What Do Unpaid Lunch Tabs Mean for Schools?

Like many parents of school-age children, Frances Frost tries to keep up with the papers sent home in her daughter Natalie’s backpack. Sifting through permission slips, picture day fliers, field-trip notices, and other forms seems like a daily occurrence, and often somewhere lost in the pile is a reminder to send money to her fifth-grader’s school cafeteria. As the mother of four, refilling school lunch accounts is second nature by now, but last week she was caught by surprise. When her youngest went through the cafeteria line to buy lunch, the cafeteria worker told Natalie she didn’t have enough money to pay for her food: Her mother had forgotten to make the last deposit.

The Silver Spring, Maryland, mom says the lunch server graciously let Natalie keep her selected hot lunch with a reminder to bring money for her meal account. Still, Frost says a process that subjects children to the embarrassment of returning their lunch—one that isn’t uncommon in schools across the country—just isn’t sound. “There should be a way to indicate before they get into line that they don’t have enough on their account to save [children] the distress of having to return their lunch,” she said.

A debate on school nutrition—trading pizza, fries, and cookies for whole grains, fruits and vegetables—has raged for years, while a parallel debate has gone somewhat unnoticed and unaddressed: What should be the consequence for children with delinquent school-meal accounts? While the most pressing issue in some school cafeterias is students tossing healthier school lunches in the trash, in others it is school employees dumping children’s lunches in the trash for nonpayment. And the result is hungry children, stunned parents, and increasing questions about how school districts handle overdue payments.

Last year in Bedford, Kentucky, parents complained and accused the local elementary school of “bullying” after a child’s lunch was confiscated and thrown away in front of her friends for running a negative balance. In Dowagiac, Michigan, Dominic Gant, a high-schooler, was left embarrassed and hungry when his lunch was taken and trashed for owing $4.95. A 12-year-old in Dickinson, Texas had his school breakfast dumped over a 30 cent debt. And two years ago in Utah, some 40 students had their lunches seized for unpaid meal debts in a case that caused a national uproar. A parent of one of the Utah children told the Salt Lake Tribune it was a “despicable” act, and questioned why children should be “punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up.”

An Easier Way to Enroll in School Lunches

The notion of taking children’s lunches away and throwing them in the trash—in some cases, in front of the child and their peers—angers parents and exposes school officials to scorn. But behind the outrage lurks a larger issue. Survey data from the advocacy group School Nutrition Association shows that overdrawn lunch accounts create real financial challenges for school districts, forced to weigh mounting costs against unsatisfied students and families.

Findings from the group’s “State of School Nutrition 2014” offers a glimpse at the scope of the problem for school leaders. In a nationally representative survey of more than 1,100 school nutrition directors working in public-school districts, nearly 71 percent of districts reported their school nutrition program had unpaid student-meal debt at the end of the 2012-13 school year. The amount of debt varied greatly depending on the size of the district, with school-lunch debt ranging from $2 among the smallest jurisdictions to $4.7 million among large districts. And for more than one-third of districts (38 percent), the number of students who can’t afford to pay for their lunch is growing, in part an indication of the higher percentage of children now living in poverty. According to SNA, the increases are most common in mid-sized school districts, and geographically concentrated in the Northeast and Southeast.

Parents and school administrators must work together to reach a balance and develop meal policies “that respect students while preventing escalating unpaid meal debts,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the nutrition association’s spokesperson. While federal funds cover the cost of school breakfast and lunch for low-income children, parents “[saddle] the district with a debt that impacts the quality of meals for all students,” when they fail to enroll in the program or pay for their children’s full-price meals,  Pratt-Heavner said, adding that school-meal programs typically operate independently of districtwide budgets and rely on sales to cover food and labor costs.

The USDA, which oversees school-nutrition programs, says unpaid meals are a matter of “local discretion,” according to Pratt-Heavner, whose organization seeks clear and firm federal guidance on how schools should manage unpaid meal debts. To strike a compromise, many districts establish policies to feed students unable to pay for a hot school meal. In the SNA survey, a majority of districts had either a formal policy (46 percent) or informal procedure (29 percent) for students who lack the funds to pay for breakfast or lunch. What’s not so easily measured, however, is the underlying stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals that might force some families to opt out of the assistance.

