Q&A with Amy Ko on UW's new social-justice educator endorsement

Amy Ko
Amy J. Ko

The UW announced in September that it would launch the state’s first justice-focused computer science educator endorsement with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This project is an opportunity to transform how computer science is taught in grades 6-12 throughout the country. iSchool Professor Amy Ko is the grant’s Principal Investigator (PI):

Q: Transforming education is a daunting task! Where do you plan to begin?

A: The focus of this grant really is on preparing computer science teachers. The hope is that long-term, if we prepare them well, then they will teach rich, inclusive, inspiring classes that frame computer science not just as a powerful tool to change the marketplace, but also as a tool of both justice and injustice.

Given this focus, we have to really think about our own practices in how we prepare these computer science teachers.

Right now, most of the teacher professional development around computer science just teaches computer science basics. It doesn’t teach them how to teach computer science. It just says, ‘Go learn these technical skills,’ and then leaves it to teachers to figure out how to teach those skills effectively. And no programs teach computer science from a justice perspective, linking it to bias, discrimination, and oppression. Our program will do both of these things.

Q: How is your new partnership going to address these gaps?

A: With collaboration. This effort is a particular kind of research called a researcher-practitioner partnership, which means that the research isn’t happening independent of the practice it’s informing. Instead, the research will directly inform the practice partners in our team and, in turn, these partners will inform our research priorities.

Q: Who are your partners and why were they selected?

A: One is the UW College of Education and their secondary teacher education program, directed by my co-PI, Anne Beitlers. Our research will inform the curriculum for pre-service teachers as well as the faculty who are teaching the classes. For the College, framing education from a justice perspective is something their existing programs already do; the new part for them will be doing this for computer science. Our partnership brings together these two kinds of expertise in justice-focused teacher education and CS education. We couldn’t do it without each other’s help.

Our other partners and co-PIs are the Highline School District and Shoreline School District. They have teachers who want to be teaching computer science and this program will help them learn how to do that – for middle school and high school. They are critical for ensuring that the program we design is meeting the diverse needs of our public schools, but also that the pre-service teachers in our program have schools in which they can practice as student teachers. Shoreline and Highline are two school districts that really want to do something in this space, but don’t feel they have sufficient expertise.

Highline and Shoreline also met other criteria we laid out as being important, most notably the diversity of their student body. Demographically both districts are quite diverse. They’re kind of the perfect representatives of all the other districts in the state that are in a similar situation where they are almost ready to take action on CS education but they haven’t quite yet.

Of course, a core part of making all of this work is the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. They are a key partner in the broader sense, contributing expertise, faculty time, and helping attract students to K-12 CS teaching.

Q: How will this work influence education beyond these districts?

A: Part of NSF’s endeavor is to intentionally bring together groups doing similar work in this space and they fund other grants that are just about organizing our community. I meet monthly with 80 other leaders around different states and learn from them and they learn from us.

This is one of roughly 30 grants that NSF gave out for similar efforts. So this really is a nationwide endeavor. We’re all doing different things and we’re all looking at different aspects of different problems, but it’s our team alongside 30 other teams across the U.S. all trying to do similar things to really build infrastructure around K-12 computer science education and prepare the country and its teachers.

Q: Am I correct in thinking that this really isn’t only about computer science as a technical skill? What is the overarching goal or implication of increasing access to CS and improving how it’s taught, in your view?

A: I think it’s both. Computer science is essential for almost all professional careers. There are a few pockets of academia where you might be able to say you’re probably not going to be writing a computer program, like dance, or music. But even things in English these days are starting to move in that direction too. Just like we all write, we’re getting to the point where we’re all going to be writing code, even if just to help save ourselves a bit of time so we can focus on the things computers can’t do.

But beyond being an increasingly important skill, computer science has become a literacy. Take any of the Supreme Court justices for example. In the next year, they will hear all kinds of cases that will somehow involve technology and computing as part of their decision. There’s some likelihood that the constitutionality of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will be heard by the court, for example. This is the section that prevents Facebook from being responsible for the content that’s posted on its site. What should a Supreme Court justice know about information and computing to be able to make an informed choice about the consequences of these types of policies? That’s the broader literacy that we’re curious about, not just for Supreme Court justices, but everyone, in business, in schools, in health care, in government, and more.

So if you take that vision and say, ‘This is a literacy and it should be part of public education,’ then teachers suddenly become very central to that mission.