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Why Teach For America Wants To Expand Access To Computer Science Education

This summer, I drove 500 miles to enroll my school-age boys in a computer science summer camp. They didn’t ask for a sports or outdoor adventure camp; they begged me to enroll them in a computer science camp. For a moment, I was the proudest mom on the block. A request from preteens to spend their summer learning—not playing—put me on my heels. I spent weeks researching camp options, asking opinions and input from friends and local educators, posting to message boards and community websites.

We decided to drive west to Grand Junction where the boys enrolled in various computer science camps at Western Colorado Community College. And now, when asked about the best part of their “stay at home” summer, the boys enthusiastically reflect on the weeks they spent in college classrooms with students they never met, learning new computer languages and technological skills. As a single, working mom, this endeavor was not easy for me; however, I don’t take for granted my privilege to give my boys a rich learning experience which lessened the typical summer slide and meant they were more prepared for school to start this fall.

Millions of students and families in low-income communities don’t have these same opportunities. Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, access to an excellent and equitable education—including high-quality computer science courses—has been limited for too many kids, especially students of color and those growing up in poverty. This means only a fraction of our children can keep up in an increasingly digital world. Equitable computer science education boils down to a problem of access—access to teachers with computer science expertise, to rigorous coursework, and to the required resources and tools. For example, the pandemic has made online learning the norm for most kids, yet 17 million American students still don’t have the broadband or devices necessary to participate.

Kristen Titus, Executive Director at the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, which invests in education and workforce development initiatives, told me that putting laptops in students’ hands only addresses the tip of the iceberg. “The jobs of today and tomorrow require a foundational understanding of computer science, and a school’s curriculum should reflect the modern skills necessary for both educational success and economic mobility. And this is an area where those of us making investments to build a competitive workforce need to focus—because K-12 education is a workforce issue.”

Indeed, a failure to provide the education that all children deserve can have lasting implications on their college and career opportunities. To better understand the complexities of this issue, I spoke with Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America (TFA), about the steps that this 30-year old national non-profit has taken to address issues and mitigate challenges of digital equity.

Alison Griffin: Why has TFA made expanding access to K-12 computer science education an area of focus?

Elisa Villanueva Beard: It’s important to look at how we got here—our country’s education system has never served all children equitably, and TFA was founded to help solve this complex and systemic issue. We develop leaders who will do whatever it takes to ensure that all kids have access to the excellent education they want and deserve. In today’s world, access to high-quality computer science is an essential part of that. 

According to some estimates, 65 percent of students in grade school today will be tasked with finding jobs that don’t yet exist. Our country is ill-prepared for that future. Educational approaches to workforce development still focus on building skills and training for adults. It’s time to expand this to encompass K-12 learning and create career pathways and supports for students and educators starting in the earliest years. Key to this will be investing in expanding access to K-12 computer science education—which begins by building a pipeline of diverse teachers who inspire kids with the possibilities of computer science and support them to learn, lead, and thrive in our society, our economy, and our workforce.

Alison: TFA has more than 20,000 alumni teachers and current corps members leading classrooms across the country. In the months since the pandemic hit, what has been their collective observation about the greatest needs as it relates to computer science education?

Elisa: For years, the most glaring problem has been that too many schools simply don’t offer computer science classes. Despite significant advocacy efforts, more than half of U.S. schools still do not offer any computer science courses. Students in low-income and rural areas are even less likely to have access to these courses, limiting the early exposure that would lead them to pursue this field in college and beyond. To close this gap, we must support schools serving students in low-income communities, who are disproportionally students of color. We believe any student interested in computer science should have the opportunity and preparation to excel.

In addition to the lack of computer science programs, our country does not have enough teachers with backgrounds in the field. This shortage stems from a lack of preservice programs for aspiring computer science teachers. In 2017, only 36 teachers nationwide graduated with computer science degrees, compared with more than 11,000 math teachers with math degrees and a similar number of science teachers with science degrees.

Alison: Is there a solution you think is both effective and equitable? Are there schools or programs that are getting this right?

Elisa: Our students can’t be what they can’t see. More than half of America’s public school students identify as people of color. But only 1 in 5 teachers do. Studies show students of color often perform better on standardized tests, have improved attendance, and are suspended less frequently when they have at least one same-race teacher. We need to build a pipeline of game-changing teachers—especially teachers of color and teachers from low-income backgrounds—with the necessary STEM and computer science skills to provide a rigorous and relevant education. By closing this talent gap, more schools will be able to offer the classes our kids want to take.

Our goal at TFA is to design programs that reach the full spectrum of education leaders—from classroom teachers to state superintendents. For the past two summers, every TFA corps member has had the opportunity to receive instruction in computational thinking, regardless of the grade or subject matter they teach. In addition, through support from the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, we designed the Cognizant Computer Science School Leader Cohort to support principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders from our network to establish computer science education programs at their low-income schools. We also established the Cognizant AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) Fellowship that trains educators to teach AP computer science, and 73% of current fellows identify as people of color.

Other successful, innovative models already exist inside and outside our K-12 system. In Brooklyn, TFA alumni Reuben Ogbonna and Maya Bhattacharjee launched the Marcy Lab School to create an alternative pathway into high-growth tech careers for under-represented and underserved youth. Marcy Lab provides full-time software-engineering fellowships to recent graduates to gain skills needed to enter well-paying entry-level tech jobs. Fellows also receive ongoing coaching and mentorship to support their transition into these careers. Ideas like the Marcy School are already blazing trails for aspiring tech engineers from communities that are under-represented in the profession.

Alison: When observers think of TFA, they often think of your organization’s work in K-12 education. However, focusing on computer science education connects you more deeply with employers and workforce development efforts. How do education and workforce training align?

Elisa: Our children’s education is clearly related to their career prospects later in life, so we need to connect the two. If you’re not able to read, do math, or think critically, you’re not going to be a computer scientist or be prepared for any number of other jobs you might want to pursue.

The bottom line is that young people yearn for a relevant, engaging, and rigorous education. If we’re serious about the future, computer science must play a starring role in our K-12 classrooms. But it’s on all of us to play our part. Whether you’re an educator, school leader, employer, policymaker, parent, tech entrepreneur, or coder, we have a responsibility to come together and provide our kids with equitable pathways to meet their boundless potential. In the blink of an eye, our children will be grown up and seeking their first job—it’s past time that we prepare them for it.

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