'Stuck in the Shallow End'

October 1, 2008

Jane Margolis is a scholar of equity issues raised by technology whose previous book was Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women and Computing. Her new book, which (like the previous one) is published by MIT Press, focuses on how issues of class and race affect access to technology and training. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing is based on research by Margolis in Los Angeles high schools serving students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Margolis, a senior researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: What are some examples or statistics that show the "virtual segregation" between low-income urban and more affluent high schools?

A: Advanced Placement Computer Science (AP CS) is the most advanced high school CS course and the only high school CS course that qualifies for college admission credit. Comparing AP CS course offerings in California high-poverty schools and low-poverty schools, we found in 2006 that 16.2 percent of low poverty schools offer AP CS (not a large number for sure), while only 5.2 percent of high poverty schools offer this course. In Los Angeles, Latino/as represent 69 percent of the high school population, but only 24 percent of the students enrolled in AP CS.

Q: Your study also found problems within affluent high schools with plenty of instruction and services available. What did you find there in terms of differing experiences of minority and other students?

A: Advanced Placement Computer Science was offered only in one of the schools we studied -- the school with the higher number of white students, the school located in a white and wealthy part of LA. In this school, AP CS was insular, populated primarily by students with “preparatory privilege” -- plenty of home resources, including equipment and parents who can be relied on for support or knowledge of the field; further, these students had networks of friends who know much about computing and have plentiful resources at home as well.

One of the biggest differences we found between the white students in this AP CS class and the few minority students that were enrolled was that of social networks. Networks can include counselors or teachers, parents and family who can demystify a subject. And friends. Peer networks. These social networks are ubiquitous for middle class students, and do not exist or function well for students of color. Many of the students of color report that when counselors come to speak with them about college, they feature the local community college, whereas when the counselors speak with the white students they talk about four-year universities such as UCLA.

Further, we found that when a student of color does break the color line and does enroll in the higher level courses (usually alone), the experience in these classes can be isolating, and even a psychological assault -- i.e. the students are made to feel not up to the standard. It is understandable why students tend to want to be in classes where they feel more comfortable and surrounded by friends.

Q: Some of the problems you describe seem to be economic (lack of resources), but others relate to attitudes. Can you describe the problem there?

A: Attitudes play a big role here. We witnessed an educational system that was riddled with low expectations for the students of color. Then what occurs is that low curriculum is designed to match the low expectations.

Teachers and administrators commonly justify the lack of offerings based on students’ lack of interest and/or motivation. But, we witnessed students having lots of interest for technology and computing in the schools, but few opportunities to learn more. Without opportunities, interest will not ignite. Interest is not innate. It is fostered by opportunity and teaching that is engaging.

Q: Colleges have embraced the Web in terms of admissions recruiting and the application process. Does your work raise questions about whether this is wise?

A: I really can’t answer this question. I know very little about admissions recruiting and the application process. I do know that the schools we studied have very high ratios of students per counselor. Sometimes over 500 students for one counselor. The result is that students, especially students of color in low-resourced schools, are often misguided and misinformed about the requirements they need for college.

Q: What advice would you offer colleges on how as institutions they should respond to the issues raised in your book?

A: University computer science departments should be familiar with the computer science curriculum in their local K-12 districts. Interdisciplinary (for instance education and computer science) university/K-12 partnerships could then be formed to figure out how to help strengthen the high school computer science curriculum, how to build the capacity of the local school district so that engaging, rigorous, college preparatory courses in computer science are offered. This needs to be a real partnership as high school educators have much to teach the college partners about the challenges they are facing. Teachers need more professional development so they can teach the classes in an engaging way, and teachers need assistance in being proactive to broaden the participation in computing. Programs that support students also must be put in place.

Also, all educators at every level need to understand more about the details of how fields become segregated. The technical aspects of schooling must be addressed (number of courses, qualifications of teachers), but so must the belief systems (different and often lower expectations for students of color) and the political pressures that narrow down curriculum and end up reducing high end learning opportunities, leaving students of color “stuck in the shallow end,” unprepared for 21st century jobs and opportunities.

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