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Is the Trump Administration’s Computer Science Announcement Good for America?

Earlier this week, First Daughter Ivanka Trump announced that the President will direct the Department of Education to invest $200 million of grant funding annually to expand access to STEM and computer science education in public schools. Tech companies followed immediately with an additional $300 million pledge to do the same. As an advocate for STEM and CS education, I’m thrilled that there is a commitment coming from the highest levels of the federal government. But given this administration’s track record on race, poverty, education, and human rights, the announcement should be viewed with skepticism.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of computer science education, both to building a future workforce and to providing economic opportunities for all. Technology is a massive driver of the U.S. economy and computing knowledge is becoming foundational knowledge needed across occupations and sectors. When groups of students are shut out of pathways to the fastest growing, wealth-generating occupations, it becomes a civil rights issue and an equity issue. So clearly, increasing access to CS courses in public schools is an important first step. But if we are committed to training the diverse future STEM and computing workforce that is critical to our economy, we’ve got to take a holistic approach.

First, the good news:

  • The White House is on the record acknowledging that lack of access to STEM and CS education is real. This is good — and somewhat surprising. There is indeed a gaping lack of access to STEM and CS courses in public schools, a lack of trained STEM/CS teachers, and severe underrepresentation by race and gender in access and participation in STEM and CS in K-12 education and beyond.
  • The fact that STEM and CS education is now a priority for the Department of Education and that there are public dollars invested in computing education is also good news. While the proposed level of investment is a far cry from the $4 billion investment that the Obama White House sought (that effort was blocked by a resistant Congress), and undoubtedly not substantial enough to transform inequities in access, it is nonetheless an important initial investment.

The publicly available details of the initiative remain murky. But here is the $200 Million dollar question: Will this investment actually benefit underrepresented students of color? To get to the bottom of that — and before applauding this announcement — we should be asking several critical questions:

Where will the money come from?

This White House memo isn’t creating a new source of funding; it reallocates funds from the existing budget. We need to understand whether existing grant programs will be cut in order to fund this initiative — specifically if it will affect existing grant programs that provide resources to Title I school districts, improve teacher preparation to narrow gaps in access to quality teaching, or address achievement gaps facing students of color.

How will underrepresentation be addressed?

In her teleconference, Ms. Trump signaled that gender would be prioritized under this initiative, but did not give even passing mention to racial disparities, leaving us to assume that she was only talking about white women:

I’ve been working closely with the Department of Education, Department of Labor, business leaders, educators, non-profit, and governors since the beginning of the administration with the goal of increasing access to high-quality STEM and computer science education in our schools and inspiring participation in STEM fields, especially in underrepresented populations. To give you one example, the female share of the computer science workforce has declined over time from 35.3 percent in 1990 to 22.2 percent in 2016, even though women represent 47 percent of the overall U.S. labor force.

Sure, this was just “one example,” but it was the only one offered. Here are some important and relevant stats:

  • Over 40% of K-12 students in the United States are Black or Latinx, but combined, they take just 15% of all AP CS exams.
  • Of the Black and Latinx students who earn degrees in CS, over 70% are male.
  • High-income public schools are 12x more likely to offer AP CS A than low-income schools.

History shows that too often diversity efforts focus almost exclusively on gender, promising women and men of color that we’ll get to them later — but we never do.

Will education experts have a say?

The specifics of the program have yet to be concretized. That’s fine and understandable. Department of Education grant projects are normally subject to a public comment period, allowing for crucial input from experts and stakeholders, but we’re talking about the Trump White House here; it’s unclear if past norms will guide this administration’s processes.

What do the private sector investments entail?

Three hundred million dollars is a significant investment. But we need to know what the K-12 computer science education strategy is and what activities will be prioritized. It’s unclear how much of this funding will be in the form of new investments or grants, as opposed to simply quantifying existing grants to school districts, software donations, volunteer staff-hours, and technical support. Beyond the investment in K-12 education, the tech industry must also address its own culture. Until biases and disparities in recruitment, hiring, promotion, leadership, and pay are addressed, no amount of investment in the pipeline will make the tech workforce less male and White. And without clear pathways into tech jobs, the rest of the workforce will continue to lose out on economic opportunities and wealth creation, simply based on the color of their skin, their gender, or their zip code.

