Computer science transforms Dallas elementary students into 21st-century learners
"Creating a computer science pathway beginning in elementary school and continuing through middle and high school makes sense for our district. An emphasis on computer science education, even with kids as young as 5 and 6, is a way to grow global learners who are vested in a career of the future.” -Marquetta Masters, principal, Frederick Douglass Elementary
Trailblazing a path for CS education in elementary schools
When Marquetta Masters became principal at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Dallas, Texas five years ago, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The school was designated as a focus campus, which meant that its students were falling into the widest achievement gap in the district. What’s more, Frederick Douglass is located in one of the highest crime neighborhoods in the city, and nearly 100% of the school’s children qualify for free and reduced lunch, a standard used to measure poverty in the US.
Yet Masters refused to succumb to the narrative of a failing school. She began to research how to make Frederick Douglass a first-choice neighborhood school and struck on remaking it into a STEM-focused campus. The deeper she delved into the process, though, she found the umbrella of STEM was too broad—and too daunting. She had to narrow her focus.
"In becoming a 21st century school and creating 21st century learners, we had to consider, what does the world want in a worker?” Masters recalls. In her research, she and a committee of school teachers and parents discovered that while jobs in computing and information technology are multiplying at twice the average rate, employers struggle to fill those well-paying positions. Steps to develop a district-wide CS under the 2nd photo not sure if that belongs there? Masters had a eureka! moment when she realized that teaching computer science beginning in elementary school would empower her students to seize opportunity, overcome disadvantage and pursue a better future.
So in 2016, Frederick Douglass became the second elementary school in the nation to offer a comprehensive, school-wide computer science program. Now the rest of the district’s elementary schools are following Frederick Douglass's example, which was recently named a Public School Choice STEM Academy. The integration of CS equips Dallas students with digital-era tools to succeed in their aspirations for a career or higher education. “Creating a computer science pathway beginning in elementary school and continuing through middle and high school makes sense for our district,” Masters says. “An emphasis on computer science education, even with kids as young as 5 and 6, is a way to grow global learners who are vested in a career of the future."
How Dallas Independent School District found the right fit for computer science education
Masters approached the Dallas Independent School District’s STEM department to collaborate in April 2016. Masters’ enthusiasm and dedication made it clear to district leadership that Frederick Douglass would be the ideal site to pilot an initiative they wanted to test: one hour of computer science instruction in every elementary grade, every week.
Dallas ISD had already partnered with Code.org and others to beef up CS courses and extracurriculars in middle and high schools and was looking to test incorporating computer science education into younger grades, with the intention of rolling out a successful program to the rest of the district’s roughly 150 elementary schools by the 2019-20 school year.
Masters and her STEM committee came up with criteria that would ensure a new curriculum worked for the schools and students of Dallas:
1. Easy to adopt, even for novices. Because every teacher in Frederick Doulglass would teach computer science—the vast majority for the very first time—the school would need a CS curriculum that included week-by-week lesson plans, goals and activities. “Until our teachers were comfortable, we needed very clear guidelines so they were not overwhelmed,” Masters says.
2. Shareable. A curriculum that embraced team learning and pair programming was vital, particularly because CS relies on collaboration and team problem solving.
3. Relevant for a range of ages. “We took the approach that every child may start at ground zero, whether they’re in 5th grade or kindergarten,” says Jeff Marx, director of computer science and technology at Dallas ISD. Topics, then, would need to be accessible enough for children wholly unfamiliar with CS but engaging for more advanced students.
4. Scalable. The CS curriculum needed to be replicable for a wide range of other schools, teachers, and students post-pilot.
What is the Dallas ISD model for elementary CS education?
Frederick Douglass Elementary integrates computer science into school culture and curriculum. Every week, all 500 students, pre-kindergarten through 5th grade, do an hour of computer science (usually broken into two half-hour lessons). Every teacher—whether they specialize in math or social studies—takes a turn instructing an offline lesson teaching CS concepts, such as acting out a loop, every six weeks. In addition, science teachers lead computer-based activities of coding. The school has no computer science-specific teacher.
Educators use a custom curriculum website, developed by the Dallas ISD STEM department, that relies heavily on Code.org's fully developed resource for elementary CS education. The site includes instruction and lesson plans for each of the year’s units. Every week’s instruction consists of a reading that introduces new concepts, a vocabulary lesson and an activity, such as programming robots or using string and beads to represent algorithms.
