Part 2: Which state is doing the best to improve access to computing education?

We already knew Maryland was getting something right. What else can we learn from them?

Meet Holland Henderson-Boyer, a high school senior in Maryland. In elementary school, she had the opportunity to participate in robotics, where she was the lead programmer for the autonomous portion of the competition. She continued with robotics through middle school; in high school, she joined clubs that introduced her to new passions in cybersecurity and software development, so she decided to take CS classes.

She had a teacher who inspired and encouraged her to keep at it (shout out to Mrs. Blasko). She joined her local Girls Who Code chapter and the older girls mentored her, eventually propelling her into a position of leadership. While taking Advanced Placement Computer Science (APCS), she participated in extra help sessions through a program called Rise Up 4 CS, through which University of Maryland (UMD) students mentored and tutored high school students.

This year, Holland was awarded the prestigious National NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award. On a Discord server, the winners share dreams and backgrounds and GIFs. She knows she wants to study computer science in college, and she’s excited about the future of cybersecurity.

Holland’s success is part of a statewide story that we’ve started to explore: Maryland is doing a fantastic job providing all high school students access to computing education. Specifically, Maryland is leaps and bounds above many other states in terms of access to and performance on AP CS courses. In 2020, Maryland had more students pass the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) exam than any other state, adjusting for population size.

But we know that “all students” can obscure the experiences and realities for Black, Latina, and Native American (BLNA) women, so we looked deeper. Here’s what we saw: Black women specifically excelled in AP CS in Maryland.

Maryland came in first and second in the nation for AP CSA and AP CSP pass rates for Black women. (Side note: AP CSA focuses on problem solving and programming with Java, and AP CSP focuses on broader computing principles. Both are important, and AP CSP has had a lot of success bringing CS to a larger group of students.)

This is particularly impressive because these are raw numbers — not per capita. In 2020, more Black women high school students passed the AP CSA exam in Maryland than in any other state.

The raw numbers of Black women who passed the AP Computer Science A exam in 2020 by state.
The raw numbers of Black women who passed the AP Computer Science P exam in 2020 by state.

We got curious about this success story — so we interviewed some of the movers and shakers in Maryland’s computing ecosystem. What did we learn? A lot.

Before we go any further, we should build on our last piece and ask: is there an easy explanation for this? In addition to the small square footage and relatively wealthy population, it’s also important to note that Maryland has a relatively large Black population. As of the 2020 census, 29.5% of Marylanders (or 1.8M people) identified as Black. But many other states have similar or larger Black populations, either as a percentage (DC, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana) or in raw numbers (Texas, New York, Florida, North Carolina). Demographics alone don’t account for the success. There’s no simple answer here to explain away this story; let’s dive into the hard work and collaboration that made these outcomes possible.

Money + People + Policies = PROGRAMS

As we described in Part I, the magic formula of dedicated funding, passionate people, and top-down policies is still relevant here. The output is carefully designed and intentionally marketed programs dedicated to K-12 computing education and access for historically underrepresented populations — in Maryland, this means Black communities, especially girls and women in those communities.

And when we interviewed computing education leaders in Maryland, we found that a statewide effort is underway to ensure that all districts– and especially districts with high percentages of Black students– are providing CS from elementary school to high school, throughout the school year and during the school day.

Okay, there are programs. So what?

Lots of states have programs and are not seeing the same results. We’ve also discussed how intentional program design must be to engage students who have been made to feel unwelcome in technology spaces (and they often miss the mark). How did Maryland get it right for Black women? What can we replicate? Our interviewees painted a picture for us.

“There is an overarching spirit of collaboration.”

The secret sauce is that all of these programs are not just one-offs — they are connected.

  • MCWiC is housed at UMD, so leadership is able to communicate regularly within a stable infrastructure…
  • CompSciConnect is also centered at UMD, so camp leadership can encourage students to participate in Rise Up when they take AP CS A…
  • Rise Up students are introduced to college level computing and have a near-peer mentor to make the leap more welcoming…
  • The NCWIT Aspirations work is centered at UMD, so UMD works to ensure that the Aspirations award winners know how to get into UMD (and how inclusive they are trying to be)…
  • Code in the Schools partners with MCCE (which is housed at the University System of Maryland and works across education organizations) and code.org to bring professional development to the entire state…

You get the picture — listing all the overlaps could fill a novel. The effect of this collaboration is two-fold. First, an enmeshed network of programs and supports for students from middle school through college, with few gaps. Second, consistent communication among program leadership that cemented an aligned focus on women and people of color and especially Black women.

“To expand the pool of teachers, we have to expand options and training.”

The call for more computer science in schools can elicit skeptical responses: We need more teachers in the midst of a teacher shortage? We need teachers who could get high-paying private sector jobs to opt for public school salaries? Or… we need teachers who are already working full-time to become CS teachers?

