UChicago Consortium on School Research Independently Validates the Success of CAFÉCS

This week, the UChicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) released a new evaluation report on the early days of CAFÉCS (Barrow, Freire, & de la Torre, 2020). The report provides tremendous validation to our partners at the Chicago Public Schools Office of Computer Science, DePaul University, Loyola University, and UIC. More than a decade ago, Don Yanek, CPS computer science teacher, Brenda Wilkerson, manager of the CPS Career and Technical Education IT track, Lucia Dettori, associate dean at DePaul University, Dale Reed, computer science faculty at UIC, and Ron Greenberg, computer science faculty at Loyola University sat around a conference table at Northside College prep and lamented the state of affairs in computer science education in high school and in college. Despite the rising prominence of tech companies in the economy, fewer and fewer students in general were going into computer science and the gender, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities were appalling. They pledged then and there that despite having no funding, they would band together to do something about it in Chicago. Thus, the CS4All movement in Chicago was born. Many years later, “CS4All” became part of the national lexicon after President Obama adopted the term for his signature legislation in support of a national computer science movement. 

These early pioneers soon discovered a like-minded group of computer science educators in Gail Chapman and Joanna Goode who were working in Los Angeles to develop the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) curriculum. The ECS curriculum was designed to make computer science meaningful to all high school students regardless of their prior computer science experience. Building equity and inquiry strategies into the program was the foundation for the development of computer science concepts.

In 2012, the band of computer science educators in Chicago added The Learning Partnership to the group and brought ECS to Chicago. Key to the success of ECS is the professional development model that Gail and Joanna developed. Gail personally came to Chicago several times per year in the early days to launch what was known as the Taste of Computing initiative in Chicago. While in Chicago, Gail developed a cadre of CPS professional development facilitators. It did not take long for CPS’ ECS program to become self-sustaining. Within a few years all ECS professional development was led by CPS teachers teaching CPS teachers. 

We were delighted to see that independent researchers from UChicago were able to document the tremendous growth and success of the Taste of Computing initiative at increasing the number of schools and teachers offering computer science to an increasing number of students. However, the CCSR report also documented what we all were experiencing – the volunteerism of elective classes only goes so far. Black students were much less likely to be at a school that offered computer science. Girls were less likely to sign up for the elective class than boys. Something more had to be done. 

The Taste of Computing team felt that a graduation requirement was the only way to ensure all schools would be provided adequate resources to offer a computer science class and ensure that all students at least tried computer science. In 2016, the CPS School Board approved the enactment of a computer science graduation policy, due to the careful policy work of Brenda Wilkerson and the support of Mayor Emmanuel. Shortly thereafter, the Chicago band of computer science educators formalized the partnership as the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science (CAFÉCS) to continue support the district in implementing the graduation requirement. Last month, the first cohort of students under the computer science graduation policy quietly graduated (due to the pandemic) with virtually all of the graduating seniors fulfilling the requirement. 

The CCSR report also validated a key CAFÉCS finding about student success in the ECS course. The UChicago researchers found that the overall failure rate was low for computer science courses and that students achieved higher course grades in their computer science classes relative to their core classes. That is consistent with our own research in which we also found that the ECS professional development program played a significant role in preparing teachers to reduce failure and increase success in the ECS course.

We at The Learning Partnership would like to amplify and echo what lead author Barrow concluded from the CCSR report, namely that we need “changing narratives about who belongs and succeeds within CS.” I would like to raise a virtual glass as a toast to all of our current and former CAFÉCS colleagues and friends and to all the dedicated computer science teachers in Chicago who live that quote every day. We are honored to work alongside this dedicated group of colleagues to use our research to inform action.

One last message to all the higher education computer science faculty out there. Get ready for a tidal wave from the Chicago Public Schools – 65,000 students with CS experience, and counting. Now is the time to think about how you can change your teaching practices to be more inclusive so that you do not also fail this generation of students who have been accustomed to high quality teaching that empowers them to use technology to address problems in society.

Barrow, L., Freire, S., & de la Torre, M. (2020). Trends in computer science education: Access, enrollment, and performance in CPS high schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.