How computer science helped turn around a struggling school
When Masters remade Frederick Douglass as a CS-focused elementary school, she wanted to infuse her campus with the excellence she knew her students were capable of; she just didn’t know how quickly and dramatically her vision would become a reality.
Although the administration can’t isolate the effect CS education is having on the school because they are implementing other changes simultaneously, trends clearly show that computer science is helping transform a struggling school into a thriving one. In testing standards, math scores are up 10%, and science scores have doubled, from 35% passing to 71% in 2016.
In the short time since Frederick Douglass incorporated computer science, many students point to CS as their favorite subject: They especially enjoy programming and engineering robots and Ozobots. “When I see students in the classrooms, they are engaged, happy and they love what they’re doing,” Masters says. That enthusiasm has a spillover effect.
"Confidence is really important when it comes to anything, in any arena,” Masters adds. “Computer science allows all students, regardless of their ability, to know they can figure things out. That problem-solving translates into reading and math and social studies—everything.” In the bilingual ELA course, for example, language learners use Code.org's Computer Science Fundamentals spelling bee activity to improve their English—and program using blocks at the same time.
Masters once talked to a young girl at her school who had applied the problem-solving skills she learned in computer science to her math class. The girl told her principal, “If I’m doing something in math and I get it wrong, it doesn’t have to stay wrong. I keep working until I figure it out. That’s what computer science feels like to me: It makes me feel powerful."
Frederick Douglass Elementary by the numbers
Number of students: 480
Number of teachers: 33
Teachers trained in computer science: 100%
Months needed to develop and implement new CS curriculum: 4
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“By showing the big picture of computer science, that it’s not just sitting behind a keyboard, we open up more doors for children to see the different opportunities available to them.” -Ann Puckett, regional manager, Code.org
“If you want to afford each student the opportunity of success, computer science is the discipline you should implement on your campus.” - Marquetta Masters, principal, Frederick Douglass Elementary
4 steps to develop a district-wide CS curriculum
Marx worked with Masters and other stakeholders to create a curriculum that elementary school teachers district-wide could use, and that would be relevant to kids ages 5-11. To meet this challenge, district and Frederick Douglass leadership collaborated on the following:
Step 1: Work with existing materials. Dallas ISD adopted the free, open source Computer Science Fundamentals curriculum from Code.org, the Microsoft-funded nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to CS. It was one of the only free resources tailored for elementary aged children.
Step 2: Fill in gaps. The district created their own content where teachers’ needs weren’t met by existing resources. For example, the STEM committee at Frederick Douglass drafted lesson plans so teachers brand-new to CS wouldn’t have to draft them from scratch.
Step 3: Supplement with kid-friendly add-ons. Marx noted where additional activities, such as programming Ozobots or integrating with the after-school robotics club, would complement lessons. These extensions were especially helpful in creating content advanced students could dive into while peers worked on the foundations of CS.
Step 4: Build a website. Teachers across the district can access the lesson plans, resources, and suggestions for extensions from anywhere. The website, reachable with a log-in exclusive to Dallas teachers, also ensures any additions or changes to the curriculum can be made in one place, precluding the expense and time needed to refresh textbooks and printed materials.
How to provide CS education to every student, every grade, every week
Four months after Masters approached the school district, Frederick Douglass launched the CS education pilot. Just 16 months later, 30 additional schools joined the initiative, and more are poised to come on board in the coming years. Here’s how they did it.
1. Identify target student outcomes. Masters knew she wanted her students to be prepared for a future that demands the skills CS teaches. To develop a curriculum around that scaffolding, Marx and partners at Texas Tech University first defined computer science and outlined the competencies a successful student should master, such as analyzing problems, breaking challenges into manageable pieces and testing carefully designed solutions until they work.
2. Secure buy-in. Masters put together a committee—consisting of not only math and science teachers but a reading coach, too—to help her enact her vision while keeping a pulse on campus-wide sentiment. She also sent newsletters out to students’ families and held monthly meetings for parents to learn about how computer science was being incorporated into the school.
