Unifying Equity and Access in Computing

Written by Dr. Kamau Bobb, Senior Director, Constellations Center for Equity in Computing

CS For All is an extraordinary effort to meet a grand national challenge. The objective is to provide quality computing education for all U.S. students. It is based on the premise that computational skills are central to meaningful civic and professional engagement in all sectors of American life as we head towards the end of the 21st century. It is a grand challenge because the American education system is profoundly inequitable. In large measure, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students and poor and rural students of all races and ethnicities simply do not have access to rigorous high quality public education. That is a result of the failings of the institutions required to provide it to them, not their own. At its core, the CS For All effort is designed to equitably deploy computing education within a system that is profoundly inequitable. That is why the “For All” clause is necessary. Under these circumstances the pursuit of access is not the same thing as the pursuit of equity in computing.

- Equity is justice. It is the absence of bias. It is fairness. It reveals itself in the structure of institutions and the belief systems embedded in those institutions. It is required for a meritocratic system to be valid.

- Equal access is even distribution. It is the even distribution of an item or subject across multiple units. It is not the same thing as equity. Equal distribution of computing courses across schools that are inherently unequal meets the criterion of equality, but falls short of the criterion of equity.

In the CS For All effort, it is important to be conscious of this fundamental difference. Access is a necessary, but insufficient condition to affect deep and meaningful changes in students’ educational trajectories. If the objective of the CS For All effort is interpreted as merely granting students access to computing experiences, it runs the risk of being a cloak — a significant effort that masks the fundamental challenges that prevent students of color from advancing into higher education institutions where they can truly pursue computing in a meaningful way.

As this community knows well, the browning of America is upon us. The proportion of White students in American public schools is on the decline. We should be clear about what that means. Where they are in public schools, White students are often concentrated in segregated schools and classes behind a wall of race, privilege and high expectations. On their side of the wall there is often an infrastructure of rigorous courses, teachers and communities that complement computational learning, even in its nascent stages. The reality on the other side of the wall is not the same. There lies the other — the Black and Brown students for whom the “For All” clause is necessary.

What does a focus on equity mean?

SAT percentile ranks for 2015 college-bound senior

The Constellation Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech is joining the CS For All movement focused on implementing an infrastructure for equity in computing. Central to that objective is recognizing that individual computing experiences for students are enriching, but not necessarily transformative. Access to computing in higher education is the goal. Ultimately, the success of students — particularly those of color — rests on their ability to engage in long term sustainable computing education. They need well taught courses that lead somewhere. They need computing courses and experiences that enhance and complement their progress in mathematics. It remains a fact that student performance in mathematics is directly tied to their ability to pursue higher education at selective institutions in any field. They need rigorous computing education, beyond mere exposure.

A structural focus on equity in the larger sense requires an honest recognition that neither are there, nor will there be enough CS teachers to adequately and rigorously deploy this subject. As such, the blended learning model in the formal education system is the only way for students on the other side of the wall to have a fighting chance. In service-teacher professional development must continue apace. Pre-service teacher production must begin in earnest. Innovative and entrepreneurial computing programs must continue to grow. In sum, access and equity must be united.

Dr. Kamau Bobb speaking at the 2017 CSforALL Summit

Kamau Bobb is a national authority in STEM education. He is the founding Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech. He is an engineer and science and technology policy scholar whose work focuses on the relationship between equity for students and communities of color in the STEM enterprise, large educational systems, and the social and structural conditions that influence contemporary American life.

He brings to his current position a wealth of experience as a former Program Officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). At NSF he was responsible for $30 million annually of investments targeted on improving computing and STEM education. In that role Dr. Bobb worked at the highest levels of the federal government to help shape the national research agenda for effective means of delivering equitable and quality computational education to all students. He has worked with members of the Office and Science and Technology Policy in the Obama Administration to set the national strategy for STEM education at both post-secondary and secondary school levels. He was selected as a member of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper STEM + Entrepreneurship Taskforce to help U.S. cities craft strategies to engage young men and boys of color in the STEM landscape. Prior to his federal appointment, Dr. Bobb was the Director of the STEM Initiative for the University System of Georgia, a collaborative effort with the governor’s office to improve STEM education across the 30 public institutions serving approximately 325,000 students in the state.

Dr. Bobb brings to STEM education a fierce commitment to equity as an indicator of justice. He has addressed and advised numerous leading tech sector companies, universities and k-12 schools. His writing on STEM education and culture has been featured in The Atlantic, Black Enterprise, The Root, Edutopia and on the Obama White House Blog. His national and state leadership have contributed to a STEM education agenda that is more honest and reflective of contemporary social and cultural realities.

Dr. Bobb holds a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Policy from Georgia Tech and M.S. and B.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

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