CREDIT: Alison Yin / EdSource
Students of mixed grades attend computer animation class at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif., Monday, May 1, 2017.

Four years ago in May of 2014, the CEO of Code.org, Hadi Partovi, sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown asking for a meeting to talk about the importance of expanding student access to computer science education in California’s K-12 schools.

Trish Williams

Trish Williams

Gov. Brown asked State Board of Education President Michael Kirst to advise him. A colleague of mine for over twenty-five years, Mike asked me to look into it and to answer some basic questions: What is computer science education? Why should it be for all students? Why now?

With college degrees in English Literature and Public Policy, and accustomed to relying heavily on Apple’s Genius Bar to fix my iPhone and laptop, I had a very steep learning curve.

But with mentoring from Code.org, the national nonprofit expanding K-12 computer science across the country and support from California’s many computer science advocates, I dug in. And the more I learned and understood, the more passionate I became about the need for computer science to be brought into K-12 as a foundational subject and about the critical importance of ensuring that girls, students of color, low-income kids, EL students — all students have access.

Fast forward four years.

Last week the State Board of Education adopted California’s first ever model K-12 computer science standards. These standards are voluntary and intended to provide substantive guidance while also allowing for flexibility and innovation across LEAs to determine from a variety of approaches how best to incorporate computer science into their curricula based on local capacity and context.

Computer science is the study of how technology and computing systems are created, with opportunities over the grade spans for students to collaborate to create their own applications and develop complex data files. California’s new standards cover six core computer science concepts (such as algorithms and programming) and seven core practices (such as creating computational artifacts and recognizing computational problems). They also encourage student critical thinking and discussion about the broader ethical and social implications and questions related to the growing capabilities of technology in society.

The study of computer science will enable California’s students to better understand how the digital world they are growing up in is made and how it works, for example:

How does the Internet work? How does Netflix use computing algorithms to determine what new shows I might like based on what shows I’ve been watching? How does my Facebook page know what online shopping I’ve been doing? What does it mean to “hack” into a computer system to steal or damage information? How is automation going to change the workforce and labor market? In what ways is technology combining with medical researchers to improve diagnoses or treatments of disease?

Last Thursday the state board also reviewed the recommendations of a blue ribbon computer science strategic implementation advisory panel on strategies to support educators and ensure equitable access for students to computer science courses. Most of the recommendations were addressed to districts and county offices of education, such as adopting computer science as a graduation requirement and identifying existing computer science curriculum that aligns well to the newly adopted standards. Other recommendations were directed more to state policy leaders, such as the importance of additional state funding to incentivize districts to begin to bring computer science into their curricula and to provide appropriate professional learning opportunities for teachers, and the need for changes in credentialing and supplemental authorizations that would more easily allow existing teachers of math, science, business and career technical education to be qualified to teach computer science.

Not all students who study computer science will want to major in it in college and make a career out of it. But if they never have the opportunity to take computer science courses before getting to college, they won’t have the chance to discover if it’s a field they’d like to pursue.

And that’s important because computing jobs are the largest sector by far of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs. In California alone there are currently 75,000 open computing jobs waiting to be filled, in every industry sector across the state. The average salary for those jobs is $110,000. The social mobility opportunities that a computer science degree and/or computing skills can provide for California’s low-income students, those of color or English learners and girls are enormous.

College Board data indicates that while much more progress is needed, numbers and diversity of California students taking a computer science AP exam have increased in recent years.

In 2016-17 only 488 California public high schools (out of just over 1,300) offered a Computer Science AP course (either AP Computer Science-A or Computer Science Principles AP or both) but that number has increased to 569 schools for 2017-18.

In 2014-15, 2,924 California public school students took the AP computer science A exam; in 2015- 2016 that number rose to 3,481 students.

These are indications of growing interest — and demand — but still involve a tiny fraction of California’s student population. The AP Computer Science A course is more technical, emphasizing problem solving using Java and requires strong math skills.

But in 2016-2017, the College Board introduced a new AP course, called Computer Science Principles, which was intentionally designed for broader student access. It does not rely on any particular programming language, instead offering a multidisciplinary approach to teaching the underlying principles of computation. The course introduces students to the creative aspects of programming, abstractions, algorithms, large data sets, the Internet, cybersecurity concerns and computing impacts. As a result, the numbers of California students taking AP computer science courses in 2016-17 jumped to 6,781, with 3,581 taking the new Computer Science Principles AP exam and 3,200 taking the Computer Science-A AP exam.

In addition, while California public school Latinx students made up only 16 percent of total student CS AP test takers in 2015-2016, they made up 25 percent of total California public-school computer science AP test takers in 2016-2017 and 34 percent of the test takers for the new Computer Science Principles AP course.

The home to Silicon Valley, California is having a Computer Science Education moment. Thanks to the efforts of all the computer science advocates, momentum is clearly growing. And now that California has recommendations for scaling computer science and has Computer Science Standards that provide guidance, I’m betting that California’s next state education policy leaders will be eager to support districts and charter schools to ensure all California’s K-12 students begin to have access to quality computer science opportunities.

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Trish Williams is a member of the California State Board of Education.

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