Computer Science in Schools

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Computer Science (3/8)

Computer Science for All

Big districts are adopting computer science and the President himself is writing code. Is the next generation of K-12 core curriculum ready for a new subject?

Computer Science and High School Graduation Requirements (2016)

Computer Science now counts towards graduation requirements in 28 states (+DC), up from just 12 in 2013
Counts toward graduation
Doesn't count toward graduation

On December 8, 2014, President Obama became the first US president to write a line of computer code. He typed out the Javascript during the second annual “Hour of Code,” at the beginning of CSEdWeek, as 60,000,000 students from around the nation were jamming away, too. (Students participated through virtual tutorials that include both lessons and activities, with themes like Disney’s Frozen and Minecraft. Obama earned the title, Coder-in-Chief, by directing Elsa from Frozen to move forward 100 pixels.)

The president’s moment underscored a big shift in thinking around curriculum: In addition to the subject areas identified as essentially to a public education—laid out originally by the “Committee of 10” in 1892—US educators are rolling ahead with plans to add “computer science” to the menu of subjects students should study. Not coding, but computer science (CS), a distinction that is subtle but crucial.

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Coding is about writing the program or instructions that a computer needs to carry out a task. Coding is a highly visible part of the computer science discussion. In the past two years “bootcamps,” designed to deliver crash courses—mostly to adults—in the coding languages of the moment (e.g. Javascript, Ruby, etc.) have gained popularity. Graduates of these programs grew from about 2,000 in 2013 to 16,000 in 2015. In addition to the success of the Hour of Code, many programs like Scratch, Tynker, and CodeMonkey have been created to making coding and programming languages accessible to even young children.

Bootcamp Graduates (2013 and 2015)
In the past two years, the number of bootcamp graduates increased by 8 times
Bootcamp Graduates (2013 and 2015)
In the past two years, the number of bootcamp graduates increased by 700%

Yet, coding is only a component of computer science. More generally, computer science is about “learning how to use the power of computers to solve big problems,” notes advocacy group, Teach a kid computer science, goes the argument, and he—or she—will be more truly tech savvy and likely to be able to pick up the relevant coding language.

Only about 40,000 students graduate annually with a bachelor’s degree in computer science—even though there are an estimated 545,000 unfilled jobs in information technology fields according to a 2015 White House press release. More jobs are on the way, too: BLS reckons that “computer and information technology” jobs will increase by 12 percent between 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations (here is the list of jobs in the computing field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Even before college, a whopping diversity imbalance persists: women represent only 15 percent of AP Computer Science test-takers while 8 percent are African American or Hispanic students, notes the College Board.

Bridging the Skills Gap

The tech industry needs a capable and diverse pipeline of employees to fuel 21st century jobs, but the need is currently outpacing supply. At AT&T, almost three quarters (72%) of recent student hires—including interns—begin their career in a technology centric area, including IT, Labs, Network Engineering/Ops, and Technology Sales. To help bridge the skills gap and build a diverse talent pipeline for the jobs of today and the future, AT&T collaborated with Udacity to launch Nanodegree credentials and a related scholarship program, and supports organizations—like All Star Code, Black Girls Code, General Assembly’s Opportunity Fund and Girls Who Code—that help students develop the computer science skills they need for dynamic careers in STEM fields.

School districts, states, and private companies are cranking up support for computer science in the curriculum. In 2013, the Chicago public school district led the nation by announcing a five-year plan to make computer science a core K-12 offering. Since then, several of the nation’s largest school districts have followed suit. States are even starting to get in on the action. In February 2015, Arkansas required all high schools there to offer CS classes starting this past September. Now, nearly 4,000 high school students are enrolled in computer science classes, a 260% increase from the previous year. Last June, San Francisco Unified School District’s board unanimously approved an effort to expand computer science education to all SFUSD students from preschool to 12th grade, and are in the first year of a pilot at 12 middle schools. On September 16, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio joined in, pledging to provide CS to all New York City public school students by 2025, reaching about 12,000 of 1.5 million students in 2015.

