Moving from Digital Apartheid toward Abolitionist Futures in Computer Science: A Broadening Participation and Success Story from Chicago Public Schools

We at The Learning Partnership are excited to report that our most recent K-12 computer science (CS) research (see Full Report here) showcases that in the third largest urban center in America (Chicago) our research-practice partnership among Chicago Public Schools and local universities (CAFÉCS) has led to notable changes in who takes, and passes, the AP CS A course and exam. We feel that these remarkable findings deserve note in celebration of Black History Month in 2021. As we reflect on, and seek to challenge, the historical and present-day digital apartheid concerning Black youths’ access, success, and feelings of (not) belonging in computer science compared to their over-represented Asian and white counterparts, our work showcases future prospects that could be used to disrupt these unjust ‘separate-but-equal’ realities. In this way, we see our work as a steppingstone to envision more equitable computer science teaching and learning, while also drawing from Dr. Bettina Love’s description of abolitionist education to envision future applications and possibilities of this work not yet known:

Abolitionist teaching is not a teaching approach: It is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of taking action against injustice. It seeks to resist, agitate, and tear down the educational survival complex through teachers [collaborating with all stakeholders in education] who work in solidarity with their schools’ community to achieve incremental changes in their classrooms and schools for students in the present day, while simultaneously freedom dreaming and vigorously creating a vision for what schools will be when the educational survival complex is destroyed (2019, p. 89, italics added to denote Love’s terminology)

Along these lines, we see our work as an investment in transformative educational futures, particularly for Black and Brown students, such that we hope this research leads to types of learning that impact students’ lives, local communities, and society more broadly (See Love (2019) for further elaboration on this terminology and broader conceptual framework). Drawing from this approach toward equitable and socially-just education for all, it is also increasingly important for people to understand past struggles for freedom, and for us specifically in relation to the development of Black History Month – to reflect on how this digital apartheid was created, sustained, and normalized by design in the United States of America.

Negro History Week, Black History Month, and the American (Digital) Apartheid

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This organization was created to research and promote achievements by Black Americans and those peoples whose heritage had been affected by the African Diaspora. In 1926, the leaders of this organization chose the second week of February to sponsor a national Negro History week, aligning with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially sponsored the month of February as Black History Month. At the same time, though, in South Africa and South West Africa (today Namibia), apartheid legislation was viciously used to segregate Black people, discriminate on the basis of skin color, and denigrate Black peoples’ sense of Self and community. This state-sanctioned and institutionalized racism based on the fallacy of white supremacy manifested in extremely violent ways among these colonized African countries such that they should never be forgotten, or taken for granted that such brutal policies existed in a geographic or political vacuum.

Concurrently, African Americans were also deeply affected by a similar apartheid based on racist legislation that mirrored Jim Crow ‘separate-but-equal’ segregationist policies. One of the largest impacts of this American apartheid was racialized residential segregation that was, and continues to be, prevalent (Chetty et al., 2020; Massey & Denton, 1993). Among other concerns, this American apartheid has been shown to lead to disproportionate educational opportunities for diverse youth living in urban centers – spaces that were purposefully designed as geographic ‘ghettos’ through which Americans of color could be segregated away from middle- and upper-class white neighborhoods (Bourgois, 1996; Cross, 2007). This ‘separate-but-equal’ racial apartheid has, for some Black and Brown youth living in urban centers, impacted educational opportunities in relation to access, efficacy, and capability to engage in the design of technology. This American (digital) apartheid consequentially manifests through liminal opportunities that could afford these students pathways to learn computer science in ways that are consequential to their lives, communities, and American society (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010; Gormley & McDermott, 2014; Swinton & Williams, 2018). Through our research, The Learning Partnership and its collaborative partners hope to challenge and disrupt this unjust and inequitable digital apartheid in order to de-settle the ways white supremacy has been normalized in technology, computer science, and society more broadly. 

Understanding and Challenging The New Jim Code: Race and Computer Science Education

In her most recent book, Race after technology: Abolitionist tools for the new Jim Code (2019), Dr. Ruha Benjamin reminds us that technology is not, and has never been, politically neutral. Coining a new term, The New Jim Code, a riff off of Dr. Michelle Alexander’s eminent book title, The New Jim Crow (2010), Dr. Benjamin describes the New Jim Code as “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era” (2019, p. 4-5). Dr. Benjamin suggests that it is useful to analyze how “Whiteness becomes the default setting for tech development … [interrogating] the progressive narratives that surround technology and encourag[ing] us to examine how racism is often maintained or perpetuated through technical fixes to social problems” (2019, p. 48). One undergirding theme emerges from this work: What we often consider as politically neutral in (computer) science, technology, and society is, unfortunately, interwoven with racist assumptions, similar to the ways that race is woven into the very foundation and fabric of the modern Western world (Gupta et al., 2018).

