Part 1: Which state is doing the best to improve access to computing education?

It’s not who you think.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Pop quiz: which state do you think is best preparing high school students for the hundreds of thousands of computing jobs that await them in our increasingly digitized world? Hint: It’s not a coastal state with a tech hub, like California (home of Silicon Valley) or New York (home of Silicon Alley).

It’s Maryland. Surprised? Adjusting for population size, in 2020, Maryland had more students pass the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam than any other state in the United States. Maryland also ranked fifth in the nation for students passing the Advanced Placement Computer Science A exam.

How did it happen, and what can we learn?

Surely there’s an easy explanation for Maryland’s success.

Let’s address some of the contributing factors that make this success possible (but not inevitable).

  1. Maryland has a relatively wealthy population. The state’s median household income is $86,738, which places it at the top of the list of states ranked by wealth. Given the well documented link between wealth and access to computer science, this might seem to be the most obvious explanation. Still, other wealthy states (like Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New Jersey) do not achieve the same consistency of results, so high incomes alone aren’t responsible for success.
  2. Maryland is relatively small, in terms of square footage. The state is 9th in area. But if that were the only factor, we’d expect that to play out in other states: the smaller the area, the higher the participation. That’s definitely not the case. So it can’t just be that.

So what’s the full story?

Three interdependent factors: money, people, and policies.

Money

There’s no way around the fact that it is nearly impossible to make meaningful systems change without substantial funding. Maryland has had a total of $8 million dedicated to CS education funding since FY2019. What made Maryland’s efforts stand out is the range of priorities the state chose to fund: not just computer science standards, but network-strengthening investments like teacher training and a dedicated center at the University of Maryland.

Money also pays for important things like systems and people to track data. Because the Maryland Center for Computing Education dashboard tracks high school participation, they know that one in ten Maryland public high school students were enrolled in at least one CS class.

People

Where did those funds come from? Critical factor number two: people. Many states have strong leaders working to increase access to computer science, and Maryland is no exception. Governor Larry Hogan made CS education a top priority with a particular focus on expanding access for girls and people of color. Making CS education a priority — and the dollars needed to turn that priority into a reality — came straight from the top.

Hundreds more are making change happen, but a few stand out:

  • Tiara Booker Dwyer, Assistant State Superintendent for the Maryland Department of Education, was part of the team that wrote the K-12 Computer Science Standards and continues to be a strong supporter of CS for ALL at the state level.
  • Dianne O’Grady Cuniff has been one of the most influential behind-the-scenes players. As the Director of the Maryland Center for Computing Education, she has probably done more than anyone else to connect the dots on the ground by building and managing relationships all over the state.
  • It certainly doesn’t hurt that Maryland has a ringer going to the mat for CS education: Pat Yongpradit, the Chief Academic Officer of code.org is from Maryland and has been both a classroom teacher and one of the nation’s leading advocates for CS education.

And of course, we cannot ignore the hundreds of teachers providing the daily instruction and inspiration at the core of all computing education. Especially in a small state like Maryland, even a dozen superb teachers can impact a high percentage of students. (Want to dive deeper into the importance of teachers? Click here.)

Policies

The right policies make a massive difference. And how does policy change happen? With people and money. Maryland is one of only five states that have achieved what code.org has identified as the nine policies necessary to make CS education fundamental.

Maryland requires students to take one “Computer Science, Engineering, or Technology Education credit,” which most students use a CS class to fill. And as a result, 89% of Maryland high schools offer computer science, the highest rate in the nation. 96.5% of Maryland high school students attend high schools that offer computer science. It is also the only state in the nation that requires middle schools to provide “computational learning” opportunities.

Local decision makers are the ones who actually put laws into practice, and in Maryland, there are only 25 school districts. Why does that matter? It means that there are only 25 chief executives that have to align on a vision about computer science. This is when the “people” part of the equation becomes important. CS education advocates — or even a single, dogged person — could have a relationship with every school system in the state. Maryland’s size makes this a lot easier; as Dianne O’Grady Cuniff said, “You can get all the way across the state and back in a day!” (Compare this with California, which is 16 times bigger than Maryland and has over 2,000 school districts.)

Why does this matter?

Simply put: it strengthens the pathway to a degree. Computing degrees unlock computing careers, and computing careers bring more jobs and higher wages. K-12 computer science exposure goes a LONG way in inspiring interest in the field, especially when we think about the intersection of race and gender.

Image credit: code.org

We know what you’re thinking: what does this mean for Black, Latina, and Native American women? Does this success go beyond “all students”? True, increasing access to computing in general often does not increase access for Black, Latina, and Native American girls and young women. While Maryland’s results may not be replicable everywhere, the trifecta of money, people, and policy can set the stage for what does improve access for Black, Latina, and Native American women: intentional, specific programs like Code in the Schools, Rise Up, Break Through Tech DC, and others.

And get this: In 2020, more Black women high school students passed the AP CSA exam in Maryland than in any other state. And, that K-12 exposure seems to translate into college degrees: IPEDs data indicate that the state of Maryland alone graduates 16% of all the Black women computing graduates in the nation. For a small state, that’s a huge number. There’s more to learn from our friends in Maryland. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look more deeply at how the state’s people, policies, and funding worked for Black women specifically.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store