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Equity, Policy, and and Why "Trickle Down" Doesn't

As a non common-core subject, computer science relies on vigorous policy efforts to help our educational leaders understand the importance of including computing in the K-12 curriculum. In just the past few years, we have witnessed how collaborative policy efforts can lead to the inclusion of computer science in government grant funding, standards development, certification guidelines, and curricular credit. This policy work has been tremendously important in raising awareness about the low numbers of U.S. students studying computer science and providing the necessary foundation for working towards increasing the numbers of students who pursue computing in higher education.

Now that these efforts have evolved to include various implementations and the CS10K movement is gaining momentum, there is a temptation to assume that "increasing" participation in computing will automatically lead to "broadening" participation in computing. As a subject with troublesomely low participation rates of both females and students of color, there is a real danger that without integration of equity-focused policy, general efforts to attract more students to computing will only extend the inequitable status quo.

A brief look at educational history highlights this point. Compulsory schooling allowed poor and working class children into American schools, but segregation remained. The Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education was necessary to initially desegregate learning spaces, but without equal opportunity or purposeful inclusion, many public schools are more racially and socioeconomically segregated than ever. Before Title IX, girls and women were largely directed away from STEM fields and higher education altogether. In fact, many point to the subsequent gender balance in high school calculus as a direct result of Title IX legislation. These equity-focused policies were necessary because larger educational policies that benefitted majority students and boys failed to "trickle down" to students of color and girls. Yet, lessons from Brown and Title IX also highlight that equity-focused policies can open doors but do not in themselves lead to equitable access, instructional opportunities, or practices without purposeful inclusion at the state, district, school, and classroom level.

Therein lies the necessity of maintaining a focus on equity as both policy and classroom practice even as we are pursuing policy changes that are directed at "universal" CS education.

Additionally, the educational research that has been done in this area makes it clear that alongside "top-down" equity-focused policy work, equity work must simultaneously be addressed from the "bottom-up" at the classroom, school, and community level. We know from research that:

  • Development of a common course curriculum across schools fosters rich pedagogical collaboration amongst teachers;
  • Long-term professional development opportunities grounded in the courses teachers are teaching is necessary to develop pedagogical practices and strategies for effectively teaching computer science for diverse learners;
  • To maximize chances of CS learning opportunities to exist in the schools, clear pathways of study must be established for students from both academic and career tracks in computer science curricular decisions. School administrators, parents, and students need to see the trajectory of possibility of taking an introductory CS course in a series that might culminate in an Advanced Placement exam, a CTE certification, or another degree.
  • To address equity issues, we need to think about course pathways that culminate in, not begin with, AP courses. By definition, AP is a college-level course. Focusing on this class exclusively focuses attention and resources on a course that is available for predominantly high achieving, college-bound students from middle-class schools.
  • As well, there must be school-wide support and a belief system, from principal to counselors to parents to teachers, that all students are capable and belong in a computer science class. As Lucy Sanders stated at a recent NSF Broadening Participation in Computing community meeting, we need a social movement to reimagine the "norm" for who studies computer science. Changing belief systems cannot happen from a policy perspective alone but relies on the deep commitment and skills of our full community and computer science teachers in their own classrooms.

    There is too much at stake to hope that general educational policies aimed at increasing participation in computing will by themselves trickle down and lead to broadened participation. Instead, we need to hold steady our attention to all aspects of equity as we go forth to increase learning opportunities in computer science. This is a critical lesson from the educational history that has preceded us.

    Joanna Goode,
    CSTA Equity Chair

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