A New Chapter for Computer Science Education

This week, educators, students, and others all across the country are celebrating Computer Science (CS) Education Week.

All children can benefit from CS coursework, regardless of their intended career paths, because mastering computer science principles can help students develop foundational problem-solving skills and other key aptitudes. But, despite the value in learning CS, less than one-quarter of students nationwide have access to rigorous CS courses. We need to do more to increase educators’ awareness of and students’ equitable access to these courses.

We know there are large gaps in students’ participation in Advanced Placement (AP) computer science classes based on gender and race: in 2015, for example, girls represented only 22 percent and underrepresented minorities only 13 percent of the approximately 50,000 students nationally who took the AP exam in computer science. In three states, not a single female student took the AP computer science exam, and in nine states, no African-American students took the AP computer science test.

These statistics are stark, but the federal STEM Act of 2015, which President Obama signed on October 7 of this year, provides an unprecedented opportunity to fully leverage federal resources, including those listed below, to address this challenge.

Specifically, the STEM Act formally allows Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) to use federal money allocated toward improving STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for teaching computer science. With computer and math jobs growing 21 percent since 2007 (faster than any other occupational category), we are now even better positioned to ensure that all children have access to high-quality CS coursework and are prepared for college and rewarding careers.

As schools consider implementing evidence-based CS courses with the support of the programs listed below or other federal initiatives, it is important to highlight the value of providing CS as a supplement to existing STEM courses, not as a replacement. Though CS and engineering skills are beneficial to all students, they should not replace the necessary, core science and math courses that are equally essential to success.

Expanding Access to Quality CS Experiences

There are many existing federal resources that can be utilized to expand access to rigorous coursework, including CS.

Title I and II Funds for CS

Title I-A funds are a resource schools and districts can access for CS education. In a 2014 Dear Colleague Letter, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology clarified that these funds may be used to cover the cost of devices such as computers, in addition to curriculum and professional development, as part of a comprehensive Title I schoolwide plan. Districts may also use Title II-A funds, which include federal grants aimed at improving student outcomes by increasing the number of high-quality educators, to support training and professional development. A background in math or science isn’t necessarily a requirement to teach CS, as disciplines like English, history and civics can also provide a solid foundation for teaching CS concepts.

Department Grant Programs that Benefit CS

  • Math Science Partnerships increases educator content knowledge through access to high-quality professional development through partnerships between K-12 and institutions of higher education.
  • Investing in Innovation (i3) supports innovative practices that are demonstrated to have an impact on improving student achievement and growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.
  • Teacher Quality Partnerships increases student achievement by developing high-quality teachers and by enhancing professional development opportunities for current teachers.

Other opportunities for CS

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced two experiments which may expand access to college coursework and to training courses from nontraditional providers. The Dual Enrollment experiment seeks to understand the impact of expanding access to federal Pell Grants for high school students from low-income backgrounds to pay for college courses.

This experiment, called Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP), has the potential to expand access to computer science courses for students who attend high schools where computer science is not currently offered. The experiment seeks to better understand postsecondary educational programs created through partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers of education, like quick and in-depth boot-camp-style programs that train people in computer science.

Through the EQUIP experiment, students at selected programs will gain access to Title IV aid to support their studies leading to a degree or certificate. These two experiments have the potential to increase the availability of computer science programs for students. Postsecondary institutions interested in participating in either experiment are invited to submit letters of interest for EQUIP by December 14, 2015, and for the Dual Enrollment experiment by February 1, 2016. Details on how to apply can be found at experimentalsites.ed.gov.

This is an exciting moment in history for computer science education. However, to ensure all students have the preparation they need for the future, we must be deliberate in our focus and intentional about how resources are directed to support CS. This will require a diverse set of stakeholders working together, using evidence-based approaches, and keeping equity at the core of our national conversation.