Last month, President Obama announced the $4 billion Computer Science for All initiative. The initiative looks to expand teacher training, includes investments in the computer science sector from tech heavyweights that include Google, Microsoft, and Code.org, and aims to bring computer science to schools of all shapes, sizes and socioeconomic breakdowns.
Proponents hope this effort to expand access to K-12 students across the country will nudge 21 holdout states to finally offer high school graduation credit to students who take computer science courses. They also hope it shapes the debate in 29 states where, despite computer science classes counting towards a high school diploma, the courses are not officially recognized for credit at nearby public universities.
One state with such a roadblock: California. Despite efforts by the governor and legislature to ensure that computer science classes count toward high school graduation, the independent University of California Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) has yet to make computer science count.
Until BOARS takes action, computer science classes remain electives in the state. Which means that while the coursework counts toward high school graduation requirements, they do not count as a core-math or science admissions requirement to the University of California or California State University systems.
This split is particularly problematic in areas like the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), where 73% of students qualify for Free or Reduced-Priced Lunch. A report published
by Gallup and Google in August 2015 noted that low-income students are most likely to lack access to computer science, especially when it is considered an elective. Meaning that even here, less than an hour’s drive from the Silicon Valley economy, high school students are hesitant to commit the time to computer science.
This disconnect didn’t sit well with Claire Shorall, an OUSD teacher and the manager of the district’s computer science program. In December 2015, Shorall launched the Change.org petition with support from a partnership between OUSD and Code.org, a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science, particularly for women and students of color. The petition calls for BOARS, which sets the admissions standards, to accept computer science as a qualifying class for admissions to the UC system.
For admissions to the UC system now, computer science is categorized as an elective, a “G” course, and not an accepted core math requirement, a “C” course which would allow it to count as a math on a student’s application by the UC system. By getting the “gatekeepers,” as Shorall calls them, to change how computer science is categorized, schools, especially poorer schools, would have the needed incentive to offer computer science, she argues.
“It’s an equity issue,” Shorall told The 74, and changing the computer science categorization would “broaden the base of who is taking computer science.”
Code.org notes that women who are exposed to computer science in high school are ten times more likely to major in it in college. For African-American and Latino students, the same exposure makes them 7% more likely.
More than 17,000 have rushed to sign the California petition
— and the state’s tech sector has taken note. The powers in Silicon Valley rallied behind the petition, leading California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom to voice his support in a December letter
urging BOARS to change the computer science classification.
For his part, Dr. Ralph Aldredge, the BOARS chairman, doesn’t disagree that access to computer science should be expanded. However, he disagrees with the proposal to move all computer science courses from a “G” classification to a “C.”
“The idea that a coding course could replace a requirement for algebra or geometry is something we don’t agree with,” he told The 74.
He noted that many computer science classes do count as “C” courses because of their reliance on math foundations. Those that are in the “G” category are there, he said, because they “don’t build on the basic mathematic skills we require.”
Despite support for the petition, there is no indication that BOARS will change its policies. However, Aldredge told The 74 that BOARS was constantly looking for expanded ways for computer science to be incorporated.
But now thanks to Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, which will expand access to the curriculum across the state, Shorall hopes BOARS will come under increased pressure to recognize the subject area: “Given the visibility, I think there will be greater pressure on states with policies that impede widespread adoption. Computer science is critical. Creating college and career pathways in computer science means kids would graduate with entry level computer and software development skill,” she said.
Entry-level salaries in the tech sector are often much higher than what is normally available for someone with only a high-school degree, so these skills, Shorall says, “would be a game-changer for kids coming through Oakland’s public education system.”