Supporting School Districts to Drive their Own Visions of CSforAll

The history of education reform offers so many lessons for those of us interested in CSforAll. It teaches us that if new initiatives aren’t driven by the needs of local communities and schools, it’s unlikely they’ll be sustainable. It teaches us that if a local reform effort doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose and a strong north star, it can end up hurting, rather than helping. It teaches us that if a new project in a district doesn’t focus on the agency and voice of educators themselves, this lack of ownership can easily breed resentment. And it teaches us that if an ambitious new initiative isn’t carefully planned, reflected on and course-corrected by stakeholders at all levels as it happens, it probably doesn’t matter how good intentions and even core ideas are — they can fall flat. We’ve been thinking hard about these lessons, and what they mean for our efforts to support school districts to equitably, effectively and sustainably bring computer science education to their students. Reflecting on this, it’s led us to focus on ways of working with districts that aim to embody three core principles: vision, rigor and agency.

In a new research-practice partnership supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, we’re developing a values-based strategic planning and implementation approach around district level CSforAll initiatives that places those three principles at its core. The partnership brings together CSforAll, a core research team at New York University led by Dr. June Ahn and myself, and two educational cooperatives in New York state — the Thompson-Seneca-Tioga BOCES and the Putnam North Westchester BOCES — to support sixteen K12 school districts serving over 34,000 students across the New York state to plan, implement and continuously improve local CSforAll efforts for their students.

A facilitator at the 2017 CSforAll Summit in St. Louis guides districts in a reflection process where they identify their own reasons for wanting to bring CS education to their students.

A focus on Vision. Our starting point in partnering with districts is supporting them to set north stars based on their own values and their own community needs. This means that each district begins their planning work by first answering a critical question: CS for what? Is it to broaden participation in STEM fields? To prepare students to be good digital citizens? To make sure we have a society able to develop technologies that might help solve wicked problems? To make sure our technologies don’t themselves become wicked problems more than they already have? This part of the project draws on earlier work developed with my colleagues Sara Vogel (CUNY) and Dixie Ching (Google), where we analyzed almost 200 arguments articulated by CS education stakeholders, and out of this developed a framework for understanding and decoding the underlying values found in common arguments for CSed.

One of the big conjectures of the project is that by having districts develop a clear rationale for CS education from the get-go, they’ll be able to develop an instructional vision and implementation that better aligns with what they care about most. We understand that the ‘shape’ of a district’s CSforAll initiative — its learning goals, curricula, out of school opportunities, etc. — could look different depending on their rationale. A value around broadening participation in computing industries could lead to policy and instruction that looks different from a value around using computing for creative expression. Of course, many reasons can co-exist — we just believe that they should be clearly articulated so that they can then help inform what kind of decisions are made. Clear articulation of rationales and associated goals is something we see as key to rigor — our next principle.

Model of a Coherent Instructional System around CS education. Modified from Cobb et al., 2017.

A focus on Rigor. We mean two things when we talk about rigor in this project: instructional system coherence and continuous improvement.

By coherence, we’re talking about having all those system elements that exist across multiple levels and contexts actually being planned and implemented as a coherent instructional system. Having a coherent instructional system essentially means aligning the major parts of a school or district’s activities — professional development, coaching, curriculum, learning goals, rationale, instructional vision, etc. — in relation to one another (see Newmann et al., 2011, Forman et al., 2017, and Cobb & Jackson, 2011 for more). For example, the learning goals for courses in one grade level should prepare students for courses in the next, the selected professional development should focus on the learning goals and instructional approaches that are most valued, or even something like an after-school club should actually reflect and help reinforce the instructional vision at the heart of the effort.

There are countless other ways that all these moving parts can help support one another, or not. Doing so is not an easy task — how does a district keep all those elements coherent? This is where continuous improvement comes in.

