Spitfire Strategies

From Commodore 64 to iPads: Decoding the Success of Computer Science in the Classroom

When President Obama announced his Computer Science for All Initiative during his weekly address this January, educators across the Internet let out a collective cheer. Recognizing computer science as a vital part of our children’s education has been a long time coming. The White House initiative is a cornerstone victory in the movement to continually re-envision what and how we teach America’s students.

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Not to be dramatic about it, but having our president call on schools to teach every student a useful 21st century skill is a reform to celebrate. As nonprofits and foundations push for various reforms in education – from revolutionizing our school food to updating our teacher evaluation system – the campaign for computer science education has a lot to teach us about how to spark change in the classroom.  

It began back in 1984, when the College Board introduced the very first AP Computer Science course. For context, 1984 was the first year Apple launched the Macintosh home computer. Thirty years later, we hadn’t made much progress. In 2012, only 10 percent of public schools offered a computer science course. So how did we go from there to the president announcing the Computer Science for All initiative, backed by educators, industry leaders and tech giants, in four years?

The short answer: a lot of hard work. The longer answer is that computer science advocates employed a few smart strategies, which anyone launching a campaign can learn from.

Build on Trends

Campaigns win when they take advantage of existing trends. In 2011, coding classes for kids were still rare, but coding classes for adults through organizations such as Codeacademy and General Assembly had begun to proliferate. It was the perfect time for leaders to embrace the learning trend and demonstrate demand. One of those smart leaders was Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, who built a program to bring coding classes to junior high and high school-aged girls. At the same time, Kimberly Bryant founded Black Girls CODE to provide technology education to African-American girls in the Bay Area.  

Then the private schools jumped in. Beaver Day School in Massachusetts introduced a comprehensive coding program for their students in partnership with MIT. The Brearly School in New York City added coding into their curriculum as an elective. The momentum was starting to build.

Activate Your Allies

While demand was growing, it was time to tap strong allies who would join the charge. Studies showed that teachers in public schools wanted to make the subject available to students but didn’t have the training necessary to do it. Code.org saw an opportunity to build an army of allies in public schools across the country, so they trained a whopping 15,000 teachers in K-12 coding education. To highlight this work, Code.org launched Hour of Code during Computer Science Education Week and provided resources to teachers, making it easy to spend one hour teaching kids to code.

Broaden Your Reach

To take the movement all the way to the White House, advocates needed more partners armed with a clear message. The Department of Labor released data pointing to the need for more STEM workers, while Silicon Valley called for better STEM education to help provide their future workforce. Business leaders across the country spoke out in support. The vision of all students learning computer science suddenly went from nice-to-have, to a necessity – and lawmakers followed suit.

Arkansas became the first state to pass a law requiring computer science to be taught in public schools. New York Mayor DeBlasio announced a plan to add computer science to public schools’ curricula at all grade levels within 10 years. The City of Chicago pledged to make computer science a high school graduation requirement by 2018. The San Francisco Board of Education voted to offer computer science in public schools from pre-K through high school, requiring it from eighth grade onward.

With allies in public schools bought in and policymakers across the country on board, the path was clear for the White House to make a bold move. And when President Obama announced Computer Science For All, advocates were ready to activate their networks to spread the good news wide. Allies across the nation tweeted with the #CSforAll hashtag, and news outlets across the world trumpeted the progress.

A successful campaign is all about knowing your moment and making sure your partners have what they need to advocate on behalf of the campaign. Thanks to smart campaign strategy, we are on our way to a day when every child in America has the STEM skills that will drive the 21st century economy. While the war isn’t won, and the Computer Science education campaign has further to go (issues of equity, technology access and connectivity abound), the campaign is stronger than ever. It’s time to leverage this win to tackle the next fight.  

To discuss how your campaign can change education, sign up for a mentoring session at SXSWedu with Spitfires Jennifer Calloway and Katie Test. Can’t make the mentoring session or won’t be at the conference? We’re still available to help! Email edu@spitfirestrategies.com to talk with us about your communication opportunity.

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