Further corroborating the prevalence of racism in education contexts, Dr. Jane Margolis and her colleagues point out that racial assumptions of capability are also pervasive in computer science education (2017). In their book, Stuck in the shallow end: Education, race, and computing, Dr. Margolis and her co-authors paint a picture of the reasons why racism and technological innovation may be so inter-dependently connected. They point out inequitable exposure for Black and Brown youth to learn rigorous computer science curriculum, as well as missed opportunities for these students to be taught advanced CS topics. In turn, their suggestions to mitigate racial and gender inequity in CS for Black and Brown youth would inevitably demand challenging the preponderance of white, male students being stereotypically assumed as ‘good at computer science,’ opening up discussions for diverse demographics in computer science (CS) to be seen as both computer scientists and technological innovators. For us, this request starts by broadening participation in advanced computer science courses, as well as descriptions of what can contribute to Black and Brown youth success in that CS coursework.

A Broadening Participation and Success Story from Chicago: Dreaming of Abolitionist Futures in CS

At The Learning Partnership, we have been working collaboratively with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and computer science faculty at DePaul University, Loyola University, and University of Illinois Chicago for over a decade to improve the state of computer science for Black and Brown youth, specifically in Chicago’s K-12 schools. In 2016, for example, a new policy was enacted that required Chicago Public high schoolers to take and pass a computer science course as part of their high school graduation requirement. With the approval of this new CS requirement for all students, there was a proliferation of the introductory Exploring Computer Science course (ECS). ECS was created to give students a ‘taste’ of CS focused on equitable teaching and learning practices to invariably increase the likelihood that Black and Brown youth pursue more CS coursework in K-12 and post-secondary spaces. Impressively, in Chicago, such a ‘taste’ provided by ECS has led to significantly greater numbers of Black and Brown students wanting to pursue more advanced CS courses after taking this introductory Exploring Computer Science course (see McGee et al. (2017) and an additional Recent Conference Presentation). Given this graduation requirement and the introduction of ECS acting as a CS-steppingstone, Black and Brown youth across Chicago were poised to be afforded greater exposure to computer science as a field, thereby encouraging these under-represented students in CS more broadly to take more advanced CS courses such as AP CS A – the coding heavy AP computer science course provided by the district.

What we found when examining the AP CS A course data between 2016-2019 was that since these CS policies took effect, more Black female students have begun to take AP CS A. More imperatively, Black and Brown youth in Chicago passed this AP CS A exam at a similar rate as their white and Asian counterparts, with the impact of taking ECS before AP CS A also notable. Significantly more Black and Hispanic students took ECS before AP CS A compared to their white and Asian counterparts, and our results support that if students take ECS before AP CS A they are significantly more likely to pass the AP CS A exam. These findings are even more important when combined with our results that show the impact that when teachers complete the entire ECS Professional Development Workshop Model their students learn CS content more than if teachers do not finish the PD (Boda & McGee, 2021). Indeed, these novel results suggest that our collaborative work done in Chicago around improving K-12 CS for all has partly contributed to our future goals of eradicating the digital apartheid among Black and Brown students being represented in, and feeling a sense of belonging across, CS contexts.

Our collaborative research suggests that one pathway to ameliorate the disparity in rigorous CS curriculum exposure and success between over- and under-represented students in CS more broadly is to have all students take an inspiring computer science at the high school level early, and then support them to succeed in more advanced courses such as AP CS A through academic and teacher supports after this initial ‘taste’ of CS. These findings, moreover, highlight how we can encourage Black and Brown youth to become engaged with computer science and technology in ways that disrupt the racist assumptions embedded within the creation of novel technological tools in order to dismantle The New Jim Code. In the end, we hope that during Black History Month all citizens of the United States of America can be provided with the access and opportunity to high-quality computer science education, like those offered by CPS.

These opportunities are particularly important for those Black and Brown students whose bodies and minds will be subject to, and surveilled by, the new technologies parading as politically neutral. Through this work we encouragingly see moments to disrupt the historical precedence of American apartheid that has for so long differentially affected the educational opportunities among Black and Brown youth to develop self-efficacy in CS, self-determination for their future dreams, and a sense of belonging across disciplines in urban education contexts in the United States. We, thus, see Chicago as a prime example of such a success story for improving K-12 CS education for all in ways that explicitly challenge and seek to dismantle the apartheid segregation of Black and Brown students away from opportunities to be exposed to advanced CS curriculum. This, then, welcomes other CS education researchers to work toward abolition of this historical precedence of a separate-but-equal, unjust status for Black and Brown students in relation to rigorous CS opportunities. Indeed, we agree with Dr. Bettina Love when she expounds on the importance of persisting toward such transformative goals in education: To fight for freedom for all:

The ultimate goal of abolitionist teaching is freedom. Freedom to create your reality, where uplifting humanity is at the center of all decisions. And, yes, concessions will be made along the way, battles will be lost, and sometimes teachers, parents, and community members will feel like they are not doing enough, but the fight is fought with the indomitable spirit of an abolitionist who engages in taking small and sometimes big risks in the fight for equal rights, liberties, and citizenship for dark children, their families, and their communities – this is fighting for freedom. (2019, p. 89)