California Schools Magazine — Summer 2017
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Connecting To The Future
Corrie Jacobs

The digital divide and computer science instruction in California

Recent projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics specify that there will be as many as 1.4 million computer science job openings by 2020, yet the American educational system will only produce around 400,000 qualified candidates to fill those vacancies. In the rapidly changing 21st century, access to digital technology and computer science coursework is increasingly becoming a vital part of every student’s education. While recent legislation is starting to move California students toward a more connected and creative digital future, from infrastructure to instruction, there are many actions schools still need to take to ensure that students are developing the skills to be college and career ready.

CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Through E-rate, the federal discount program for school telecommunications and internet access, and partnerships with local businesses, the majority of California’s schools have made strong progress providing technology to the state’s 6.2 million public school students. However, some schools require crucial system updates.

The Public Policy Institute of California reported in 2016 that one-third of California schools fail to provide adequate access to the internet. Today, 95 percent of California schools have fiber-optic internet connections, the most adaptable type of infrastructure that experts recommend, yet this 95 percent is not enough. “Data deserts” exist in both urban and rural parts of the state, causing what is known as the “digital divide” between students connected to the digital world and the students who are lagging behind.

“School districts and county offices have to look at their ongoing sustainability plans for infrastructure,” said Brian Ausland, vice president and director of education for Navigation North, an educational technology company.

Schools have become more connected over the years, but this growth does not always happen fast enough to keep up with the demands of continuously evolving technology. Nearly 17 percent of school districts still need greater bandwidth in their schools to meet the minimum connectivity goal set by the national nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, and bandwidth needs are projected to increase at least 50 percent each year for schools that integrate digital lessons into the classroom. Only 45 percent of California’s middle and high schools meet the baseline standard of a 2:1 student-todevice ratio.

“This is so critical to what we do in education because we cannot continue to push the borders with digital curriculum, with individualized learning assignments or with interactive school without access to connectivity,” explained Micah Studer, coordinator of educational and informational technology for Winters Joint Unified School District.

While there is room for improvement at the school site level, bigger problems arise after the last bell.

THE HOMEWORK GAP

National research has found that at least seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires an internet connection to complete. According to a 2016 study by the California Emerging Technology Fund, 13 percent of California households lack any type of internet access at home. In households that do have an internet connection, only 70 percent use a computing device with a high-speed broadband connection, leaving almost 12 million people statewide without reliable internet access.

“Access is a huge obstacle to overcome. There are communities like Winters where it’s not just money that’s the issue,” said Studer. As many as 53 percent of rural Californians lack a reliable high-speed internet connection, not just because of affordability, but due to a lack of infrastructure.

Without a reliable internet connection, students can fall behind in today’s technologydriven world. This digital divide students face due to lack of access in their homes is commonly referred to as the “homework gap.” The homework gap is an equity issue that is only expected to worsen as technology becomes more integral to every aspect of a student’s experience both inside and outside of the classroom.

“There are some students who have to travel across streets, across intersections or across town to go to a library or public internet access location to do their homework,” added Studer. “Meanwhile, other students get to comfortably sit in their bed, or in a chair or at the dining table and engage with the World Wide Web at their leisure.”

Only 48 percent of households with an income under 138 percent of the federal poverty level possess a computing device with internet access, compared to 80 percent of households earning more than that threshold. Further, whereas 83 percent of white households connect to the internet using a computing device, just 56 percent of Latino households and 66 percent of African- American households own the same hardware and have the same access. Disabled heads of households also report a lower rate of digital access compared to their able-bodied counterparts. Considering that 84 percent of homes with youth under age 18 use the internet to assist children with schoolwork, these numbers are alarming obstructions on the road to ensuring an equitable education for all students.

A recent update to the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program and the Internet for All Now Act, Assembly Bill 1665, (co-authored by 23 Republican and Democrat Assembly members) that is currently making its way through the California legislature, are hopeful signs of an increase in broadband connections for low-income households, yet students cannot afford to wait for change at the federal and state level. Local leadership must implement solutions now.

“Compton Unified School District has worked within this vein, and not only have we upgraded all of our wireless access points throughout the district,” said Compton Unified School District Vice President Micah Ali, “We’ve partnered with the Verizon Digital Promise program in order to put iPads in the hands of our students so that they will be able to take them home, be able to benefit from the virtual environment and increase their footprint within the digital world.”

High-speed internet prepares students for the digital future; however, access is only one piece of the puzzle. In order to become the creators of the future, students also need quality computer science instruction.

COMPUTER SCIENCE AND EQUITY IN THE CLASSROOM

Nearly a quarter of California high schools offer computer science courses — a statistic that sits far below the goals of education advocates. According to reporting from the Sacramento Bee last year, more California high school students enroll in ceramics classes than they do computer science classes.

