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Education Equity Update: What CS4All Means for NYC Computer Science Students and Teachers

The past few years have been a whirlwind for New York City educators and computer science teachers. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education decided to focus on creating CS education equity, and rolled out a plan for computer science classes across city schools. 

Where does this leave teachers in the NYC school district? Are students getting the computer science education they need? Let’s look at the state of CS education in New York City schools.  

The Computer Science 4 All Initiative is Seeing Results

The core of computer science education in New York City schools is from the NYC Department of Education’s Computer Science 4 All (CS4All) initiative. Launched in September 2015 by Mayor de Blasio, CS4All is meant to ensure that all K-12 students in the city learn computer science — with a special focus on female, black, and Latino students. This program, along with other education improvements, are meant to drive NYC schools toward a lofty goal: by 2026, 80 percent of students will graduate high school on time and 66 percent of students will be college ready. 

So far, these efforts have been successful. 

Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Richard A. Carranza, recently reported improvements on State English and math exams. In 2019, 47.4 percent of students met English proficiency standards, an increase of 0.7 over 2018. He credits programs like Pre-K for All for this success, and emphasizes the importance of increasing equity within the region’s schools as part of a greater Equity & Excellence for All drive — which includes Computer Science for All. 

“We are more determined than ever to advance equity now and ensure all New York City public school students have access to the high-quality education they deserve,” Carranza said in a press release. 

These initiatives highlight how computer science courses alone won’t help NYC students. Investment in education starts in Pre-K, and students need strong foundations in math, English and other classes in order to succeed in CS subjects. If NYC schools continue to focus on education equity as a whole, they will see greater success with their CS4All program. 

Many Schools Struggle to Staff Computer Science Teachers

Staffing is a major barrier to offering comprehensive and equitable computer science education throughout NYC schools — and in schools across the country. 

“There is a need to get at least one [computer science] teacher in every school in this country, [but] right now there’s usually only one in a district,” explains Cameron Wilson, chief operating officer and vice president of government affairs for Code.org. 

One source of this deficit is the lucrative nature of tech jobs. College graduates with computer science degrees want to work for high-paying companies and are less likely to go into the lower-paid teaching profession.

Wilson believes instead of asking computer science professionals to leave the lucrative private sector for the field of education, we should better prepare existing educators to step into the role of computer science teacher. This isn’t an easy task. Educators need to develop curricula, troubleshoot problems and constantly grow their skills to better meet the needs of students. It can be a lonely job when you’re the only CS teacher in your district.

The need for support in computer science education is so strong that teachers are starting to band together online to form support groups. One group, the Computer Science Teachers Association, is led by K-12 computer science teachers with the goals of sharing the latest and best practices in education and of creating communities to “make sure every computer science teacher has a home.” It is both a professional development and emotional support organization.  

School districts across the country are getting creative to fill the demand from students, and in many cases goals set by state governments, to provide quality computer science education. In an article for the Idaho State Journal, reporter Julie Wootton-Greener describes one educator who teaches three high school CS classes simultaneously, and even lets some students who couldn’t fit the course into their schedule sit in.

The competition to hire computer science teachers goes beyond K-12 schools. Inside Higher Ed reporter, Colleen Flaherty, says students at Haverford College were so frustrated by the lack of computer science courses offered (due to a lack of available professors) and by the fact that the few classes offered filled up so quickly, that they posted signs about missing professors all over campus for April Fool’s Day. The joke was that they couldn’t be missing because they were never there. 

Another issue is that most K-12 schools expect educators to take on the CS teaching role as a full-time position. Tech professionals, on the other hand, can teach as part-time adjunct faculty at a local college. 

Computer Science Needs to Benefit All Students

Programming skills are essential to fulfill the needs of companies in the future, but that doesn’t mean that NYC K-12 schools need to be exclusively focused on creating future rockstar coders. 

In 2017, technology reporter at The New York Times, Natasha Singer, wrote about the not-so altruistic nature of technology companies pouring money into education. Many tech companies have a hard time hiring engineers, which is why they are turning to the next generation of learners to come prepared with the skill sets that they need. This had led some parents to wonder whether their kids need computer science at all, especially if they have no desire to be engineers. 

At Ozobot, we believe that tech literacy is a skill that will apply to all professions — even those that aren’t necessarily tech focused. Students might not have to know how to write lines of code in Python, but they will need to understand the principles of creative problem solving and cause-and-effect.

At Its Core, Computer Science Is a Creative Field

Singer isn’t the only one concerned about the career-focused nature of computer science learning. Many educators and tech professionals want students to learn computer science with an emphasis on life skills and creativity, in particular.

Parth Shah, 2018 National Student Teacher of the Year, points out that the main computer science course offered in schools is AP Computer Science. “AP Computer Science A is taught in Java and largely focuses on syntax rather than creativity. It does not accurately reflect the wonders, abstractions, and endless creations that computer science can offer,” he writes.

As both a teacher and a student, Shah has seen how these types of courses can frustrate learners, causing them to drop the class because they think the material is too advanced for them. This goes to further the education gap. Instead, he says that computer science classes should focus on what makes coding exciting and the skills that go into developing an app to solve certain problems. 

Other investors, entrepreneurs, and leaders within Silicon Valley have voiced similar opinions.

Google Ventures Europe general partner Tom Hulme, for example, writes: “We need to rethink the way we teach our children and the things we teach them. Creativity will increasingly be the defining human talent. Our education system should emphasise the use of human imagination to spark original ideas and create new meaning. It’s the one thing machines won’t be able to do.”

Not only will a focus on the core principles of code help students do better in computer science courses, it will also ensure that the materials developed today for K-12 students will stay relevant longer. 

Blogger Alina Adams at New York School Talk calls out the CS4All programs because their lessons need to change so quickly. “Over the next 10 years, Computer Science and Computer Programming will have changed so much that any curriculum designed today (or, more likely, over the next few years, as it winds its way through the bureaucracy) will inevitably be out of date,” she says. 

Students need to learn the solid principles of programming and tech literacy, not necessarily the nuts and bolts of specific languages, if they are going to get work in any field after they graduate. 

If executed well, this initiative to make computer science more accessible for NYC students could have ripple effects that help students across all career fields — not just those related to tech. According to MediaPlanet’s blog on Education and Career News, students are “developing skills – including collaboration, building relationships with peers, communication, and creating with technology – that are integral to their success in higher education and the future job market.” 

This means they’re not only learning how to build apps and write programs in different languages. They’re honing future-ready skills that will help them whether they become a tech executive or an entrepreneurial artist. It’s this skill set that makes NYC computer science education equitable.

If you’re a Garden State-based district administrator looking for engaging and measurable ways to meet the state’s push toward CS for all, Ozobot can help. Our Educator and Classroom Kits come with teacher training and, beginning this fall, free access to our STEAM learning management system. Click here to schedule a free demo with Anthony, an Account Executive for the New Jersey region.

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