High school computer science classes might expand in Michigan. Will that address equity issues?

A student sits at a desk on a laptop in a classroom.
A student works on a laptop computer in class at Southeastern High School in Detroit. Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill requiring all public high schools to offer a computer science course by the start of the 2027-28 school year. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

In her two years of high school at Dearborn Public Schools’ Virtual K-12 school, rising junior Weaam AlAliyi has already learned about computer programming, understanding algorithms, and data analysis in three computer science courses.

Weaam believes computer science courses in high school are critical in preparing students for higher education and the modern workforce.

Gaining computer science skills is “increasingly important in today’s digital world,” Weaam said.

High schoolers across the state could have similar access to computer science courses if Michigan lawmakers pass a bill requiring all public high schools to offer a computer science course by the start of the 2027-28 school year. Michigan would become the 31st state to have such a requirement, according to 2023 data.

The bill passed the state House on Tuesday and is on its way to the Senate. The bill received bipartisan support, but all 22 no votes came from Republicans.

The bill garnered support from the Michigan Department of Education, among others. Cheryl Wilson, computer science consultant at the MDE, said the department recognizes a need to prepare students for computer science positions in the state and beyond.

The classes would have to be aligned with Michigan’s computer science standards. Rep. Carol Glavnille, a Democrat from Walker and a former educator who sponsored the bill, hopes the courses will cover subjects like AI functions, app development, data analysis, and internet security. These courses, she argues, will prepare students for the large number of available computing jobs with higher than average salaries.

Michigan had an average of 14,328 open computing jobs each month in 2023, with an average salary of $96,702.

Technology access remains an obstacle

A legislative fiscal analysis estimates the requirement would not create extra costs for the state, but high schools without existing computer science classes might struggle. Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance, a group that advocates for public schools, says the state needs to ensure that each school has appropriate teachers and equipment available to students.

“It is still a reality that some students don’t have access to the same technology that other students have at home,” said McCann.

Still, McCann thinks that grants to improve technology access in homes during the pandemic will give more students the resources they need to study computer science and make it easier for schools to implement the new courses.

Schools that can’t offer the course can provide an online option through online schools such as Michigan Virtual.

Glanville suggested that existing online computer science programs like Code.org can offset access issues. Code.org testified in support of the bill when Glanville introduced it to the House in May.

But Aman Yadav, a professor of computing education at Michigan State University, worries that under-resourced schools will still struggle to offer quality computer science courses due to a lack of certified staff. He warns that affluent students are more likely to succeed in online courses.

“The bill is a step in the right direction to make sure that all students within Michigan have access to computer science at the high school level,” Yadav said. “However, there are significant challenges for schools who are under-resourced, both in our rural communities and urban communities, because of lack of requirement for teachers to have sufficient knowledge to teach computer science.”

In 2017, the Michigan Department of Education announced it will remove requirements for computer science teacher endorsements by 2026. Wilson said the department did that to open pathways for more educators to teach computer science, especially in districts that lacked enough qualified teachers.

But Yadav worries that a lack of quality computer science teachers will discourage students from continuing computer science education after their first course.

Racial and gender disparities are wide

Research suggests that disparities in enrollment heavily affect women and Black students. Only 29% of Michigan students who took an AP computer science exam in 2022 were women, and Black students were less likely to take AP computer science exams than their white and Asian peers.

Yadav said existing research on disparities in computer science education focuses too much on access and not enough on success rates. For example, 2022 data indicates that Black students in Michigan were less likely to pass their AP computer science exams than other students, with scores of 3 or higher: Only 29% of the Black students who took an AP computer science exam in 2022 passed, while 70.8% of all students passed.

Kady Robinson-Larsosa, a rising junior at Detroit’s School at Marygrove, has learned computer science skills in several classes, and may even have a chance to earn college credit as a junior. She said she sees value in computer science courses as a Black DPSCD student because of the increased career opportunities for students.

“Usually we’re not seeing engineering as a way to pursue a career in the future,” she said. As course access expands, she thinks it could increase well-paying career opportunities. She sees the skills she has learned helping her aspirations to enter the business and marketing field after graduation.

Kady said she notices more women in her Marygrove classes than men. But in a STEM-focused career readiness summer program at the University of Michigan, she said, there were more men enrolled.

How can the state address equity issues?

Yadav said he hopes that the legislature adds language requiring educators to be certified in computer science to teach the class and suggests the state invest in teacher certification.

“Computer science is hard to learn,” Yadav said. “A focus on increasing access without a focus on quality of that access is problematic for Michigan students.”

Wilson said the MDE doesn’t have plans to implement such a program now, but might consider it in the future.

Yadav also thinks schools should offer classes at a younger age. By high school, students have already formed views on who is successful in computer science or STEM.

Eva Burch, who recently graduated from Detroit Prep, doesn’t plan on taking computer science courses when she starts her freshman year at Cass Technical High School, but she said having earlier access to learning computer science courses might have encouraged her to take them now.

Kady said the courses will be helpful in high school nonetheless. “I think it’s a great opportunity for all high schoolers to be able to take advantage of, even if some don’t,” she said.

Glanville hopes that over time, the state can identify which schools teach computer science and figure out how to increase the availability of these courses across Michigan.

Alex Klaus is a summer intern for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at aklaus@chalkbeat.org.

Correction: June 24, 2024: A previous version of this story said Eva Burch was already a DPSCD student. She was a student at Detroit Prep and will become a DPSCD student in the fall.

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