“[Computer science] is just as foundational to learning in the 21st century as learning how the digestive system works, how photosynthesis works or how gravity works,” said Hadi Partovi, founder and CEO of Code.org, a nonprofit working to increase computer science instruction through worldwide events, free K-12 curriculum, educator training and more.

Given the rising importance of computer science to college and career success and current gaps in access, the availability of a quality computer science education needs to be considered an equity issue. The demographic breakdown of last year’s Advanced Placement Computer Science A test-takers provides one example of the current equity gaps in computer science instruction. According to the College Board, just 0.5 percent of California’s 1.9 million high school students took the 2016 AP Computer Science A exam, and only 27 percent of the students taking the exam were female. Less than 1,500 were Latino students, less than 150 were African-American students, and only seven Native American/Alaskan Native students, six of whom were boys, took that same exam.

“We often think of education as being this level playing field, but if kids don’t have exposure to the same types of learning opportunities, then we’re only furthering achievement gaps in school and economic gaps that we see later on,” said Julie Flapan, executive director of the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools, commonly known as ACCESS.

Students who study computer science can look forward to a variety of career opportunities. A study produced by Code.org found that computing jobs are the top source of new wages in the nation. In California, a career in the computing field provides an average salary that is close to double the average salary of the state.

Moreover, advocates stress that a computer science education pays off in all sectors and serves all students regardless of career path. “Computer science is now part of every single industry — whether it’s auto mechanics, agriculture or the entertainment industry, there is now computer science embedded in everything we do,” said Flapan.

As the importance of computational thinking increases in every career field, the absence of computer science instruction in K-12 schools will only deepen equity gaps. “Teaching 21stcentury skills in California’s public schools is the key to a brighter future,” said CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “In order for all of our state’s 6.2 million students to become college and career ready, school board members need to examine how their students access technology and computer science instruction.”

THE CHALLENGES OF OFFERING COMPUTER SCIENCE INSTRUCTION

A national poll conducted by Google and Gallup in 2016 found that 84 percent of parents surveyed considered offering computer science courses in schools to be more important or just as important as the traditional required courses such as science, history, math and English. The same poll found that only 65 percent of administrators felt the same way.

This disparity is one of the issues that generates what Flapan calls the “chicken and egg” problem when it comes to finding qualified computer science teachers. With a lack of open computer science teaching positions, upcoming teachers hesitate to become certified computer science instructors. With a shortage of teachers, administrators hesitate to create these positions. The difference in salary options between private sector technology jobs and teaching positions also makes public education less desirable to job seekers. The average salary for a computer programmer in California is $90,000.

In addition, administrators struggle to incorporate computer science courses into an already-full educational curriculum and incentivize students to add those classes to their schedules.

Advocates are currently working with K-12 schools, the University of California and California State University systems to seamlessly integrate computer science into the standard curriculum and reward students for taking such courses. Extracurricular after-school and summer-immersion programs like Girls Who Code and CoderDojo fill some of the instruction gaps in schools, but these should be supplemental and not primary modes of education.

“Compared to after-school or summer camp alternatives, I think it is important that computer science be part of the curriculum,” explained Partovi. “You would never envision redoing the American public school curriculum and say ‘let’s remove biology from the main class schedule, and let’s stick it into a summer camp for kids who want to learn biology.’ There’s absolutely no reason that in the 21st century, computer science should be treated any differently.”

ACTIONS FOR SCHOOL BOARDS

Over the past few years, legislation has started to pave the way for broader CS instruction in California’s K-12 public schools.

At the federal level, President Obama announced last year a Computer Science for All (known as CS For All or CS4All) initiative to increase instruction in the nation’s K-12 schools, an initiative on which the Trump Administration has not yet taken a public stance. In June 2017, President Trump met with tech leaders to discuss the future of the technology industry but was not responsive to their pleas for increased coding curriculum in schools.

Recent California state laws (AB 2329, Bonilla and AB 1539, Hagman) are pushing for new statewide K-12 computer science standards. By summer 2018, a 23-person advisory panel will present a possible computer science implementation plan to the State Board of Education, a plan that must be adopted before the beginning of 2019.

“The California Department of Education is moving ahead to prepare for the development of the California Computer Science Standards,” said Bill Ainsworth, director of communications for the CDE. “It is important that California, the global leader of high technology, continually improve the teaching of computer science so all of our students can succeed in the 21st-century economy, and some can fill jobs in the technology sector.” Even with the recent legislative push to expand instruction, experts say that today’s students do not have the luxury of waiting for new standards and the time to act is now.

One way for school boards and administrators to get started is to explore opportunities with their Local Control and Accountability Plan and the Local Control Funding Formula to increase professional development for teachers.