3. Train the teachers. Masters was clear from day one that she wanted all her school’s 35 teachers to be trained in CS education. “Having all teachers learn how to instruct computer science gets more buy-in for a cultural change in the school because they’re doing it together,” Marx says. “It also makes the case that computer science is a content as much as math or science, that it’s not about teaching computer skills like keyboarding."
So during the summer of 2016, teachers participated in a day-long training led by Dallas ISD’s partner, Code.org. In the hands-on professional development, educators learned what computer science actually is, how skills learned in CS are needed in today’s economic landscape, and how to use the lesson plans and curricula provided by the computer science nonprofit.
(Code.org provides teacher training nationwide for free, for any K-5 teacher. Find a workshop near you at the nonprofit’s training locator.)
Continuing professional development ensures staff feel prepared. Before the 2016-17 school year began, for example, all teachers participated in a refresher of CS instruction, focusing on the specifics of what implementation would look like.
4. Embrace CS as a school. As a campus, teachers and administrators identified the components of CS education that needed to be addressed in each lesson, including vocabulary, small group work, encouraging a questioning approach to material and social-emotional learning.
For example, teachers use sharing devices and pair-coding practice to incorporate social-emotional lessons, such as how to communicate, manage disagreements, delegate tasks and brainstorm with a partner. The skills are not only critical for a students’ educational success; they’re also key for a future coder’s career.
5. Schedule support meetings. Masters holds mandatory twice-monthly CS meetings for all teachers, in which they go over the upcoming units and address teacher concerns. The school’s science instructors also hold optional support meetings every week, where teachers seek extra help on differentiating a unit in their class, for example.
Lessons learned in integrating elementary computer science
Obstacles may be inconvenient or frustrating, but they’re actually welcome in a pilot: They allowed Dallas ISD and Frederick Douglass to pinpoint needed improvements before rolling out computer science education to elementary schools district-wide. Since the pilot began in fall 2016, they have learned to:
1. Reevaluate frequently. "Sometimes people think you should plow through problems and keep going, but you cannot lose the support of the people who believe in you,” Masters says. “It’s ok to stop something that’s not working, make it better and start again.”
Case in point: At first, the school’s CS curriculum crammed too much into too short a time, leaving teachers and students alike frustrated. Masters listened to feedback and reworked the schedule, adding a week in every unit for catch-up. Providing breathing room allowed kids to go back to lessons they didn’t absorb or complete activities they didn’t finish the first time around.
2. Begin at square one. Although computers are just one tool of CS, many computer science lessons are taught via devices, so digital literacy was crucial for young learners. Instead of launching into computer science, then, the school now begins with one to two weeks of basic technology (how to turn on a tablet, how to use a keyboard), especially for the youngest students.
3. Remove barriers. Teachers pointed out that students constantly struggled to log in to devices. With the help of the district’s technology department, then, the school changed the log-in process from individual IDs to one school-wide passcode.
4. Encourage grassroots cheerleaders. Elementary teachers unfamiliar with computer science may resist teaching a new subject, but many change their minds after witnessing enthusiastic peers dive into the lessons. “Seeing early adopters and kids really enjoying CS makes other teachers jump in and say, ‘I can do this, too!’” Marx says. “Grassroots influence really helps build momentum."
Reflections: Preparing Dallas’ youngest students to be tomorrow’s innovators and leaders
The CS curriculum tested by Frederick Douglass is now being used in 31 elementary schools throughout Dallas. That number will only rise: The 2018-19 school year will add 50 new schools, and the following year will pick up the remaining 70 or so.
Principal Masters didn’t set out to be a pioneer in the space of elementary computer science education, but it is a role she has enthusiastically stepped into, championing her school as a leader in the field. “For me, this was a matter of my mission of helping my students become 21st century learners,” she says. “I didn’t envision being a trailblazer for other people to follow, but I’m so proud of that.”
Masters hopes that other administrators and teachers see Frederick Douglass’ success as a beacon—and as proof that they, too, can integrate computer science into their schools.
“If I were talking to other administrators, I would tell them that computer science will help you create problem solvers, critical thinkers, and scholars. Computer science will benefit them not only at the elementary level but for years to come,” Masters says. She adds that now is the time to offer the opportunities of computer science to the country’s youngest learners.
“If we can spark their love of computers and engineering and math and science, then we will transform our students into productive citizens for the world,” she says. “The younger we expose those opportunities to them, the better chance we have of them being successful in the future.”