by Julia Steiny
“Education will only prepare people for life in a democracy when education itself is also democratic.”
– John Dewey, in 1916, Democracy and Education.
“I think minorities are… are scared, you know, to jump into the (computer-science) future because what it looks like is only Caucasians should be in that industry.”
– Nia, an African-American student in a Los Angeles high school.
During the late 1990′s, Dr. Jane Margolis, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, studied why so few women were entering computer science and related fields. Using a feminist perspective, she unearthed disincentives for women to get under the hood of a computer. She published her results in the 1999 book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women and Computing.
But in the course of her studies, the equally remarkable absence of certain minorities did not escape her notice.
Actually, to this day, students taking computer science are overwhelmingly White and Asian males. Hmmmm.
In 2000, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was also worried about why Latino and African-American students were so miserably represented in computer science classes.
More generally, the NSF was super-concerned about students fleeing the field as a result of the dot.com bust. Too few students were in the pipeline before the bust. They knew that the “tech crash” meant only a temporary decline in the ability of skate-boarding coders to become overnight gagillionaires. Venture capital went dry, but the need for computer scientists was still ballooning.
So the NSF funded Margolis’ new project: “Out of the Loop: Why are so Few Underrepresented High School Students Learning Computer Science?”
She assembled a team of social scientists based in Los Angeles. They spent three years studying three big, overcrowded, public high schools, following and interviewing 185 students in total, with the blessing and cooperation of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD).
One school was predominantly low-income Latino, and another low-income Black. The third was also predominantly low-income and minority, but in a swanky neighborhood full of Tinseltown mansions. Poor kids were bused in from elsewhere.
Studying participation in K-12 computer science (CS) is totally easy because there’s only one course: Advanced Placement Computer Science (APCS). Yes, rare schools have created a CS curricula of their own, but they’re all one-offs, not replicated, not nationally recognized. The APCS course is offered towards the end of high school, to the sort of smarties who take AP, college-level classes. Only hot-shot juniors and seniors have a prayer of learning a byte of computer science before college.
One of the three L.A. schools had an APCS program with anemic enrollment. Another had none. The third — guess which? — had a robust APCS program, mainly filled with students who did live in the mansions but who, for whatever reason, weren’t going to private schools.
The problem wasn’t a lack of computer equipment. Nationally, the quantity and quality of computers in low-income public schools has vastly improved. But better equipment does not teach computational skills, nor can it raise low expectations. Mostly it serves computer “literacy,” helping kids practice word-processing, PowerPoint and spreadsheets.
Computer “science” is the ability to tell a computer what you want it to do and how to do it, in computer language.
Computing is the key to opportunity in the 21st century. Certain students are sailing into that future — those that Nia the high school student mentioned. The others are becoming what math Professor Robert Moses calls the “designated serfs of the information age.”
We have yet another ugly racial divide.
Margolis’ team documented a chasm of inequality. So they formed a new group, the Computer Science Equity Alliance (CSEA), whose mission was to increase minority participation in APCS in the L.A. schools.
For three years, they ran summer institutes for teachers, collected an army of tutors to prep kids for APCS, and conducted Saturday academies. They got terrific results — quadrupling the number of Latinos and doubling the number of Blacks taking APCS. By 2007, 8 percent of all California females who took the APCS exam came from L.A, thanks to them.
In 2008, they captured the story of this gargantuan effort in Stuck in the Shallow End — Education, Race and Computing.
But they realized that APCS, coming at the end of high school, is way too late to nudge more kids into computer science. Fortunately, after years of working directly with students, CSEA had picked up tons of tricks to intrigue and engage novices in the fun of computational thinking. So they shifted their attention to assembling these newfound techniques into a 9th-grade course that would introduce and acclimate students to the subject. A 9th-grade introductory course would at least prepared students to take APCS later on, if they want. And computer science burnishes any college application, giving these kids a leg up.
And not a moment too soon. We don’t need more workplace ghettos for people with brown skin and stunted educations.
So next week we’ll talk to a co-author of the 2010 final product of CSEA’s efforts, the Exploring Computer Science course.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.