Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Chicago Public Schools Expands Access to Computer Science

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

It’s difficult to imagine life without computers and technology in general - some days my eyes hurt from staring at screens too much. But computer science is much more in-depth than the basic Internet navigation and word processing skills many of us use in our professional lives. Coding, for example, is an important skill for students to master as we move towards the middle of this century in our electronic age, and can develop habits of mind that students can put to use in future STEM professions. Students who learn to code at a young age establish a strong foundation for more advanced classes in high school, better enabling them to pursue degrees in engineering and other technical professions in their post-secondary education.

Computer science is frequently offered as an elective in schools and districts across the country, but the US has a projected one million computing jobs that will be unfilled by 2020. That’s why Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced last month that computer science will be considered core curriculum in all public high schools and will be offered at all elementary schools. Within five years, the district intends to be the first urban district to offer K-8 computer courses. This forward-thinking initiative requires a significant commitment of resources. The district has established a partnership with code.org to provide the new computer curriculum and professional development for staff at no cost. CPS will be a district to watch over the coming years as they phase in this work and elevate the stature of computer science courses.

CPS will have challenges to overcome. As the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rightfully points out, there is a significant resource problem. And, many questions remain unanswered. Will there be a pilot program? How will the district adjust the budget? How will they build the capacity of educators to implement? The decisions made will provide a better understanding of what it takes to bring more advanced computing opportunities to more children. The lessons in implementation promise to be informative and the process will be as important as the result in its instructiveness for other urban districts.  

From an opportunity perspective, there’s one additional narrative to this effort; it’s a social justice frame articulated by the civil rights activist, environmental advocate and former Presidential advisor, Van Jones. Jones recently launched an initiative through his organization Rebuild the Dream called #yeswecode with the goal of teaching 100,000 low-opportunity youth to code. It was developed in response to the shooting of Trevyon Martin, to answer the question of, where are all the young black Mark Zuckerbergs? Why, when we see a black youth in a hoodie, do we often think of the word ‘thug’? There is a need for more young people of color in STEM fields and for them to have access to skills that will help them succeed and lead.

While Van Jones is working to expand access to coding in the nonprofit model, the school environment also offers an opportunity for more young people to become leaders in the technology, programming and engineering world, to be prepared to tackle the unknowns in the future. Offering access to key skills that are highly valued in the business world may foster upward mobility for youth that otherwise frequently struggle to transition to a career path. Preparing students for the 21st century requires thinking ahead to what the demands of the future might be. CPS is to be congratulated for this initiative and as they move to scale, the next five years will be instructive for us all.

Image by Almonroth (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons