A manifesto for computer science

It’s impossible to know exactly what new jobs will exist in the future. Many of the high-paying careers that exist now weren’t around just 20 years ago. What is easier to figure out is that more and more of these positions will involve highly-specialized computing and programming skills. Thus, in order to give students a leg-up for the future they’ll inherit, we need to be thinking much more deeply about computer science. Sorry, but settling for typing skills is so 1990.

Where can we find an excellent vision for what computer science might look like for your students? Look no further than Republic Schools, a charter operator in Tennessee and Mississippi. It is clear from the discussion that follows that Republic has thought deeply about how the future will look and has concluded that bold action is required to make sure its students are at the front. Let’s explore Republic’s Manifesto in more detail.

The very first component of the Republic Manifesto states that all of its students will learn computer science. The school has done its homework and is convinced that growth in technology will be the key driver of all sectors of the economy moving forward. Given that, significant changes need to be made to what and how students learn. “Most students spend the majority of their day with a paper, pen, and an outdated textbook – leaving them unprepared even for a 1995 workplace and completely out of touch with a career in 2015 or, more importantly, 2025.”

So what specific steps are they taking to make computer science a reality for their students?

For starters, Republic makes computer science a core subject starting in the 5th grade. Yup, if you’re leading a school, you get to do this. If you disagree with the structure of your school’s curriculum, change it. During middle school, students at Republic learn and master Scratch, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and robotics. Then, during their 9th and 10th grade years, they take the AP Computer Science exam. This paves the way for college-level programming during the final two years of high school.

In order to support this vision, Republic is building out a free, open-source platform that will house their computer science lessons so that students and families in both Republic and traditional schools can access them from anywhere. Next, it has set the goal to have a Community Computer Science Center in every city that it operates in. In fact, its first center opened last year in Nashville. During the day, the center provides classroom space for its computer science instruction; by night, it becomes a mini Silicon Valley. For kids.

Finally, it is making an investment in its teachers to learn coding alongside students. Republic has concluded that the private sector isn’t going to suddenly drop amazing software teachers from the sky and into their classrooms. So, it’s going to train its teachers to become coders instead. Based on their experience, it is easier to take a good teacher and train them to be a coder than it is to take a good coder and show them how to teach.

The second component of Republic’s Manifesto discusses a non-profit software company that has been created to disseminate exemplary curriculum and effective practices amongst its staff. What’s the reason for this? Republic has concluded that teachers spend way too much time creating redundant materials and that students would be better served if teachers could reallocate their time into more impactful tasks. This platform also provides additional resources for students, including access to course notes, supplemental materials, and class videos.

The best part of this story is that it isn’t taking place in the affluent suburbs. Republic operates in the urban south, with 4 of its schools in Nashville and 2 in Jackson. Even better, Republic views this as a benefit: “The schools and students who bridge this gap [between the skills of the future and what’s taught in school] will have an unparalleled advantage in the workforce. And since even the most expensive private schools are still outdated in this area, the least advantaged students and schools have the opportunity to set the pace.”

Just to provide a little background context: in 2014, there wasn’t a single African American student in the state of Mississippi who took the AP Computer Science exam. In Tennessee, out of the 271 students who took the exam, only 8% were black, 4% were Hispanic, and 14% were female. Republic’s ambitious vision will help to facilitate just under 200 new students taking the AP exam in 2017, more than 90% of whom identify as students of color and 50% of whom are female. Now that’s game-changing.

Momentous results like these don’t just happen by chance. They require vision. And guts. And if your school is lacking in either, chances are your students are settling for shiny new sets of IPads, cumbersome installations of ‘smart-BOREDs,’ and teachers who are amazed by the innovation of a power strip. Republic, on the other hand, eats vision for breakfast.

Republic begins its Manifesto by stating: “Over the next 15 years, historic impediments to equality will be dismantled by the emerging digitally literate. Our schools will be the catalyst for this colossal change.” Where does your school stand? How are your students being prepared for the future? While we may not be able to recreate Republic’s lofty ambitions overnight, there are a few clear steps that will get your school on its way:

1) Create the vision: What skills do you want to equip your students with? Why are these the skills that will advantage your students for the future?

2) Backwards plan (realizing that you won’t get it all done in your 1st year): What classes or programs will you offer next fall to kick off your computer science curriculum? What is the sequence of classes or skills that students will tackle in future years? How does your school schedule, course catalog, and staffing need to change?

3) Make a team that will make it happen: Which teachers can you start training now to be ready for your inaugural class? What skills and talents do these individuals bring to the table?

4) Get a move on: Your students’ future depends on it!