While tossing food is not a preferred method, alternatives can be equally tricky. Substitute meals, which some districts use as a compromise, can also earn condemnation from students. Earlier this year, an Indiana student took to social media after witnessing a lunch tray taken away from a classmate at her high school and replaced with cheese and bread. In a January 5th Facebook post, Sierra Feitl shared a picture of the sparse lunch, calling it “absolutely mortifying” that her classmates would receive this as their daily school meal. On the defensive, the district superintendent countered that Kokomo School Corporation had more than $50,000 in delinquent meal fees last year, and the new policy was consistent with neighboring districts.

Understanding the impact of these responses to nonpayment is especially important given how many children suffer from food insecurity. A 2015 online survey of K-8 teachers, principals, and support staff conducted by the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength found 75 percent of teachers and 84 percent of principals say their students are coming to school hungry, and more than half (59 percent) of educators state “a lot or most” of their students depend on school meals as a primary source of nutrition.

Similar findings on child hunger have led some urban school districts with large numbers of low-income families—including Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore—to bypass the bookkeeping and provide free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of financial means. The programs, which are subsidized by the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program, replace cafeteria checkout lines and the angst of overdrawn lunch accounts with universal free breakfast and lunch.

The federal program also helps prevent the side effects of hunger on education, which research shows can interfere with physical and cognitive skills, from strength and coordination to concentration and problem-solving. As the Maryland state lawmaker Keith Haynes explained to the Huffington Post about Baltimore’s new meal initiative: “Students, whether they can afford to purchase food or not throughout the school year, now have the same access to balanced, nutritious meals … it lets students focus on getting through the day without having to be hungry.”

In trying to see the issue from all perspectives, Frost, the Maryland mom, settles on what may be the most crucial consideration. “I can imagine it’s hard for the cafeteria worker that has to retrieve a lunch from a child. And yes, parents who can afford to do so should be responsible in paying their child’s lunch fees. Yet children shouldn’t be made to go the day without any lunch because of their parent’s action … it’s the child who suffers the consequences.”

A Better Way to Teach History

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The field of history is often dismissed as dull, but educators like Moss are experimenting with innovative teaching strategies to teach history in a way that is effective, exciting, and productive. There’s “Reading like a Historian,” based at Stanford and aimed at the K-12 level, which explicitly hones the ability to take primary sources and interpret, construct meaning, recognize competing narratives, and contextualize as a historian would. “Reacting to the Past,” started at Barnard College by Mark Carnes, is a student-centered college curriculum consisting entirely of role-playing games. “Facing History and Ourselves,” which grew out of a course focused on the Holocaust, uses a multi-pronged approach to get young people in grades six through 12 thinking about the ramifications of genocide and mass violence as a way of reflecting on moral choices they themselves face in their own lives.

History education generates heated controversy among educators and policymakers. There is a long history of tension over which historical facts children should be learning in school and when, whether a particular set of proposed standards is too patriotic, too multicultural, or whitewashes uncomfortable truths. Controversies over the content and nature of what children are learning often fall along political lines: The Michigan State Board of Education recently delayed voting on its new social-studies standards because of a controversy over whether liberal bias was behind proposals to include civil rights in the curriculum before high school, while in Texas, critics repeatedly accuse textbook authors of reflecting conservative political views in their coverage of topics such as religion or slavery.

Big History Project, the debate over factual content versus skills—one that has actually waxed and waned ever since history emerged as a field of study a century and a half ago—pertains to a false dichotomy. “You can’t do historical thinking without facts, and you can’t acquire stuff without some sort of historical thinking,” he points out. A good history teacher can teach both effectively, agrees Elaine Carey, a history professor at St. John’s University and the former vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She emphasizes that teachers can teach “skills through content,” and that you “can’t understand historical continuity if you don’t have historical knowledge.”

The case method goes beyond historical skills and factual content; it aims to hone decision-making skills. Each case is a concentrated story about a specific episode in history. Students are asked what they would have decided had they been, say, an advocate arguing for compulsory public education in 1851, or Theodore Roosevelt deciding whether to intervene in a dispute between labor and industry in 1901. It’s not until after they have fully discussed the case that the historical outcome is revealed to them. (Class participation, even though it is mandatory, is enthusiastic: “We can have 40 hands in the air at any given moment,” Moss tells me.)

Few students think about history that way, according to Moss. Instead, they’re often taught that “what happened is what happened.” Unlike with many history courses, where students look back at historical events students in Moss’s course “play history forward. If you were in that place as that voter, that labor leader, or that congressperson, what decision would you have made?”