Maryland leaders got creative. The state DOE created pathways for knowledgeable people (like private sector employees and university professors) to get in front of K-12 students. They developed a certification team that gave these experts a foundation in the curriculum without training them to be full-time teachers. Revising regulations to bring the best minds to Maryland students? Check.

“From the outset, we saw the huge gap in representation.”

Code in the Schools supplements formal instruction by providing CS instruction to students during the school day. They work within the formal school system by operating outside of it — the organization hires diverse, engaging staff and partners with school districts to provide curriculum, instruction, and materials during the school schedule. This is no small feat — integrating into a school schedule is logistically complicated, but it is also one of the best ways to ensure maximum reach. They also provide after school programs AND summer programs AND professional development.

Representation impacts not just what kids see but what they learn — and Code in the Schools saw a huge representation gap in program and classroom leadership. They set out to simultaneously recruit more representative classroom leadership and train all teachers in how to support students who are historically underestimated and underrepresented in computing. Through Maryland Codes, they are working to bring that focus to every district in Maryland. This piece matters. It’s not just about having classes available and people to teach them — it’s also about making sure that those classes and those teachers are set up to succeed, and that means valuing ongoing learning and development.

“We need to send a message that there is a place in this industry for you.”

Bridging the gap between education and career can be tough, especially for BLNA women who don’t often see themselves in the industry — either through personal connections or through stories (in the news, in movies, in books, etc.) that demonstrate the real-world possibilities. Maryland leaders thought about this, too. Leaders have partnered with the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education (a coalition of employers committed to education reform and student achievement) to bring in specialists from local companies to teach classes. Maryland is also (by some estimates) one of the best states for Black women-owned businesses — so there are opportunities for public-private partnerships that are affirming diversity and inclusion beyond the classroom and into the office. These efforts depend on a thriving industry to welcome BLNA women after they move through the education system.

“Cultural responsiveness needs to be built in, not shoehorned.”

Culturally responsive curriculum doesn’t happen by accident or by the force of good intentions — it’s a thoughtful and thorough effort that brings a lot of different perspectives together. Maryland leaders recognized that culturally-responsive curricula required a) deep review and b) teacher training. If teachers weren’t set up for success, they could have created uncomfortable and exclusive spaces in their classrooms.

Maryland leaders also recognized that hitting people over the head with cultural responsiveness is not a path to long-term success, even if it is critically important. Instead, they focused on baking it in at every level — in the curriculum, in the classroom, in professional development, in industry. The result is a relatively non-politicized environment, especially compared to other states where inclusivity has become a political lightning rod. When inclusivity is an aligned priority, everyone wins — students stay engaged, teachers develop professionally, and the business community welcomes talent.

So what does this all add up to?

Remember Holland? Hers is just one story, but you can see how these networked programs and support nurture incredible students like her. And she loves the community that has come out of this computing network. “I am developing these skills because these amazing women and people of color came before me,” she told us. “There was not a time where I was constantly thinking about my identity. I feel like I’ve been lucky.”

IPEDs data indicate that the state of Maryland alone graduates 16% of all the Black women computing graduates in the nation. That’s a big number for a small state — and the foundation that these leaders are laying in K-12 is a huge part of that success. Maryland’s long history of Black academic prowess, especially at the post-secondary level, is also undeniable. Maryland is one of three states with four public, 4-year HBCUs, all of which have a computer science program.

Still, there is much work ahead.

No tech equity advocate in Maryland is resting on their laurels — it’s clear that they think of this work as constantly evolving and not as a target to hit. All of the advocates we interviewed immediately told us that they are working hard to continue to increase access, especially for rural students, and continuing to increase access for all BLNA students. And there’s more work to be done at the higher education level — for example, community college pathways in Maryland can and must be strengthened.

For now though, we can all take a page from Maryland’s book and learn from the culture they’ve created. They’ve put collaboration and shared priorities first. They’ve worked within the public education system instead of working against it. They’ve made sure that the educators working with students are prepared for a range of situations. And they’ve made sure that students can see a future for themselves in a world they have historically been excluded from.

Are you all thinking about what you can learn from Maryland’s example? Because we are.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with us about their work in Maryland. This piece would not be possible without:

  • Kate Atchison (Associate Director, Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing)
  • Charlotte Avery (Outreach Coordinator, Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing)
  • Tiara Booker-Dwyer (Former Assistant State Superintendent, Maryland Department of Education)
  • Megean Garvin (Director of Research and Assessment, Maryland Center for Computing Education)
  • Holland Henderson-Boyer (Student and NCWIT Aspirations recipient)
  • Gretchen LeGrand (Co-founder and CEO, Code in the Schools)
  • Dianne O’Grady Cunniff (Director, Maryland Center for Computing Education)
  • Jan Plane (Principal Lecturer at University of Maryland in the Department of Computer Science, Director of Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing, Director of Maryland Center for Women in Computing)
  • Pat Yongpradit (Chief Academic Officer, Code.org)

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