer Science Framework is a reputable source for equity in CS. It offers strategies for weaving equity into teaching, recruiting and development of classroom culture practices.

CSforAll Consortium provides a central resource for people interested in CS education to find providers, schools, funders and researchers focused on the goal of providing quality CS education to every child in the U.S.

There are also many other resources and DIY guides for educators to get started.

2) Know your students, their needs and their challenges.

Creating a classroom culture based on deep mastery of the core practices in CS (including computational thinking) requires educators to take equitable and practical steps toward learning objectives and intended outcomes for all students.

As a 21st century society, we’ve widely accepted the notion that rights and freedoms of expression, beliefs and pursuits are for all. Unfortunately, for some, this is just lip service. Sadly, this negatively impacts many of our students and can cause them to lack awareness of CS offerings at their schools, prevent them from discovering their interests and passions and preclude them from developing mastery in the core CS practices.

 

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(This graphic is from the K-12 Computer Science Framework.)

It is common for students who don’t see CS as an option — or are perceived by the adults as not CS material — to slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, this type of exclusion often happens to students who belong to a particular gender or race. A report exploring diversity gaps in CS by the underrepresentation of girls, African American and Hispanics suggests that many of these students are less likely to be encouraged toward CS, have limited access to CS classes and, as a result, lack interest in CS. The report suggests that only when schools and educators understand the real challenges and obstacles affecting young people in CS and intentionally practice equity in recruitment practices will they significantly improve student satisfaction and retention.

Equity in recruitment practices can be remedied by either mandating a CS course, a sequence of CS courses or simply by incorporating CS into the existing curriculum (where it fits logically). My state of Virginia was the first to make CS education mandatory, and many states and departments of education are working toward making similar strides.

3) Become a facilitator of equity.

Facilitation is a skill that teachers should add to their equity toolkit for effectively engaging students in learning both CS and collaboration with peers. When educators let go of the need to govern every aspect of how a lesson is learned and delivered, students who are typically left out have a chance to shine. Some learners may lack confidence, are being bullied, struggle with identity, lack a sense of belonging, are experiencing hardships, have learning disabilities, lack social skills, have gaps in knowledge or only just need to develop their voice. The key here is to remove the isolation that often impedes the social and academic success of our students.

By structuring CS learning experiences within projects and requiring students to work together, educators can more effectively make the transition from owners of knowledge to facilitators of knowledge. The project-based learning (PBL) instructional approach is excellent for making this happen and schools are increasingly using it as an agent for equity and for developing students’ empathy and global citizenship.

It is also important to note that facilitation must be balanced with sufficient planning, direct instruction and classroom management. Any intended CS learning must align to standards and requires teachers to be aware of the content (albeit, not necessarily be experts), be comfortable with the use of the integrated technology tools and know the potential challenges students may face while working collaboratively. For this purpose, the K-12 CS Learning Framework and the ISTE Standards for Students are excellent resources to help teachers plan projects and lessons for empowering students to take ownership of their learning.

It’s not about us; it’s about them

Lastly, when thinking about equity, remember the words of the late Dr. Rita Pierson "Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be."

Many of our kids will come to us with a variety of circumstances that aren’t always conducive for them to put their best foot forward. The fact of the matter is they can thrive, they just have to learn how. That’s where we come in. Our teaching (whether it’s CS or not) should always be equitable and never be about us. It needs to begin with us in becoming what we want to see in the students.

Jorge Valenzuela is a graduate teaching assistant and doctoral student at Old Dominion University, a national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education and a national teacher effectiveness coach with the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA). You can connect with Jorge on Twitter @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.


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