Beyond Access

Achieving access for every student, regardless of gender, race, income, school, or zip code, is an important first step in expanding opportunities in STEM and computing education. To achieve this though, we’ve got to pay close attention to closing the racial and socioeconomic gaps in course availability, and focusing on the schools, teachers, and students with the greatest need.

Yet, simply making courses “available” to all students is actually only the first step — students must also have the opportunity to benefit from these courses. This means that initiatives must specifically aim to increase enrollment of underrepresented groups in the courses, provide adequate introductory preparation to ensure students’ success in the courses, and provide the courses and curriculum that would allow students to persist into rigorous classes — including Advanced Placement courses — that lead to success in higher education and in the workforce.

For more than 14 years, our non-profit Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy, has run research-based STEM and CS programs for low-income, underrepresented high school students of color. We’ve observed and documented the barriers, and rigorously experimented with the factors that lead to persistence in STEM and CS education among SMASH scholars. Access is hugely important, but there are many other factors impacting student outcomes, ranging from access to technology, to stereotypes about computing, exposure to role models, and income inequality. Here are a number of insights about effective strategies for preparing SMASH students for success in STEM and computing:

  • Students need multiple opportunities to engage with computer science. Participating in hack-a-thons, coding camps, and other exposure activities can help spur interest in computing, but they need to be followed up with a rigorous computer science course sequence. Introductory courses are not enough; students have to have access to Advanced Placement courses as well.
  • Computing courses and teaching style must also be culturally relevant. That means actually engaging students by allowing them to explore creative challenges, work collaboratively, demystify the field of computing, and make connections between computing, their community and culture, and their interests across subject areas.
  • Students thrive when exposed to instructors and professionals who look like them. These professionals act as role models and counter negative stereotypes about who succeeds in computing. More importantly, they allow students to connect with someone from their neighborhood, who speaks their native language, and looks like them, allowing students to realize their potential for success in the same field. Students are also able to develop networks with people who can open doors to internships, be mentors, and advise them on career paths. As we invest in access to STEM courses, we must also invest in a diverse pipeline of teachers, mentors and advisors.
  • network of diverse peers from different cultural, educational, and social backgrounds helps to develop networks of support and combat isolation to ensure persistence in college. Simply having a friend from a similar background, going through the challenges with you, can be enough to prevent young people from giving up on a STEM major when the going gets tough. The bonds that SMASH scholars form are as significant a factor in future success as the coursework itself.

All this is to say that the path to preparing all students, particularly underrepresented students, to succeed and persist in STEM and CS is very complicated, very nuanced, and very important. The funding must be utilized in effective ways or it will be meaningless at best and harmful at worst.

We also cannot separate this announcement from the political context. In a better world, STEM and CS education could be a non-partisan issue, but SMASH scholars — and all underrepresented students — are directly impacted by the Trump Administration’s policies. They and their families are affected by the Muslim ban; they live in fear of deportation; they are traumatized by the administration condoning White supremacists; they are terrorized in their schools and their communities by the rise in hate crimes; and they are left without recourse by the changes in guidance in campus sexual assault.

Computer science access funding can never compensate for the destructive and divisive impact of these policies. As Reshma Saujani noted in her vital New York Times piece,

“Federal funding for increasing inclusion means little when coupled with policies like (the travel ban) and others that trample on the rights of immigrants, women, and LGBTQ Americans… to work with this administration in any capacity is to normalize it and all of the hate and bigotry it represents.”

This White House’s Computer Science announcement doesn’t begin to address the real challenges in creating STEM and CS pathways for all students. It doesn’t come close to countering the inequities facing students and communities of color. And it certainly doesn’t compensate for the fear and terror that this administration’s policies have inflicted on those it now purports to help.

Students’ lives aren’t lived in a vacuum. If this administration is interested in helping create real STEM and computer science opportunities for all students, and building a diverse future workforce, there is a lot more work to be done. Call us, Ivanka, we’ve been at this for a while.