Computing Profession

Inclusive Integration of Computing in School Districts: Two Essential Tradeoffs


Over the past three years, three school districts and our nonprofit together created more inclusive K-12 pathways for students to learn computer science (CS) and computational thinking (CT). All three districts began with a similar problem: although they were offering high school computing courses (like AP Computer Science), the demographics of students enrolled in high school elective CS courses was not representative of their district.

Historical and current trends have illustrated that white males comprise a majority of students enrolled in AP CS, with Black, Latinx, Native American/Alaskan Native, English language learners and female-identifying students disproportionately underrepresented in high school and beyond (Ericson, 2020). Progress is occurring in creating broader, more inclusive CS and CT experiences for students in many forms, such as courses, kits, programs, curricula and more. More states each year are adopting standards. And yet, our experience is that to address inclusivity and structural barriers for these and other students, school districts must take a central role. Districts uniquely hold the power to ensure that learning for students is accessible, consistent and cumulative across thousands of hours, multiple years, and many different sites.

Here, writing with Brian Giovanini, our partner and the leader of the CT Pathways initiative at Indian Prairie Schools District (IPSD) in Illinois, we discuss the two key tensions at the center of district-level work. These tensions have been previously noted in other types of educational evaluation research, especially research looking at how programs scale up and spread.

  1. Ambition requires a balance between small modifications and complete transformations. It is easier to scale and sustain programs that propose very little change, but it is also not worth spreading only incremental change. Conversely, too much change can lead to resistance and emergent barriers. So, there is a sweet spot between too much ambition and too little. We found that districts have to work with their administrative and teaching staffs to articulate their own sweet spot.
  2. Specificity presents a strain between "high concept" and overly prescriptive programs. It’s very hard to implement vague, high concept programs (think "support students emotional intelligence") as these programs do not tell teachers what change to make. But teachers resist overly prescribed programs as not fitting their classrooms. Likewise, there is a sweet spot that must be identified within each district.

Within Brian’s district, IPSD, both of these tensions were present throughout the year-long process of developing their inclusive computing pathway. IPSD is a suburban school district with 31 schools and around 28,000 students. Some of the schools receive "Title 1" funds, which the Federal government provides to schools with low-income student populations. Driven by the motivation to ensure all students are college and career ready at graduation, Brian explained, "We also wanted to be intentional, especially at our Title 1 schools to make sure that this wasn’t happening in pockets or it was by accident, but it was intentional in all buildings so all students were being exposed and working through this pathway."

Leadership allows principals to make significant decisions about what happens within their school buildings, hence power is distributed. IPSD created their inclusive computing pathway with a committee of district leaders followed by cycles of feedback, piloting, and iteration. Brain describes the iterative process with groups of teachers: "teachers who have really been a part of this work of professional learning, going back to their classroom…implementing, highlighting it in their class, coming back; [discussing] ‘What did they learn? How do students respond to it?’ And then, like, alright, the next evolution." He notes "we’ve evolved over the last three years a lot in our work. We’ve evolved in our pathway, we’ve evolved how teachers initially enter the computational thinking space in positive ways, so it has all been a learning process…." This evolution and learning has helped IPSD to pinpoint the balance within both ambition and specificity and to continuously iterate on their sweet spots.

With regard to the tensions related to ambition and specificity. Brian noted:

"There’s that balance and that push. But, if you go too far they’re like "oh I can’t do that." But if you don’t go far enough, then they don’t move their instructional practice towards those skills and competencies that we think are important for the long term. Without making it a heavy lift, we’ve had to define what meaningful change looks like"

In addition, we noted the following:

  • To specify computational thinking within IPSD, the district decided to make an intentional selection of a short list of competencies that would organize student learning throughout K-12, simplifying ambiguous definitions of CS and CT one finds in the literature. Next the district focused on defining vocabulary to specify the essence of these competencies in clear, approachable language for teachers and students.
  • The district specified where opportunities to teach CS and CT could arise in their existing programs and structures, particularly integrated within classroom and elective classes for elementary students. For example, many elementary schools in IPSD have the same physical architecture and in that architecture, the library-media space is central. Innovations in schools have flowed from these spaces (and the library media directors who support them) to classrooms. Yet, the district was also careful not to prescribe, thus maintaining teacher and building leader autonomy.

  • With regard to ambition, Brian and his team wanted to be sure teachers were not integrating CS or CT in trivial ways (e.g., teachers sometimes say "I teach problem solving, so I already teach CT."). Brian and his team developed examples of integration with current curricula, activities and lesson plans and focused on helping teachers identify when and where CT or CS integration is occurring. Brian described helping teachers "… to look more specifically about what does that look like in the classroom" and to "look at it [curriculum] in the computational thinking lens and…highlight and leverage those [CT] competencies and not that I’m already doing those."

  • IPSD also attended to ambition in their rollout. Particularly due to the decentralized leadership structure within the district, Brian’s team elected to start by targeting specific schools and teachers. Once improvements were made at a few schools, the initiative could expand within the district with the already trained teachers as cheerleaders and supports for others — helping to provide momentum and buy-in as the scale increased.

As they move forward, the district is "attacking it from multiple ways: examples, conversations, professional learning, graphics, continued conversation. So that people are entering the space in different ways and that they are continuing to move forward on it." The district is focused on increasing professional development and continuing to spread CT throughout the district through education of both building leaders and their teachers. As CT expands within IPSD, they will continue to find balance in both specificity and ambition to ensure continued expansion of the IPSD CT Pathway.

We wrote this blog together to illustrate why school districts must have a role beyond responding to state standards, adopting particular programs or materials, or sending their teachers to CS or CT training. Education programs fail to spread and sustain when the tensions around ambition and specificity are not addressed in ways that fit the context of each school district. We have found that spreading equitable CS and CT to low-income schools or in response to other equity challenges requires organizational change; managing ambition and specificity are at the heart of the work that districts must be supported to undertake to make change happen.

Barbara Ericson, AP CSA and CSP data (January 2020). Retrieved June 19, 2021 from


Merijke Coenraad  is a Learning Experience Designer at Digital Promise.  Brian Giovanini is the Director of Innovation for Indian Prairie School District 204 in Illinois. Kelly Mills is Project Director, Computational Thinking at Digital Promise.  Jeremy Roschelle is Executive Director of Learning Sciences Research at Digital Promise and a Fellow of the International Society of the Learning Sciences. 

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More