Despite the frenzy of interest, building a coherent computer science curriculum—and truly incorporating it—is still a work in progress. In 2015, the number of states that allow CS to count towards high school graduation requirements increased to 28 (plus DC) from 12 in 2013.

The Computer Science Policy Menu

What does it mean to expand access to computer science? It’s not straightforward. When advocated in 2013, they encountered a messy scattering of policy obstacles. State officials deferred to local school boards that could modify local graduation requirements. Local officials deferred to state and federal requirements when it came to applicable teacher certification rules. Everyone lamented the lack of funding for computer science, despite its value in tomorrow’s economy.

The first order of work was to bring clarity to this confusion. Today, we have a menu of policy interventions that, when combined, would allow a state to offer computer science courses across all of its schools if it chose to. The highlights of that menu include:

  • Funding for Professional Learning: High-quality courses need high-quality teachers. In 2015, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Washington committed about $9 million for CS professional development.
  • Establishing High-Quality Standards: To distinguish the quality of today’s computer science courses, states are developing (or evaluating development of) state education standards for CS. The list includes large (e.g. Texas) and small states (e.g. Iowa) alike. Additionally, California is incorporating computational thinking into their curriculum framework for science.
  • Computer Science Counts Towards Graduation Requirement: Since 2013, 18 states have changed their policies to allow rigorous CS courses to fulfill a math or science high school graduation credit requirement. This list of states ranges from New York to California.
  • Computer Science Teaching Requirement: Arkansas now requires every high school to offer computer science courses. Texas has too, but lawmakers have not yet appropriated implementation funds. Other states are evaluating similar requirements.

These K12 policy options bring clarity to what was muddled matter just three years ago. Recently, Governors Inslee (D-WA) and Hutchinson (R-AR) launched a new partnership to call on their fellow governors to commit to these policy goals. We can expect to see a more Governors joining soon., a major player in spreading coding-fever to schools, has spent $26.3M to build a library of CS teaching resources used in over 250,000 classrooms, 100 school districts and 17 states., the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) have also assembled a group of experts including university professors, district and state administrators and computer science teachers to create a framework of the concepts and practices to be introduced to students at each grade level. The framework should help states and districts implement consistently high-quality CS programs and is scheduled to be released in September 2016.

Looking ahead, 2016 is already off to a strong start building on the progress of 2015. On January 30, Obama unveiled his Computer Science for All Initiative, pledging $4 billion to states and $100 million to districts to expand computer science initiatives like training teachers and building regional partnerships.

With increased federal involvement, more states will likely adopt large scale computer science initiatives. States like Florida and Washington are already debating bills that would allow students to count computer programming courses towards the foreign language graduation requirements.

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Figuring It Out As They Go

Teachers have few formal certification opportunities in teaching computer science, compared to other core subjects like English and math, so many are creating and implementing curriculum with a variety of partners and training resources. As of 2015, only nine states require CS certification to teach AP computer science; of those nine states, only two plus the District of Columbia require certification to teach any CS course. Yet, according to a 2014 national Gallup poll, 75% of teachers think that CS is at least as important as the current required courses like math and English. In uncharted territory, teachers have found a variety of creative resources and partnerships for adding computer science to the school day.


Some teachers are partnering with non-profits such as or local universities, to access training and resources. For instance, Claire Shorall, Oakland Unified School District's Computer Science Manager and a CS teacher, uses curriculum provided by and shares her customized lesson materials with teachers across the district via a website she created to help other Oakland educators offer the same course.

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Making it about Makers

As computer science becomes more and more popular, many teachers are leveraging the maker movement as an entry point for their classes to experiment with computer science. Rex Beaber, High School School Computer Science Teacher and Middle School Makerspace Manager at the Milken School in LA focuses on teaching languages such as Python and Ruby on Rails for use in the school’s makerspace, a lab outfitted with computers as well as design elements like 3d printers and laser cutters. According to Beaber, “a makerspace environment is a great way for students to prototype ideas and tools in a student-driven lab environment. It’s not necessarily all about programming, but it definitely draws on computational thinking.”

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