The View From Washington State: On the Verge of Making Computer Science A Credit That Counts

In a global economy that’s increasingly driven by technological innovation, computer science skills have become as fundamental as the traditional “three R’s.” But unfortunately, our nation’s schools haven’t been able to keep up with the incredible pace of change. In fact, four decades after computing visionaries like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were teenagers, we still live in a country where you have to be one of the fortunate few to be exposed to this field at an early age.

The state of Washington is typical. Of the 770 public and private high schools in the Evergreen State, only 35 offer the Advanced Placement course in computer science. The scarcity of these courses has an even greater impact on students of color. Of the 542 Washington students who took the AP computer science exam last year, less than 25 were Hispanic, African-American or Native-American.

A state like Washington, whose economic health depends on the technology sector, should be a national leader in computer science education. Instead, given the needs of our economy, our current situation is a serious problem. But promising steps are being taken – both in Olympia and across the state – to help increase the availability of this foundational skill for all high school students.

One step in the right direction would be to make computer science count toward a high school graduation requirement in math or science. Only nine states do that today, and Washington isn’t one of them. When it comes to graduation requirements in our state, computer science is considered an elective on par with woodworking – hardly the way a skill that has become foundational in our culture should be addressed in our schools.

But thanks to strong leadership from lawmakers in Olympia, Rep. Drew Hansen, Rep. Cyrus Habib, Rep. Chad Magendanz and Rep. Roger Freeman, this might be about to change. They sponsored legislation HB 1472 that would increase access to computer science by requiring that high school and district boards approve AP computer science courses as fulfilling a high school math or science requirement for graduation purposes. It would also take other steps to increase offerings of computer science classes in state high schools, including creating a grant program to increase the number of courses instructed by computer science professionals.

The bill passed the House of Representatives last month, and just two days ago, a slightly revised version of the bill passed in the Senate. Thanks to Sen. Steve Litzow and Sen. Rodney Tom for recognizing the value of this House bill and supporting it through the Senate. We aren’t quite there yet as a both chambers will now need to agree upon and support a reconciled version of the House and the Senate bills. If you agree that Washington should take steps to make rigorous computer science classes available to its high school students, let your lawmakers know by signing the Stand for Children petition in support of HB 1472.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and its employees are actively engaged in helping schools offer computer science instruction to their students. TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) is a Microsoft YouthSpark program that brings technology professionals and curriculum to high school classrooms. TEALS volunteers serve as part-time teachers in a team teaching model. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which classroom teachers help our volunteers hone their instructional abilities, and our volunteers provide state-of-the-art content knowledge and help build the classroom teacher’s capacity to teach computer science.

This school year, some 110 TEALS volunteers – mostly from Microsoft, but with about 20 percent coming from other technology companies – are working with teachers in 37 high schools to teach computer science to more than 2,000 students. The program operates primarily in Puget Sound-area schools, but now extends from coast to coast, with participating schools in California, Utah, Minnesota, Washington, D.C., Virginia, North Dakota and Kentucky.

One important element of the program, given the demographics of the technology industry, is that nearly a quarter of all TEALS volunteers are women or underrepresented minorities. For students, engaging with industry professionals who look like them in the classroom provides real-world inspiration to many who traditionally have not pursued technology careers.

Student demand for these classes almost always outstrips expectations. The experience at Mount Si High School, in the community of North Bend, east of Seattle, was typical. School administrators thought that about a dozen students would sign up for AP computer science and around 18 would enroll in our introductory class. Instead, 29 students signed up for the AP section and we had two Intro classes with 34 students apiece.

Microsoft will continue to support the TEALS program and its goal of becoming truly nationwide, leveraging the passion and skills of high-tech professionals to help bring computer science to more students. Eventually, more in-service teachers will be able to teach multiple sections of CS classes on their own, building a more sustainable computer science program at their high school.

It’s another small, but growing, step in addressing a major problem facing our public schools, our industry, and our nation: the lack of computer science education opportunities at the high school level.

Editor’s Note: We have an update on this story. On April 22, the Washington State Legislature passed legislation that will make Computer Science count as a math or science graduation requirement. The bill now moves to Gov. Jay Inslee to officially sign into law.  

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