Essay Moving the Needle on Equity in Computer Science Education: Lessons from New York City
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An Essay for the Learning Curve
Cheri Fancsali, Janice Lee
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Since the Obama administration announced the Computer Science for All initiative in 2016, momentum for computer science (CS) education has grown exponentially at the K–12 level. CS for All initiatives are designed to provide students valuable computational thinking skills applicable to various disciplines, to meet the expected economic need for people to fill computing-related jobs, and to ensure that technological advancements benefit a diverse society. These initiatives also carry an equity imperative—to enhance access and inclusion for historically marginalized individuals in CS education and lucrative CS career paths, empowering students to use CS to directly challenge unjust systems.

In 2015, New York City (NYC) launched the public-private CS4All initiative, which explicitly emphasizes providing CS opportunities to students who identify as girls, as Black, and as Latinx. NYC’s CS4All initiative aims to provide all students at least one high-quality CS experience to develop their computational thinking, problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking skills. The district offers supports and resources for schools, including free curricula, intensive equity-focused professional learning (PL) opportunities for teachers and school leaders, networking and awareness-building events, connections to industry and CS education experts, implementation plan templates and guidance, and individualized school reports on CS participation. Given the widespread enactment of CS for All, it is important to understand how well initiatives like the one in NYC are reaching all students and reducing the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities prevalent in CS education and participation.

Key Takeaways

  • In 2021–22, 38 percent of NYC public school students participated in at least one CS course by the end of their grade band (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12), up from 30 percent in 2018–19.
  • Participation rates doubled between 2016–17 and 2021–22 from slightly less than 10 percent to nearly 22 percent of NYC students receiving CS instruction in 2021–22.
  • Elementary school students were more likely to receive CS instruction than middle and high school students. For example, 48 percent of 5th-graders participated in at least one CS course between 3rd and 5th grade, compared with 31 percent of 12th graders who did so between 9th and 12th grade.
  • Though 92 percent of schools reached at least some of their students with one CS experience in their grade band, only 20 percent reached all their students in their grade band by 2021–22.
  • Additionally, 46 percent of schools offered CS to less than 10 percent of their students, with 8 percent of schools not offering CS at all.
  • Throughout the initiative, girls have been consistently less likely to receive CS instruction than boys; in 2016–17, 9 percent of girls participated in CS classes, compared with 10 percent of boys. By 2021–22, 21 percent of girls received CS, compared with 22 percent of boys.
  • Black and Latinx students have been substantially less likely than their white and Asian peers to receive CS instruction. In 2016–17, 8 percent of Black students and more than 7 percent of Latinx students received CS, compared with 14 percent of Asian students. By 2021–22, 17 percent of Black students, slightly more than 20 percent of Latinx student, and 28 percent of Asian students took CS.

Implications

The CS4All initiative, aimed at providing high-quality CS instruction to all the district’s 1 million students, has been a significant and challenging endeavor. These findings indicate that the initiative has made substantial strides in expanding CS education to more NYC students—especially given the voluntary nature of participation—but considerable room for growth remains. Nearly half of schools were still serving only a small percentage of students with CS instruction, with participation dropping noticeably in middle and high school. Although gaps between student groups have decreased over the initiative, disparities by gender and, especially, by race and ethnicity persist.

Given the wide variability in CS implementation across grade bands, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. To address this, NYC has begun to design for and provide assistance based on where schools are in their CS4All journey. Other districts attempting to bring CS to all grade levels could consider similar strategies. For instance, elementary schools may need more help integrating high-quality CS curricula and activities within other subject areas. High schools are more likely to need assistance grappling with such issues as teacher certification and aligning CS courses with graduation requirements. Wider implementation of CS is likely affected by challenges such as competing priorities (e.g., preparing for required standardized tests) and lack of instructional time to focus on CS.

Additionally, these findings highlight racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in CS enrollment. Targeted strategies—such as intentional outreach and relationship building between CS teachers across grade bands—could help retain these students in CS pathways. Districts might also consider small group or affinity-based CS opportunities to promote engagement among groups historically underrepresented in computing. Furthermore, integrating culturally responsive approaches into CS instruction could improve engagement and learning and help address long-standing disparities.

Additional Resources

What Do We Know about the Expansion of K–12 Computer Science Education

Computer Science in New York City: An Early Look at Teacher Training Opportunities and the Landscape of CS Implementation in Schools

Lessons from New York City’s CS4All Initiative: Organizing for Educational Equity in Computer Science

The Potential of CR-SE for K-12 Computer Science Education

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
Cities New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA