NYC educators work to improve computer science class inequities


Derek Bruff | Flickr

Nathan Woo Yang

A study by the New York University’s Research Alliance on the Computer Science for All, or CS4ALL, Initiative, which was launched back in 2015, – showed that only 17% of public schools are meeting the equity goals set for girls, Black and Latinx students. Although schools were making progress in developing computer science courses, the report found numerous inequities in accessibility to computer science courses on in-school and off-school sites. Many female students of color are turned off before making it to higher level courses.

The CS4ALL Initiative aimed to expand access to computer science courses to all students in New York City, especially those from disadvantaged communities. The initiative has reached over 800 schools, trained over 2000 teachers and recorded 6,857 students taking the AP Computer Science Exam in 2020.

Educators like Shanua Newton-Rodriguez hope to shift these imbalances by example. Newton-Rodriguez focuses her lectures on career pathways, ways to earn money and additionally “embeds culturally responsive lessons in her classes.” The case study of Tesla cars failing to detect pedestrians with darker skin tones was discussed in one instance.

Additionally, Newton-Rodriguez utilizes hands-on examples to convince her students on why computer technologies are needed.

As computer science is not a core subject, Newton-Rodriguez does not have a co-teacher available to help students with disabilities, making it more difficult to identify students whose math skills need help. Her efforts are also hindered by her colleagues who reason that they have other topics to cover instead.

At Energy Tech High School in Queens, Joel Bianchi is also aiming to make computer science more accessible. Previously describing the experience of teaching as isolating before joining Math For America, Bianchi received the College Board AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award in 2019 for having 10 male and 10 female students in the first year he taught the course.

He noted issues with female students struggling to belong, stating that they “subconsciously perpetuate the stereotype.” By being more aware of these internal struggles, Bianchi was able to offer more personalized assistance to his female students.

In his classroom, Bianchi believes that failure is a good learning opportunity. In order to give students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve their GPA, Bianchi made students review and correct their exams.

While inequities persist, some progress has been made according to NYU’s Research Alliance. Its report found that in 2021, 91% of NYC schools were offering courses in computer science, an increase from 76% in 2019. It was also found that 17% of schools were achieving the CS4ALL Initiative’s equity goals in 2021, an increase by 5% from 2019. The report concluded that schools making great improvements were likely to have multiple instructors participating in CS4All professional development.

Compared to the national statistic where 28% of test takers of the AP Computer Science exam are female, 42% of the test takers in are female.

Many educators have expressed the view that computer science training should start when children are young for a strong foundation, a view that is backed up by the report from the NYU Research Alliance. Elementary schools were shown to have greater success in reaching the goals of the CS4ALL Initiative compared to middle and high schools due computer science being integrated into classes all students take.

NYC still has many steps to take before computer science is accessible to all students; however, work from educators like Newton-Rodriguez and Bianchi will help to accelerate this process.