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The Herculean Effort To Bring Computer Science To All Students

Computer science may play a central role in our lives, but it is surprisingly hard to bring to American classrooms. Many TFA alumni and corps members are dedicated to making #CSforAll a reality, despite the challenges.

A teacher instructs her students at a computer.

By Cullen White

December 5, 2017

David was dead set on providing his students with multiple computer science (CS) experiences—introductory and advanced—so he found a way to teach both at the same time, during the same period, by developing separate lesson plans to teach simultaneously.

Giorgio feels so strongly about exposing her students to the life-changing skills a CS education provides that she agreed to teach four preps if her administrator would agree to offer just one CS section.

Robert prepared for a year to teach a CS class, only to see the class canceled because of a staffing change—so he started an after-school robotics club, finding a way to engage students in computer science despite the challenges.

Making #CSforAll a reality is not easy. Myriad obstacles stand in the way of bringing computer science to all schools in the United States. Although support from local and state leaders for CS is growing, achieving the goal demands teachers who want to prioritize CS and are willing to navigate any barriers standing in the way. This means that making #CSforAll a reality requires a specific brand of leadership—one that is passionate about equity and understands what’s at stake when it comes to learning CS. At Teach For America, we have committed to identifying, supporting, and preparing these teachers through a partnership with Exploring Computer Science (ECS) that we call the ECS Fellowship. The Fellowship was established in 2015 with support from the National Science Foundation (grant #1542737) and AT&T.

Through the ECS Fellowship, TFA has already recruited more than 40 alumni educators and current corps members teaching in high schools who commit to providing their students with a high-quality computer science education. In partnership with the ECS team, TFA provides two years of rigorous, ongoing professional development and support that prepares them to deliver CS instruction rooted in equity and inquiry. In turn, they agree to tackle all of the challenges involved with adding a CS course at their school and teach the Exploring Computer Science curriculum to a diverse set of students.

Why Computer Science Matters

Why does CS matter? People with computer science skills have an opportunity to dramatically impact—and even dictate—the ebb and flow of everyday life for people in their communities and all across the globe. We see the impact of CS in how we use mapping devices to navigate from point A to point B, even when we already know the route. When we want to know the weather today, we don’t open the door and look outside—we ask Alexa or Siri. When we want to communicate with friends and family, apps provide us with a plethora of options for doing so. And the impact of CS isn’t limited to computers and apps; it plays an integral role in almost all subject areas and disciplines. Our kids know this. CS is relevant to them and a part of their being. Not only do they want to learn the subject—they want to do something meaningful with it.

“People with computer science skills have an opportunity to dramatically impact—and even dictate—the ebb and flow of everyday life for people in their communities and all across the globe.”

Cullen White

It’s no wonder our teachers—so many of them from vastly different subject areas—want to teach CS. They want to help students find their passions and fulfill their dreams. They want to prepare them for a future that demands computing skills, regardless of their college major or profession.

Unfortunately, though, making CS a reality for all students is not as simple as learning a curriculum or attending professional development. CS teachers face unique challenges, and many find they must lean on their leadership skills to ensure courses are offered in the first place. Then, even once a course is scheduled, they must work to make sure none of their students—especially girls and students of color—are excluded or discouraged from taking the course.

The Challenge of Creating Courses

At many schools, adding a new course or subject that has never before been taught can seem like an impossible feat. Whether it’s navigating challenges with staffing capacity or convincing a school administrator to believe in the importance of CS, there are many obstacles and demands that can prevent a course from making its way onto a school’s schedule. It can take dedication, creativity, and flexibility to make CS classes a reality; here are some ways teachers report navigating these challenges:

  • “The deal was, I could teach computer science if I taught three other self-contained classes, so I teach math, personal finance, science, and computer science.”

  • “I talked to my principal and we got the [CS] class on the roster, but... the way the master schedule worked out was not in my favor. Here’s where an administrative barrier occurred: There were students who wanted to take my class, but couldn’t. [A popular local course offering], football, and a number of other elective classes and core classes for AP were scheduled in first period (in same slot as ECS). My class dropped off the radar.”

Making CS Truly For All

Collectively, our ECS Fellows are working to ensure access to an incredible world of opportunity for students who have not historically had it, being just as mindful of their students’ identities as they are of the CS concepts introduced in their course. In just one of many egregious examples, one teacher reports: "They removed all the girls from my class. I can only tell you ‘he said, she said’ but one of the counselors told a girl that computer science was no place for a girl.”

We are incredibly proud of the collective impact our teachers have already made on their students and their school communities, and we’re extremely thankful for all they are doing right now to make #CSforAll a reality. However, the ECS Fellowship is just a beginning. There is plenty more to be done. Many of our Fellows have already started offering multiple CS courses or out-of-school learning opportunities for their students. Others will go on to serve as school and district administrators working to infuse CS learning opportunities into their schools, and still others have talked about launching non-profit programs, internships, and mentorships. Most importantly, they will take these steps with a focus on equity—concerned just as much about who is in the class as they are about whether the class is being offered.

The Exploring Computer Science Fellowship and TFA's Computer Science initiative are made possible through NSF grant #1542737 and the support of AT&T. We are grateful for their commitment to broadening participation in computing and look forward to continued partnership as we work toward #CSforAll