Advocates suggest that a gradual increase in computer science instruction is the best way to secure a strong foundation. “Start small in offering introductory-level computer science courses, and then let that interest build. Let the demand build, to be able to add on the more advanced courses after that,” suggested Flapan.

New advances in course offerings are one promising sign of a future enriched by computer science. In 2016, the College Board announced a new AP Computer Science Principles course that steps away from the more specialized coding curriculum of AP Computer Science A and engages students in the process of computational thinking, a skill that transcends academic discipline and career track boundaries.

School boards should look to their communities for support as well. A vast array of nonprofit organizations are ready to assist schools with computer science instruction implementation. For instance, Code.org has already helped millions of students through free professional development for teachers and a large database of open-source K-12 curriculum. As Flapan noted, “there are a lot of willing and able partners out there.”

Closing the equity gap in computer science instruction starts the same way as fixing a broken line of code: figure out what is missing, collect the best resources and get to work.

Corrie Jacobs (cjacobs@csba.org) is a staff writer for California Schools.

Program Spotlight: School2Home

The California Emerging Technology Fund’s School2Home project is a statewide initiative currently working with 31 low-performing middle schools in 12 districts to close the achievement gap and reduce the digital divide. By equipping students and parents with affordable broadband options, low-cost devices and digital literacy lessons, and teachers with educational technology training, School2Home has led to stronger student performance. For more information, visit www.school2home.org.

five steps to close the homework gap

SURVEY THE COMMUNITY — Using a custom survey or the free survey template available in the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Digital Equity Toolkit is the best way to begin creating a tailored approach to increasing student connectivity. Advocates stress that extra measures such as multilingual telephone campaigns and neighborhood visits should be taken to reach less-connected families.

CREATE LOCAL PARTNERSHIPS — One-time funding directly to schools, free Wi-Fi from local businesses and other community partnerships benefit everyone.

GET CREATIVE WITH CURRENT DISTRICT RESOURCES — Delivering digital access to students outside of school hours does not necessarily have to involve starting from scratch. For instance, the Coachella Valley Unified School District has made national headlines with their creative use of school bus Wi-Fi routers. Solar-powered Wi-Fi routers sit atop school buses that are parked in the community overnight, providing free internet access to students.

LOOK INTO MOBILE HOTSPOTS AND AFFORDABLE LTE — These options can help families without access to a broadband connection start to bridge the homework gap.

RAISE AWARENESS ABOUT EXISTING SOLUTIONS — Some areas already offer solutions that can help students stay connected at home. For example, Connect2Compete, a partnership between a national nonprofit and cable companies, offers reduced-price broadband to families with K-12 students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Adapted from the Consortium for School Networking’s Digital Equity Action Agenda Initiative

digital access gaps

A SNAPSHOT OF DIGITAL ACCESS AND COMPUTER SCIENCE INSTRUCTION IN CALIFORNIA

ACCESS TO DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY and the internet in California schools has grown at a rapid pace over the last few years. However, due to issues such as aging or missing infrastructure, some schools still have hurdles to jump in order to close the equity gap and ensure that all of California’s public school students are connected.

1,249,275 STUDENTS — Require more bandwidth at school to meet the industry minimum connectivity goal (100 kbps per student)

83% — School districts that meet the bandwidth minimum connectivity goal (100 kbps per student)

163 — School districts that upgraded their internet access last year

95% — Schools with fiber-optic internet connections

65% — School districts providing sufficient Wi-Fi for students

52% — School districts receiving the best pricing for the best bandwidth speeds

Source: Education SuperHighway, http://stateofthestates.educationsuperhighway. org/?postalCd=CA

Computer science instruction in California’s K-12 schools is a critical component of preparing students for college and career. Advocates warn that if instruction and the diversity of students benefitting from that instruction does not increase, achievement and economic gaps could worsen. The results of the 2016 AP Computer Science A exam highlight some of the disparities that exist between the groups of California students currently receiving computer science instruction in school.

Source: http://access-ca.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/01/KC16017_Report-Final.pdf

District Spotlight: Computer Science for All Initiative

San Francisco Unified School District approved a “CS4All” initiative in 2015, with the eventual goal that every pre-K-5 student receive 15-20 hours of computer science instruction per year, every student in grades 6-8 have close to 45 hours of instruction per year and every high school student have the chance to choose elective computer science courses. Recent evaluations of the program have found that while implementation has not been a simple task, the large majority of students participating in the initiative feel engaged and excited about the course material. For more information, visit www.csinsf.org.

RESOURCES:

The Consortium for School Networking’s Digital Equity Action Agenda: www.cosn.org/digital-equity

Future Ready Schools, an effort that supports districts implementing digital learning: www.futureready.org/

Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools: www.access-ca.org

Khan Academy: www.khanacademy.org

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