Want to make CS a thing in your district? Here’s how.
As I approach the one year mark in my role as Manager of Computer Science for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), it is hard not to marvel at the changing computer science education landscape in our city. Last August, mere hundreds of OUSD’s students received a schedule with computer science on it; in one month’s time, thousands will receive such a paper.
The momentum is not only evidenced by increased student enrollment. Industry investments have catalyzed pathway development; existing classroom teachers and former tech professionals have elected to teach computer science; and city-wide discussion has led to increased alignment about a pipeline strategy that spans from cradle to career.
Computer science education in Oakland has been an obvious sell; everyone acknowledges the rigor and relevancy of computer science, especially for students in a community with an increased tech presence.
All students deserve to learn computer science, though, regardless of their proximity to Silicon Valley, because at the heart of these courses is the agency-creating education necessary for choice, sustainability, and access in the 21st century.
With that said, here are learnings from my first year leading computer science education in OUSD. My hope is that these tenets are applicable across every district, even to those who have not yet caught the CS wave.
Dream big, act immediately
OUSD’s commitment to making every graduate college, career, and community ready requires rigorous academic and socioemotional development programs across the PK-12 continuum. In high school, our district strategy includes industry-aligned pathways that allow all students to gain relevant academic skills and real-world experience.
Ideal computer science-related pathways would prepare students for success at a 4-year college and for the workforce with a certification in programming, cyber security, or IT, to name a few. For students to attain these lofty goals, they cannot start their computer science education as a sophomore in high school; the further their introduction is delayed, the more limitations on their pathway experience.
We know OUSD students benefit from the problem-solving and design thinking that computer science fosters from the moment they start formal schooling. We also know that the middle school years are ripe for identity formation; therefore, universal access to engaging CS curricula in those years is a linchpin in our strategy to broaden diversity in our tech-focused pathways. We are convinced that successful pathways at the high school level means more than stellar teaching and rigorous coursework, but also industry partnerships, internship opportunities, and access to college credit through community colleges.
And these initiatives barely scratch at the surface of what it would look like to have computer science, a core literacy, fully and meaningfully integrated across the curriculum.
Is all of this daunting? You bet. Does that stop us from starting, though? No. We’ve chosen a few focus areas (ex universal 9th grade ECS, rapid expansion of AP Computer Science Principles), are running a few experiments (ex pre-pathways in middle schools), and have made do with limited resources (ex TK-5 computer science expansion). We’ve held a strong vision, but haven’t obsessed about getting every part right; great is the enemy of good, right?
Stick to your values
There is a mantra in our community to address the shifting economy. It goes: as Oakland becomes more tech, let’s ensure tech becomes more Oakland. Oakland’s diversity and ingenuity are beautiful, and that brilliance is found in our students. To tap that potential, we have to ensure equitable conditions.
It has become commonplace to say that a school provides access to computer science. Often, though, that implies that a school offers a class, but it may not serve a representative population of the school at-large. This is an issue with all electives; myriad factors including, but not limited to, teacher reputation, scheduling, student credit deficiencies or required support classes can deter or prevent students from accessing a class. Even worse, the most vulnerable populations within a school, like English Language Learners or Students with Special Needs, frequently are barred access from computer science courses given CS’s reputation for being inaccessible or for the traditionally gifted.
In OUSD, we have committed to ensuring that schools offer computer science equitably. In many cases, this means that CS is offered to every student within a grade-level. We subscribe to open enrollment in AP. Across the district there are classes specifically for newcomers, female-identifying students, and those in continuation schools. Strategic efforts — often led by students — have been made to recruit historically underrepresented students. We are even writing performance assessments that combine students’ technical skills with identity-affirming coursework from Ethnic Studies to make our curriculum more relevant.
As a district leader, my party line has been that classes will either be offered equitably, or not at all. It is a powerful lens from which to engage key stakeholders, including administrators.
This work is incredible, but sometimes it’s scary. I say embrace it.
To make a massive expansion of computer science education possible, we had to find the talent to teach it. We identified enthusiastic teachers at a site that was ready to take on a new challenge. We also found tech professionals looking to share their knowledge with the next generation. A slim minority of teachers in CS classrooms in the upcoming year have both teaching experience and a technical background. We’re embracing that challenge by partnering with organizations like Code.org to provide professional development and creating a teacher community that allows each individual to share his or her strengths and learn from others. It is certainly an a-traditional approach.
Also, next year we are using the same curriculum across all 8th and 9th grade classrooms in the district. This is not a long term solution, but part of an effort to gather data about the curriculum’s appropriateness for middle or high school students. It is likely that one pilot will fail and while we have no intention to let teachers sink without supports, we all acknowledge that it could be painful. We also know that we will be able to speak with greater authority in 2017–18 about our curricular decisions.
Risk is great — but so is opportunity — when people buy into the process and know there’s a method to the madness.
Invest stakeholders, leverage community
The first major event I hosted as Manager of Computer Science was a “Code Champion” orientation. This event brought roughly 60 students from across Oakland high schools to the downtown district offices to plan last year’s Hour of Code. At the event, students wrote personal narratives about their interest in technology, devised a school-wide rollout for Computer Science Education Week, and conducted a mock meeting with their school’s administrators to share their plan and why computer science was important to them.
No other event has ever been more effective in supporting computer science in Oakland.
Subsequent conversations I had with principals and teachers often referenced the support amongst students for computer science. I met with Code Champions about their hopes for computer science at their school. One student group was even spurred on to host a hackathon for students at their high school not as familiar with technology. Parents, who have historically been some of computer science education’s strongest advocates, supported their students as district leaders. The nonprofit and industry partners that partnered to make the event a success were inspired by the impact of student leadership.
There are many ongoing lessons from this work. Most notably, involve students in decision-making and leadership — their voice matters most — and ensure that teachers, administrators, families, and the greater community have opportunities to see the students in action. Then, create meaningful and ongoing opportunities for all of the aforementioned to influence policy. Be flexible and willing to integrate feedback. Holistic community buy-in is the most precious asset in this movement.
Look for special openings
When people ask me how I’m getting computer science off the ground in Oakland, I say much of what’s written above. Then they press, but how?
Computer science, like all initiatives, takes champions. It also helps to take advantage of any favorable condition.
For example, like many high schools in Oakland, we are considering whether or not to move to a block schedule this year. The change would allow students to go from taking 6 classes to 8. I suggested adding a computer science course to every school considering the transition and many saw this as the perfect time to add the new course into their school’s repertoire.
Many of the tenets of computer science education can be covered through design or making courses. Another colleague led a “Maker Fellows” program that included teachers from across the district; creating makerspaces and fab labs is now part of the CS-strategy.
Local and national direct-service providers offering computer science opportunities for students were willing to bolster OUSD’s work by offering spots explicitly to our students. These programs are often the lure to get students excited to take a year-long class.
And lastly, grant money allowed for the hiring of a dedicated central coordinator of this work (me), a move that I think — albeit, biasedly — catalyzes the computer science movement within a district more than any other.
I hope the takeaway from this playbook is that you have the power to get the ball rolling. Students deserve access to computer science education and even small wins can create the momentum necessary to start a movement within your own district.