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Chicago Public Schools Take Major Step Into Computer-Science Studies

By guest blogger Danielle Wilson

The Chicago school system plans to boost computer science from an elective to a core subject with a new, districtwide K-12 program, in what is being described as one of the most ambitious expansions of the teaching of that subject in the nation.

The five-year "Computer Science for All" plan will make a computer science course available to students as early as kindergarten, establish one course on that topic at every district high school, and eventually, make the class an option to fulfill graduation requirements. This move is an effort by the 400,000-student district, the nation's third-largest, to provide access to computer science at an earlier age and bridge the digital divide between wealthy and low-income students and close the gender gap in science- and math-focused studies.

A pilot will begin next school year with 25 elementary schools incorporating computer science in math and science lessons and 21 high schools offering an entry-level computer-science class, titled "Exploring Computer Science." The effort is a result of partnerships with Google, Code.org and other technology leaders. The companies will provide free curricula, assistance with professional development and teacher stipends, according to Code.org's website.   

"Teaching our kids the foundational skills of computer science and coding will not only open up the door to success in virtually any job industry, but will position them as the next generation of innovators that will move our city forward," said Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, in announcing the computer science expansion. 

In a statement the district said the program will be the "most comprehensive computer-science education program of any major school district in the country."

Supporters of the effort in the Chicago district, which has 658 schools, believe teaching students technology skills aligns with the broader goal to expand the skills of the city's workforce and increase job opportunities. One-fourth of Chicago's jobs are in STEM-focused fields, and the city is ranked sixth in the nation for the highest number of available science, technology, engineering, and math, or "STEM"-related jobs, according to a 2013 Forbes article

The computer science curriculum will align with the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core Standards in elementary schools, according to the district. Students will also have access to coding and computer-science classes year-round through hundreds of partner sites and organizations in the city.

Advocates supporting Chicago's effort include the Computer Science Teachers Association, a New York-based organization with 16,000 members in 122 countries. CSTA supports the teaching of computer science and computing skills in K-12 schools; they offer mentoring and peer-networking in their regional chapters throughout the country. 

"We are going to see an explosion of these types of projects, coming from lots of different directions and we will see a significant increase in computer science courses and curriculums," predicted Chris Stephenson, executive director of the CSTA, in an interview with Education Week. She believes the scale of the CSA plan will inspire other school districts to seek resources to adopt similar models, and that other districts, as well as states, will feel pressured to catch up to the Chicago plan.

Chicago's schools are just the latest to join a movement to expand STEM education availability to target students that traditionally lack access. Los Angeles' Unified School District began offering a class titled "Exploring Computer Science," in 2009 after a joint research project between the school district and the University of California Los Angeles. The research revealed that blacks, Latinos and females were learning computer science in high school at a much lower rate than their white, male peers, according to a 2010 article from the UCLA Daily Bruin publication. 

Plans for large-scale expansions of the teaching of computer science has created concern in some quarters about the quality of these courses and if they will be implemented effectively across entire school districts. (See this Education Week article about challenges teachers in a Philadelphia school face in trying to use innovative classroom strategies and curriculum in STEM-related subjects.) 

"Some schools are using Photoshop as a computer-science class and that's not computer science," said Mark Guzdial, a professor with the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Interactive Computing, in an interview with Education Week.

Guzdial has conducted research on the teaching of computer-science education in K-12 schools. He said that rushing to implement a computer-science curriculum without offering training for teachers and providing appropriate equipment and software creates problems. Students may never obtain knowledge of coding and other skills traditionally associated with computer-science programs.

In addition, he also pointed out that not much research has been done on how to best provide computer-science instruction for students with learning or development disabilities. States or districts that make computer-science courses graduation requirements or core subjects will have to address that concern, he said.

"I really do believe every student should have access to computer-science education, "said Guzdial. But a course in that subject has "to be implemented with the right time, effort, and research behind it," he said. 

Guzdial believes Chicago Public Schools' five-year plan is ideal. District officials have been doing research and work on this curriculum for years and the gradual rollout accommodates assessment and gradual changes needed over time, he said.

This program will ramp up Chicago's existing STEM education efforts. The district has offered computer-science courses for the past four years through an academic pathway focused on career- and technical-education, information technology programming, and through its early-college STEM schools. Those schools allow high school students to earn graduation credits while working on gaining technology- related certifications, college credit, and associate's degrees. 

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