Voices in Education

Can Increasing Access to Computer Science Education Remedy Inequities in Tech?
The failures of technology such as racial bias in health algorithms fuel an increasing animosity towards technology companies described as “techlash.” Part of the problem, many say, is a lack of racial, socioeconomic, gender, and other types of diversity and inclusion among tech companies, as well as a need for greater digital literacy among the general public to develop “active citizens in our technology-driven world.”

One solution adopted by some of the largest US school districts is the expansion of computer science education through Computer Science for All (CSforALL). In one of the most ambitious adoptions, the Chicago Public Schools added a new graduation requirement where all high school students must pass at least one full-year computer science (CS) course beginning with this year’s graduating class of 2020.

But is this approach equitable?

In my recent article, “CS4Some? Differences in Technology Learning Readiness,in the Harvard Education Review, I investigate this question by looking at how prepared students are for the new requirement—and how much families versus schools currently contribute to their preparation. Given that only 91 of the district’s 422 elementary schools offered CS in 2016, and many Chicago neighborhoods are “computer science deserts” with few to no CS learning opportunities, it is likely that preparation for high school CS would fall on the shoulders of students and their families. In other words, this effort to remedy inequities in tech would itself be inequitable.

In the article, I present a measure of technology learning readiness—the first of its kind—and show that, indeed, many students appear inadequately prepared for the new requirement. I also show readiness is largely shaped by technology learning experiences at home rather than at school, confirming schools do not sufficiently prepare all students. Thus, although laudable in its overall goals, Chicago’s CS4All initiative has the potential to exacerbate existing inequities, create negative experiences in CS, and add new barriers to high school graduation.

My findings suggest that in order to make CS4All initiatives across the country more equitable, greater student preparation is necessary. In Chicago, efforts in elementary schools and in neighborhood CS deserts should be further amplified. But what should happen in the immediate future for the graduating class of 2020? In the longer term, how can districts adopting CS4All take a more equitable approach? Finally, can increasing access to CS education alone remedy inequities in tech without changing the structure and culture of the field?

About the Author: Cassidy Puckett (https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1907-9033) is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Emory University. Using a mixed-methods approach, she examines the relationship between technological change and inequality in education, occupations, and health care. Her work has appeared in the Teachers College Record, Qualitative Sociology, and Sociological Focus. Her research has received support from the U.S. Department of Education, National Science Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Before earning her doctorate at Northwestern University, Puckett taught technology classes for six years at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland, California.