* * *

One of the reasons American children often appear to struggle in history, Bain says, is because their knowledge is primarily assessed through multiple-choice tests. Multiple-choice assessment, by nature, often privileges factual content over historical thinking. “If you’re testing historical content out of context, that might explain why they don’t do so well,” Bain says. He advocates embracing the use of narrative—even if that narrative is flawed or one-sided. “The grand narrative is pejorative to many in the historical profession—people say that it tries to inculcate a particular viewpoint in kids. But having a big picture or story is cognitively critical to historical knowledge.”

Similarly, history textbooks appear omniscient and objective, and tend to gloss over competing narratives. But educators say that understanding whose narrative is being told helps students to engage with it; even if it is wrong or they disagree with it, the narrative provides context and a more effective way to learn and remember. “The argument I make all the time is, it’s like if I were to ask someone to assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the box-top picture of it. You could of course eventually put it together but the effort to match shapes and colors on each piece would be monumental, and you’d likely give up quite quickly. Such is what happens to many kids in school.”

It’s difficult to track down research corroborating the academic benefits of the case method, but anecdotal evidence speaks to its power. Moss tells me he has observed the results of story-based teaching in his classroom. “People remember cases incredibly well—and often at a level of detail that’s almost shocking. Stories stick in the mind, and when you learn history with a focus on particular stories it’s much easier to remember the pieces around them.”

David Kaufman, a student who took the course last year, says that discussing history through a series of cases allowed the students to “focus a lot more on the process than on, say, the actual legislative result, which I think was much richer.” It is well known that stories aid learning because of how memory is structured. The cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of two modes of knowing: paradigmatic and narrative; with the latter, attention and emotion influence the strength of a memory. Stories activate emotion, which helps students stay engaged and remember. They also feed the human need to fit things into a coherent structure in order to make meaning of them.

All this makes the case method promising for high school, too, and some of Moss’s cases were indeed adopted for use by history teachers at public and private high schools in a pilot program beginning early last year. One of the participants, Eleanor Cannon, a history teacher at St. John’s School in Houston, expressed astonishment at how students who never thought of themselves as history types before grew to love history. “I’ve never had this experience as a teacher before, and it’s explicitly due to the case method—it’s a game changer.” Rather than merely know which decisions historical figures made, her students now understood why. Facts she had taught multiple times, such as that the Constitution was not handed down intact by the founders but emerged from a protracted period of intense tumult, debate, and compromise, made visceral sense now after students read and discussed a case on James Madison and the making of the Constitution. (As one student told Cannon, “I didn’t realize how much they argued!”)

Moss compares immersion in case after case to batting practice that helps train judgment. The idea is to help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making—and develop better judgment—in “much the same way as you might learn a language. It’s not an algorithm, it’s the development of an instinct—at least in part,” says Moss. They also provide historical perspective when looking at problems today.

Take the current debate over immigration. Although none of Moss’s cases focuses principally on immigration, themes of exclusion/inclusion are woven throughout, potentially reminding readers that unpleasant historical episodes have happened again and again. A group of people will become accepted into the fold, only to see the fire turned on another one; who the “threatening” outgroup is always changing. “You can see it as deeply disturbing,” Moss says, “that there always seemed to be an outgroup that some Americans looked down upon, but you could also see that there is an ongoing process of expanding tolerance, over time. This doesn’t create an excuse for bigotry—absolutely not—but it does give you a little hope that when there is bigotry it’s not necessarily permanent; there is a chance to get past it, group by group, with the result eventually being a broader, more tolerant society.”

One of Moss’s arguments about democracy is that it is far more complex than people tend to realize—that “it is not a machine built to specification.” Instead, democracy can be understood as a living organism that thrives on productive tension, engagement, and change. Without movement, it would die. Moss mentions the de facto national motto first suggested in 1776 by Benjamin Franklin: E Pluribus Unum. “Out of many, one.” Franklin saw difference that achieves common purpose as a core strength of the country. If one were to apply this analogy to history, ongoing debates about how to teach it only enhance the field—as long as educators remain committed to the same shared goal of helping students understand the past in order to face the future. “The best ideas come out of tension, out of disagreeing,” Moss tells his students. “Tension is what ensures the best ideas win out.”

A Turnaround in Denver

The staff at McGlone Elementary School has a mantra: Happy kids learn more.

