#118 – Broadening Participation in K–12 Computing, with Dr. Carol Fletcher

Unpacking Education September 28, 2022 35 min

“Computing is really a ladder to economic mobility,” states Dr. Carol Fletcher, Director of Expanding Pathways in Computing (EPIC). Despite this, only about half of all high schools in the United States offer at least one computer science class, and of the students who take those classes, women, students of color, and economically disadvantaged students are underrepresented. In this episode, Dr. Fletcher helps us explore ways we can make this ladder to economic opportunity more accessible to all of our students.  

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident. If we want our young women to retain these traits into adulthood, a great option is to expose them to computer programming in their youth. 

Susan Wojcicki, CEO YouTube


The following resources are available from AVID to discover more about the various components of the AVID Open Access website:

Expanding Opportunity, Access, and Participation 

We live in an innovation economy driven by, and dependent on, computing and technology. Dr. Fletcher points out: “We’re failing students if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn these skills.”

It’s not that all students will become computer scientists. However, an understanding and competency in computer science will narrow the gap between those who become opportunity haves and have-nots. Students who learn to leverage technology to do what they want to do will become the societal “haves,” while the “have-nots” are going to be those that have the world “done to them.”

Dr. Fletcher reiterates this point when she stresses, “We need to be giving more students the opportunity to really learn the skills they need to contribute, not just as workers but as citizens in the 21st century. And it needs to be a variety of students.”

Tune in to this episode to hear more about the need for computer science education in our schools and potential ways to expand opportunity, access, and participation in the field. Here are a few highlights from this episode.

  • WeTeach_CS: Dr. Fletcher is involved with this program to offer professional development opportunities that help develop computer science teachers. She comments on the program’s origins, pointing out, “That was our very first goal. We’re going to focus on helping teachers upskill with the content knowledge they needed to actually pass the certification exam and begin teaching in computer science.”
  • The importance of computer science in K–12: Dr. Fletcher reminds us, “You cannot escape technology. It really permeates every aspect now of, not only our professional lives but our personal ones.” She adds, “We’re failing students if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn these skills. We live in an innovation society,” and she explains, “If we don’t have everyone in the game on this, giving everybody an opportunity, we’re really, as a country, entering the fight with two hands tied behind our back.” She adds, “You can’t sideline 50% of the population from these kinds of fields and then expect that you’re going to be competitive.”
  • The need to expand access: While only about half of the high schools in the United States offer at least one class in computer science, this opportunity is not spread evenly. According to the Expanding Computer Education Pathways annual report on the state of computer science education, enrollment of women, students of color, and economically disadvantaged students are less represented in computer science classes than their white and Asian male counterparts. Additionally, rural communities tend to have greater barriers and less access as well. Dr. Fletcher points out, “That lack of diversity is really impairing our entrepreneurs, our innovators, and our country from being able to solve some . . . complex challenges that we need a wide diversity of brains working on to solve.”
  • Big picture solutions: The CAPE Framework is a good way to approach solutions to equity in computer science education. CAPE stands for Capacity for, Access to, Participation in, and Experiences of equitable computer science education. Dr. Fletcher says, “If we want to solve this problem, we have to look at the whole ecosystem. We have to look at what’s our capacity for equitable CS education. What does access look like? What is participation, and then what do the experiences look like? Does every kid feel like they belong?” Part of this involves state and district leaders intentionally collecting data to identify disparities. Once these inequities are identified, then leaders can begin addressing solutions. Ultimately, we need more computer science educators. Data shows that states that have improved teacher capacity have made a big difference in increasing computer science participation.
  • Systemic problems: Our current systems were generally not created to support broad entry into computer science education. In that light, we need to examine our systems to identify which elements may perpetuate inequities and reduce participation. One example is an “opt-in” policy for advanced math programs. These policies require students and families to opt into advanced math even if their test scores show they should be placed there. When districts switched this policy from an “opt-in” to an “opt-out” practice for the top 40% of math students, the equity gap in students taking middle school algebra was “almost completely closed” in three years. This shift in policy removes a barrier and broadens participation in math and computer science.
  • Flip the on-ramp: Rather than using math success as an on-ramp to computer science, we should consider flipping this. How can we get kids interested in computer science first, and then use that interest to motivate them to want to learn more math? Students are generally engaged and interested in computer science activities because they allow for creativity and fun challenges. This interest can get students excited and give them a reason to learn math.
  • EPIC: Expanding Pathways in Computing (EPIC) is about “democratizing computer science education,” says Dr. Fletcher. She adds, “We are here to educate, inspire, and empower teachers and other educators in K–12, so they can help more students have access to and participate in positive experiences in CS.” This program invests heavily in the WeTeach_CS professional development program to prepare computer science teachers. They also do research and policy advocacy, helping people understand how we can leverage policy to open up more opportunities for computer science in K–12.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What student opportunities and classes do your school or district currently offer in the area of computer science?
  • How many licensed computer science teachers currently work in your school or district?
  • What are the advantages of bringing more computer science to K–12 schools?
  • How might your school or district improve or expand its computer science education program?
  • What percentage of your students currently take algebra before high school, and is this participation equitable demographically?
  • How might you increase student enrollment in algebra before high school?
  • Are there resources on the EPIC or E3 Alliance websites that you can leverage?

Extend Your Learning