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 last 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.
To help solve the computer science teacher shortage, Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 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.
“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.
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.
Becoming a computer science teacher can be a long and expensive process, but San Francisco State University has found a way to make the pathway more enticing. Using grant money from the National Science Foundation, the university is offering online courses for teachers who want to gain the extra 20 units in computer science, enabling them to teach at the high school level.
Since it launched the program in 2018, San Francisco State has trained more than 150 computer science teachers and is helping other universities start similar programs. Every year, it’s flooded with applications from throughout California, said Hao Yue, assistant chair of the computer science department at San Francisco State and a leader of the computer science education program.
Two years ago, Newsom allotted $15 million in the state budget to help teachers of other subjects obtain their 20 extra units of computer science. The state Department of Education has also made $20 million available to train teachers, counselors and administrators in computer science.
UC Berkeley also runs a free program to help teachers qualify to teach computer science. Funded in part through a grant from Google, the program gives teachers the credits they need to teach computer science, as well as guidance on how to make computer science more accessible to students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students.