A shortage of teachers for computer science classes puts California near the bottom of a national instruction ranking

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Five years ago, California embarked on an ambitious plan to bring computer science to all K-12 students, bolstering the state economy and opening doors to promising careers — especially for low-income students and students of color.

But a lack of qualified teachers has stalled these efforts, and left California — a global hub for the technological industry — ranked near the bottom of states nationally in the percentage of high schools offering computer science classes.

“I truly believe that California’s future is dependent on preparing students for the tech-driven global economy. You see where the world is going, and it’s urgent that we make this happen,” said Allison Scott, chief executive officer of the Kapor Foundation, an Oakland-based organization that advocates for equity in the technology sector.

Scott was among those at a conference in Oakland this week aimed at expanding computer science education nationally. While some states — such as Arkansas, Maryland and South Carolina — are well on their way to offering computer science to all students, California lags far behind. According to a 2022 report by Code.org, only 40% of California high schools offer computer science classes, well below the national average of 53%.

California’s low-income students, rural students and students of color were significantly less likely to have access to computer science classes, putting them at a disadvantage in the job market, according to a 2021 report by the Kapor Center and Computer Science for California.

Slow signs of progress

The state has made some progress in the past few years, since adopting its sweeping Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan and curriculum standards in 2018. More students are taking and passing the Advanced Placement computer science exams, and schools are gradually adding computer science curriculum either as a stand-alone class or integrated into math, science or other courses. The University of California now accepts computer science as satisfying a third or fourth year of math or science, instead of just as an elective. And some districts, such as Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified, have greatly expanded their computer science offerings, thanks in part to a grant from the Salesforce Foundation.

To help solve the computer science teacher shortage, Gov. Gavin Newsom this month signed Assembly Bill 1251, which creates a commission that will look at ways to streamline the process to become a computer science teacher. The current process is so arduous, some say, it’s keeping high-quality teachers from the classroom, especially in rural and low-income areas.

“I truly believe that California’s future is dependent on preparing students for the tech-driven global economy. You see where the world is going, and it’s urgent that we make this happen.”

Allison Scott, chief executive officer of the Kapor Foundation

Currently, there are three ways to teach computer science in California. One is to earn a career and technical education credential, which requires work experience but no post-graduate coursework. Another is to hold a math, business or industrial technology credential. The third is to obtain a credential in any subject and then add an extra 20 units of computer science. Because of confusion over requirements, funding and curriculum, schools have a hard time finding the right teachers to teach specific classes.

“The goal is to ensure we have well-prepared computer science teachers for all students, so they can engage in the world around them. We’re making progress, but we have a ways to go,” said Julie Flapan, director of the Computer Science Equity Project at UCLA.  The new law should help eliminate that confusion, possibly leading to the creation of a computer science credential.

Camie Belgrave, the senior director of programs and partnerships at CSforALL, speaks to the hundreds of people gathered at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center on Oct. 26, 2023, for the CSforALL Summit. She explained the importance of commitments to computer science education and noted that, according to the CSforALL commitment map, California has the most commitment makers of any U.S. state. Photo by Emily Steinberger for CalMatters
Camie Belgrave, the senior director of programs and partnerships at CSforALL, speaks to the hundreds of people gathered at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center on Oct. 26, 2023, for the CSforALL Summit. She explained the importance of commitments to computer science education and noted that, according to the CSforALL commitment map, California has the most commitment makers of any U.S. state. Photo by Emily Steinberger for CalMatters

Due in part to the lack of teachers, a bill that would have required all California high schools to offer computer science stalled in the Senate this year. It’s also a reason California is among the states that doesn’t require computer science to graduate, although State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said Wednesday that he might propose such legislation next year.

A lack of teachers isn’t the only roadblock to expanding computer science. School administrators and counselors also must prioritize the subject, Flapan said, making sure it’s offered and that students in underrepresented groups understand the benefits and have access to classes.

Computer science has evolved to include more than basic coding. A good class now includes lessons on artificial intelligence, media literacy, data science, ethics and biased algorithms, so “students know how to think critically to solve problems using technology,” Flapan said.

Easier paths to teach computer science

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