In this project, we’re drawing on a larger approach of continuous improvement within education reform, well articulated in the recent book Learning to Improve. Central to a continuous improvement approach is being able to see the system you’re trying to improve, defining clear improvement goals, and using targeted, easy to collect data to know whether the needle is moving in the right direction around those goals. We’ll be working with many of our district partners to develop these sorts of practical measures — easy to collect, short cycle data that aren’t used for research or for accountability, but for improvement — and support them to make sense of and see their instructional system as it’s changing over time. Rigor in this respect means that we’ll be supporting districts to decide for themselves what they want to focus on, and ensure that they have the information they need to continually understand whether they’re reaching their goals so that they can course-correct along the way. On the NYU-side of our team, Dr. June Ahn, the co-investigator on the project, has been working with the Practical Measures, Routines, and Representations group to use practical measures to improve middle school mathematics instruction, and we’ll be drawing heavily on lessons learned from that work.

A focus on Agency. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, this work is guided by a focus on agency. The way that CSforAll has approached supporting districts has been to avoid being prescriptive about what should be taught, what curriculum should be used, or what teaching CS should accomplish, but rather to help them decide what they want to do when it comes to CS education. The primary support tool for doing so has been the SCRIPT Rubrics, which are designed to support districts to set their own goals around implementing CS for their students in areas like curriculum, capacity building, and leadership. The one thing that has been more prescriptive, though, is that multiple levels of actors from a district be involved in setting those goals. We believe that if a reform effort comes purely from the top down, individual educator agency can be curtailed. And conversely, if it’s just those one or two pioneering educators from a school at the table, they ultimately won’t get the support they need in order to keep the work going. So we’re continuing in that spirit and with those approaches in this project — districts set their own goals around CSforAll, and they include actors at multiple levels in that process.

In both the design of our district support activities as well as in some of the research and improvement data we’ll be collecting, we’ll be focusing on understanding how changes to individual and collective efficacy of teachers, school leaders and administrators shift over time as they develop CSforAll implementations. We know from existing research that increases in individual and collective efficacy on the part of educators can contribute to a virtuous cycle in terms of student outcomes, and so is a major leverage point to focus on especially in CS, an area new to most educators. If they don’t feel agency, efficacy and a sense of capacity, it’s unlikely that we’ll see good student learning, and also unlikely that a local CSforAll effort will be sustainable, something that requires real ownership.

By the end of the project, we hope to have useful contributions to share with the field. First, the value-based strategic planning process we use to help districts to develop CSforAll initiatives will be documented in workshop activities, reflection guides and organizational routines. Second, practical measurement instruments that help to continuously improve CSforAll implementations will be made available for use. And finally, we’ll be researching the entire process. Everything from the support structures, data tools and routines, and, most importantly, the ways that different districts go about implementing CSforAll will be areas that we hope to share insights around. The field of CS education at the K12 level is quite nascent compared to established disciplines like math, science, literacy and others, and there’s little to no research base dealing with how CS differs when it comes to whole district implementation efforts. As we develop this work, we hope to surface knowledge about what this process looks like, along with promising approaches and pitfalls to avoid. As we do, we look forward to sharing it with others that share in the goal of bringing CS to all students in a way that’s rigorous, sustainable and inclusive.

CSforALL is a national grassroots movement. We are inspired daily by the accomplishments and diversity of the organizations participating in the work. Schools and teachers, nonprofits, governments, and corporations share our common goal of providing rigorous, inclusive, and sustainable computer science to all students. There is room in this community for everyone, and the #CSforALL hashtag connects excited practitioners and supporters every day. To stay informed about our work and the work of the larger community, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or consider joining the Consortium at

Rafi Santo, PhD, is a learning scientist based at New York University and a research fellow at CSforAll. He focuses on the intersection of digital culture, education and institutional change. Centering his work within research-practice partnerships, he has studied, collaborated with and facilitated a range of organizational networks focused on digital learning, computing and technology education. Within informal education, he has focused on organizational learning and the design of innovation networks as co-founder of Hive Research Lab, a research-practice partnership with Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network, a collective of 70 informal education organizations. In work centering on formal K-12 schooling, he’s partnered with the CSforAll National Consortium to support school districts to develop computing education initiatives rooted in student and community needs. His work on Hacker Literacies has appeared in journals including International Journal of Learning and Media and Digital Culture & Education, and he is co-author of a four volume collection on digital and computational making from MIT Press called Interconnections: Understanding Systems through Digital Design. His work has been supported by the Spencer Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Susan Crown Exchange.