Five years ago, Rhode Island committed to putting a computer science class in every public school. Today administrators are confident the program has made headway, but there’s still work to do.
As the nation’s workforce continues going digital, education officials across the country are looking to prepare students for the IT careers of tomorrow and a growing demand for computer science majors leaving colleges and universities.
Enter the Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) initiative, launched in 2016 by former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to establish computer science courses in schools throughout the state. In her last State of the State address before being confirmed Tuesday as President Joe Biden's commerce secretary, Raimondo said the initiative made Rhode Island the first state in the U.S. to teach the subject in every public school.
Technically, the program, now in its fifth year, provides computer science courses in all the state's comprehensive public schools — meaning, not charter schools — and 86 percent of its high schools altogether, including 60 public and charter districts. A majority of them have more than one computer science course.
Spencer Sherman, chief for innovation of the Rhode Island Department of Education, said the program was launched to give the employees of tomorrow a head start in computer science and coding.
“I think what’s really cool about the way we structured it is we’re doing the entire K-12 pipeline,” he said. “We have elementary school classes, middle school classes, high school classes and connections with colleges and employers who are all part of this pipeline.”
Sherman said the program largely centers on training computer science instructors, leveraging partnerships with institutions such as Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program. The state allocated $210,000 in annual funds for professional development, and over 1,000 educators have been trained since the initiative began five years ago.
“The way to actually make this system work and improve this system is to make sure all of the pieces are connected, and that’s what we’ve done,” Sherman said.
CS4RI also recently awarded grants to 20 state high schools to establish computer science career courses that will involve work-based learning, or integrating the curriculum with workplace experience, to study how that impacts Advanced Placement exam scores. This aspect of the program, funded through a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, gave $20,000 to each participating school to establish computer science labs, free teacher training and three free student courses totaling 12 college credits. Ten of those 20 schools are now implementing new computer science courses this semester, which will include an 80-hour work-based learning requirement.
According to a report last fall from the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance, only 47 percent of schools in the U.S. teach computer science. Racial disparities in participation and access still exist across the board, with Rhode Island still working to close those gaps.
The report noted that Hispanic/Latinx and Native American students were 1.6 times less likely than their white and Asian peers to attend a school that offers AP computer science courses. Black students were 1.3 times less likely than their white and Asian peers to attend a school that offers those courses, and 1.4 times less likely to take an AP computer science exam in schools that offer it.
CSTA Executive Director Jake Baskin said states like Rhode Island, as well as Arkansas and others embracing similar computer science initiatives in public schools, are working to reverse these trends.
“We’re seeing the impact of policies that made it a requirement for schools to offer computer science and combined that with real funding to support the development of teachers on the ground so they can actually teach those courses," he said. “Computer science is the fastest-growing and most in-demand job area, and I think it is just an essential foundational skill for every student to learn, to be able to understand the world that they’re living in ... It’s generally the No. 1 open field for positions in every state across the country at any given time.”
Sherman said CS4RI wants to increase enrollment among underrepresented students, from groups largely left out of the tech workforce. Out of 300 total 10th and 11th graders in the first of three courses in the work-based program, 35 percent are female, 60 percent are students of color and 62 percent are considered low-income. AP participation has also risen among female students, according to the state.
“That’s been a huge focus of the work,” he said. “A huge part of this work has been focusing on women in computer science and people of color in computer science, because they have been historically underrepresented.”
Nearly 3,000 students across the state have earned credit from the University of Rhode Island through enrollment courses since CS4RI began in 2016. AP computer science exam participation increased from 43 students in 2016 to nearly 740 in 2020. The state also noted a 55 percent increase in computer science post-secondary degrees at public higher education institutions since the beginning of the program, with 195 degrees awarded in 2020.
“As the economy is changing, our education system is changing ahead of time to make sure kids are prepared when they leave the system,” Sherman said.
Baskin said states like Rhode Island could serve as a model for others looking to bolster career IT development. States like Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and a handful of others allow computer science to count toward core admission requirements in colleges and universities, but the vast majority of K-12 schools don’t offer computer science courses to begin with.
“We still have a majority of high schools across the country that don’t offer even a single computer science class,” Baskin said.
Digital equity remains a challenge for courses like those offered in Rhode Island. In order for programs such as CS4R1 to continue building IT skills, Sherman said students need access to the tech itself, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic that necessitated remote and hybrid learning.
According to statistics from the consumer advocacy group BroadbandNow, 98.5 percent of Rhode Islanders have broadband connections with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster. About 10,000 residents are still without any wired Internet providers where they live, while nearly 40,000 have limited Internet reliability or connection speeds slower than 25 Mbps.
Sherman said the state has worked to provide every student with an Internet device through its 1:1 program, similar to states like Connecticut, which utilized CARES Act funding for student devices and hot spots. In recent years, Sherman said Rhode Island has used a combination of state, federal and private funding mechanisms to close the digital divide and make CS4RI courses accessible during school closures.
“There’s an acceleration of the work that we were already planning on doing, and I think the good part about Rhode Island is, we are ready for that shift as it comes,” he said. “I think we knew computer science is going to be an essential part of the modern economy, and I think COVID pushed it up even further.
“That’s not to say we [completely] closed the equity gaps,” he added. “Those issues are deep, but I think we were a little ahead of the curve when [the pandemic] started up.”
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