It’s why the extended-day school in far northeast Denver offers nearly two hours of specials like art and music per day; why the cheerful and affectionate principal keeps a few “golden tickets” clipped to her lanyard to give out as rewards; and why the classrooms aren’t the hushed, sit-up-straight, no-excuses type you might find elsewhere.

On a recent afternoon, two fifth-grade boys in matching navy polo shirts and spiky hairdos huddled next to each other in teacher Matt Johnson’s math class. Sharing a single notebook page, they worked to solve one divided by three, their skinny elbows pressed together in the unselfconscious way of elementary-school students.

“It should be three halves!” one exclaimed.

“Why?” the other asked.

“Oh, wait!” the first boy cried out. “Thirds!”


McGlone’s joyful philosophy seems to be working. Once one of the lowest-performing schools in the city, its impressive academic growth has turned it into a district darling. Then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan toured the school last spring, and the district recently made a video about McGlone after its students showed remarkable improvement on state literacy tests.

But McGlone wants to do more. In a district that values innovation and encourages its school leaders to think like entrepreneurs, the Montbello neighborhood elementary school—where 97 percent of the students are minorities and 95 percent are living in poverty—is asking to expand to serve sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders.

It’s somewhat of an unusual request. But leaders say that McGlone graduates who are used to a nurturing environment where hugs are as common as hellos are struggling at the area’s secondary schools, many of which follow a sixth-through-12th-grade model.

“I wonder if the system we have set up right now tells us that childhood in Montbello is over at age 11,” said principal Sara Gips Goodall. She hates to think of her babies, as she calls them, losing their way.

“I think our success hinges on kids feeling so supported and so loved.”

* * *

Five years ago, McGlone was among the worst-performing schools in the city. It was ranked red, the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system—and it wasn’t the only one in far northeast Denver.

McGlone has gone from “red” to “green.” (Roy Barnett / McGlone)

In late 2010, DPS took drastic and controversial action in that part of the city. For McGlone, that meant undergoing “turnaround,” an attempt to transform the school with the help of more money and a new staff but without shutting it down and starting from scratch. Teachers at McGlone had to reapply for their jobs; only a handful were rehired.

School turnarounds don’t always work. Some DPS turnarounds have continued to flounder. But McGlone has shown progress.

Today the school is ranked green, the district’s second-highest rating. It’s gone from a place where only 10 percent of teachers stayed year after year to one where 90 percent do, according to its own statistics, and its enrollment has increased by more than 150 kids.

While McGlone’s test scores have risen, they’re still below district averages. Just 20 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on state literacy/language-arts tests taken last spring, compared to 32 percent districtwide. But McGlone kids showed more academic growth in literacy last year than any other elementary school in Denver, according to the district’s number crunching.

“This school was really, really low—and now we’re the highest,” said fifth-grader Luis Salcedo.

McGlone’s math scores were similar: 17 percent of students met or exceeded expectations versus 26 percent districtwide. But McGlone students showed growth there, too.

Salcedo and two other students led a recent school tour past bulletin boards festooned with test data, a science class where kids eagerly awaited the arrival of fish and snails for an experiment, and a gymnasium full of screeching first- and fifth-graders playing tag while Katy Perry blared from a set of speakers. When the teacher blew the whistle, the kids plopped down in rows and recited the names of different muscles. “Abdominals! Abdominals! Abdominals!”

“The teachers are always having your back and always teaching you what you need to know to pass the test,” said another fifth-grader, William Campos, who has attended McGlone since preschool—before the turnaround. “And you always feel safe. And proud of coming in.”

“Before, the teachers would scream at the kids and the kids would run around,” said fifth-grader Rebecca Cisneros, who’s also been there since preschool. “But now I feel like it’s more stable and safe.” When asked why, she offered this: “I guess because of Ms. Goodall.”

* * *

Goodall came to Denver in 2008 as a Teach for America teacher. She was assigned to Godsman Elementary, a high-poverty school in the southwest part of the city. She ended up staying three years, a year longer than was required, before leaving to attend the Harvard School Leadership Program, where she interned at a Boston turnaround school.

Goodall with a fifth-grade class that won one of McGlone’s character awards (Sara Gips Goodall / McGlone)

Eager to apply what she’d learned in a city she’d grown to love, the native East Coaster returned to Denver and started as an assistant principal at McGlone in the fall of 2012.

