Opinion
Grading City Hall: See our report card for L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson
Op-Ed
Opinion Op-Ed

Handing out iPads to students isn't enough

Computer science is driving innovation across all fields, so it makes sense that the Los Angeles Board of Education wants to provide its students with access to the latest technology. Students who develop expertise in computer science will have automatic career advantages. But is the district taking the right steps?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that computing occupations are among the fastest-growing job categories in the United States and that such jobs pay about 75% more than the national median annual salary. Unfortunately, only a narrow band of students — predominantly white and Asian males — is developing the necessary skills to step into these high-paying jobs in computer science. Latinos, African Americans and girls of all ethnic backgrounds are being left behind. In 2013, 29,555 students took the Advanced Placement computer science exam, but only 18% were female, 4% African American and 3% Mexican American.

At many schools, especially those with high numbers of low-income African American and Latino students, meaningful computer courses simply aren't offered. Data gathered by Code.org, a nonprofit organization trying to expand computer science education, suggests that 9 out of 10 K-12 schools nationwide do not even offer computer-programming courses.

Instead, skills such as keyboarding and Internet research are being dressed up as "computer science." The focus tends to be on how to use computers rather than on what makes them work. Students may become adept at surfing the Web and at word processing, but they aren't developing the critical thinking skills essential to creating the software and hardware that power computers.

This is especially unfortunate since there is a growing shortage of computer scientists nationwide. The National Center for Women and Information Technology projects that the number of U.S. college graduates in computing between 2010 and 2020 will meet less than one-third of the demand for them. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that more jobs will be created in computing than in all other science and technology fields combined.

If K-12 schools aren't teaching the necessary skills, where will those workers come from? A great majority of today's computer scientists started down their career paths because of "preparatory privilege." They came from families that could provide parental knowledge, guidance, summer camp opportunities, in-home computers, software, even private tutoring. But for many students in the L.A. Unified School District — some 80% of whom live below the poverty line — that kind of extracurricular enrichment simply isn't available.

The United States has a choice to make. It can continue on its current course, in which case it will need to import even more computer scientists from overseas, or it can provide meaningful computer education to its own students, including the children of immigrants already here.

Six years ago a partnership between UCLA and LAUSD was forged to help bring computer science to a wider range of students, specifically to children of color and girls. A rigorous, yearlong course, "Exploring Computer Science," was developed and is now being offered to more than 2,000 students in more than 30 Los Angeles high schools, as well as at public schools in Chicago and Washington, and it will soon be in New York. But we must do much better.

LAUSD has begun rolling out one of the largest and most ambitious technological interventions in American education, aimed at eventually providing electronic tablets (or in some upper grades, possibly, laptops) to every student.

But is purchasing iPads really the magic bullet? The tablets are certain to engage students, which is a start. But part of their appeal is their ease of use. They are designed to be extremely user-friendly, which means students don't have to understand much about a computer's workings to use one.

A primary goal of any technology initiative should be to teach higher-order computational skills to every student. If LAUSD's huge investment — in the neighborhood of $1 billion — is going to provide students with more than fancy textbooks, the district will have to focus on innovative curriculum development and teacher professional development. Students need to learn how to create and produce with technology, not just passively benefit from and consume what has been created by others.

LAUSD should be applauded for wanting to make technology available to every child. But it will be crucial to make sure it is teaching the right skills. It will take a coalition of school districts, philanthropic visionaries, researchers and community organizations to get this right. We must build on the many available resources in Los Angeles to help strengthen access to computer science education for all kids.

Jane Margolis is a senior researcher at UCLA and the author of "Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing." Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, a professor and dean of education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is the coauthor of "Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • L.A. Unified embarrassed again by its act-fast habit

    L.A. Unified embarrassed again by its act-fast habit

    It's all too typical at the Los Angeles Unified School District: Leaders want to make a change to help the district's students, but instead of investigating costs, options and whether the change is even achievable or desirable, the board forges ahead. Only after it has committed itself do the very...

  • Keeping better tabs on California's education funding

    Keeping better tabs on California's education funding

    One of Gov. Jerry Brown's greatest and most dramatic accomplishments has been his reform of the way California allocates money to public schools. He used the recession to hit the reset button, replacing an arcane and blatantly unfair formula with a streamlined and equitable distribution: a certain...

  • Back to work at L.A. Unified

    Back to work at L.A. Unified

    Voters — few though they were — sent some strong messages to the Los Angeles Unified school board Tuesday. That two incumbents were voted out showed justified unhappiness with the current board. People are still mad about the badly mishandled plan to purchase iPads for every student in the district....

  • California students shouldn't get placed in fake classes

    California students shouldn't get placed in fake classes

    When it was revealed that students at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles and other schools were being assigned to "classes" in which nothing was actually taught, many people wondered how this could happen. Isn't it against the law to stick kids in fake classes and deprive them of basic...

  • Time for California lawmakers to repeal cap on school reserves

    Time for California lawmakers to repeal cap on school reserves

    Hundreds of California school districts, from liberal-leaning Berkeley to the conservative Central Valley, joined the California State PTA, county education officials, education groups and civil rights advocates to support Assembly Bill 1048. The bill would repeal a widely reviled cap on how much...

  • Traditional teaching faces a cyberthreat from school model

    Traditional teaching faces a cyberthreat from school model

    There's a new network of K-8 private schools called AltSchool, based in San Francisco and soon expanding to Brooklyn, N.Y., and Palo Alto. From that tiny amount of information — the name, the locations — you can probably guess that AltSchool is trying to modernize education for the digital age....

  • A new superintendent won't cure all that ails L.A. Unified

    A new superintendent won't cure all that ails L.A. Unified

    With John Deasy no longer in charge at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board needs a new superintendent who shares his passion for improving the lives of children in poverty, but not his adversarial approach or his refusal to listen to critics.

  • Four reasons to be glad a federal grand jury is investigating L.A. Unified's iPads

    Four reasons to be glad a federal grand jury is investigating L.A. Unified's iPads

    There was a lot to dislike about the proposal to buy $500 million worth of iPads for Los Angeles Unified School District students (plus $800 million for the necessary broadband at schools): The price, the incomplete curriculum, the paucity of serious questions about whether all of these devices...

Comments
Loading
78°