Parting Shot: As He Leaves the U.S. Department of Education, the Leader of its Office of Ed Tech Appeals for Greater Equity

In his final public remarks as director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, Richard Culatta had a few requests.

Please don’t scan in the same old worksheets.

Please don’t record boring lectures and put them online.

Please don’t forget the needs of low-income and minority students, many of whom don’t have easy access to digital devices, speedy Internet service and advanced classes in computer science.

Culatta delivered his plea last week at National Education Week, an annual conference that was held this year at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The outgoing federal leader spoke on a panel about teaching coding in schools, and he used most of his time in the spotlight to talk about equality. We must ensure that the rapid march of innovation does not leave certain groups of people behind, Culatta said.

Women and minorities are underrepresented in computer science courses in high school and college. For instance, girls make up 56 percent of all test-takers in Advanced Placement courses, but just 18 percent of students taking computer science tests, Culatta said. It doesn’t get much better in college, where women make up about 57 percent of all undergraduates, but just 14 percent of them major in computer science.

And the inequality is even more stunning for people of color. In 12 states, zero students of color took the computer science Advanced Placement exam, Culatta said. And a mere 10 percent of people majoring in computer science are black.

“That’s an incredible problem that we need to solve,” Culatta said.

It’s a complex issue, for sure, and it wasn’t always this way. Before the 1980s – before technology was really making waves in the business world – women made up a large portion of computer science majors in college. Some of the pioneers of the field were women.

Then why do we have a problem now with attracting a diverse group of people to a critically important field? Some say that in the 1980s computers began to be viewed as a geeky pursuit, and computers started getting the reputation as a pursuit of interest for boys. An earlier start in tinkering with computers – and toy-like computers – cemented a head start for one type of person: white and male.

And that’s one reason why equal access to computers matters so much. Yes, students can learn without them. Yes, it’s possible to do great teaching without a digital device. Yes, going overboard with computers is a real and pressing problem. But kids who are forced to make do with decade-old computers and slow Internet networks aren’t growing up in an environment that will spark an interest in computers. That matters.

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Warning: Simply sprinkling computers into schools isn’t the answer. Leaders must pick the right kind of technology, and that requires conversations with classroom teachers — before the devices are purchased. But, alas, teachers say they are not frequently consulted, and they often fumble with technology selected by administrators, according to a new poll from TES Global and the Jefferson Education Accelerator.

There are many angles to the equity riddle. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

Culatta, in his conversational, humorous style, said his last act as a representative of the U.S. Department of Education would be a bit of a “federal overreach.” He deputized all the audience members as ambassadors charged with spreading the word about the need for teaching computer science and for equality.

“We need your help,” Culatta said.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.