McGlone had become an innovation school the year before, meaning it was granted the flexibility to do things such as extend its school year and school day to help kids catch up. Students were making academic gains, but the school’s culture had taken a hit, Goodall said.

“Kids were angry,” she said. In addition to mandatory uniforms and a longer school day, she said, the students were being taught by new teachers who were asking them to work harder.

That year, Goodall met with a group of teachers and asked them what she saw as an important question: How can the administrators support you in building a better school culture?

They ended up writing a culture plan that includes monthly assemblies where both kids and teachers give shout outs, as well as several new recognitions and awards. The biggest is the Pack Leader (McGlone’s mascot is the Lobos), which students earn “for being a really good kid,” Goodall said. The Pack Leader isn’t necessarily the highest-grade getter but is someone with good attendance who tries hard, shows improvement and has pride in the school.

“We’ve done tons of different stuff to say, ‘You matter as a person as well as a math score,’” she said.

When Goodall became principal in 2013, she started double specials blocks. Instead of back-to-back math blocks, students might get math followed by art, music, physical education, science, or technology. The schedule has several benefits, Goodall said, not the least of which is fun. More fun, she believes, leads to happier students, which means fewer disruptions and more learning.

“Your math class is going to be better because you had a great arts block,” she said.

It’s also a way to keep kids coming, even if they’re dealing with tough situations at home. “They have to have a reason to love school,” Goodall said, “and sometimes it’s not reading groups.”

Meanwhile, classroom teachers use that time to dissect student data and plan lessons. Goodall prizes professional development, and teachers said they’re not afraid to ask for help.

“You can walk into any room and ask anyone anything,” said the fifth-grade teacher Lizzie Newcombe. “For me, as third-year teacher, I’m still kind of starting out. The amount of expertise and collaboration is incredible.”

A McGlone first-grader practices her reading. (Roy Barnett / McGlone)

McGlone was one of the first schools in the district to have “teacher-leaders,” who spend half their time teaching and the other half coaching other teachers. This year, Amy Lovell is one of them. A former first-grade teacher, she splits her time between providing intervention for struggling readers and observing teachers and helping improve their instruction.

“We just kind of look at our kids and really try to figure out what motivates them,” she said. “We’re not traditional in that sense of, ‘Everyone turn to page 5, read together and answer questions.’ Every classroom knows their students’ strengths.”

The instructional superintendent Tanya Carter, who oversees McGlone and three other turnaround elementary schools in the far northeast, said she thinks the combination of strong academics and culture has made McGlone successful. Not every school does both well, she said.

“I think of the word ‘family’ when I think of McGlone,” Carter said. “They really do believe they are a family.”

That feeling, in addition to McGlone’s academic improvement, has changed the way the Montbello neighborhood views the school.

“A few years ago, I’d say (my kids went to) McGlone and it was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’” said Shina Leonard, a paraprofessional at McGlone who has three kids who currently attend the school. “Now I say, ‘Oh, they go to McGlone,’ and it’s, ‘How do I get in?’”

* * *

Goodall and her team have already told DPS that McGlone would like to add a middle school.

Goodall with two McGlone fifth-graders (McGlone)

But getting one isn’t that easy. The district, which is the largest in the state and getting bigger every year, has a formal process for soliciting ideas for new schools. It’s called the Call for New Quality Schools, and the most recent one was published last week.

It calls for a new middle school in the far northeast that could open in the fall of 2017 with space for 450 students. Residential development is booming in that part of the city—and many of the new houses are single-family, which tend to yield more schoolchildren.

The district is also asking for an additional 180 to 270 middle-school seats by 2017 or sooner. That’s not enough to warrant an entire new school, but the district’s request says those seats could be added to an existing school, provided it’s a top-performing one.

McGlone wants to help fill those needs. School leaders plan to submit a formal letter of intent next month and an application by April, as is required by the process. The school board will vote to approve the school ideas, and where they’ll be located, in May and June.

McGlone is already at capacity this year with 730 students. To expand would require some construction. In the meantime, Goodall has an idea: She’d like to add two sixth-grade classes this fall, making room by having the two assistant principals also share her small office.

But DPS hasn’t given the interim proposal the green light, she said. Until it does, Goodall has no choice but to advise her fifth-grade parents to choose other schools for their kids for sixth grade.

A student raises her hand in class. (Roy Barnett / McGlone)

Leonard is one of them. Her son, Damien, started at McGlone in kindergarten the year before the turnaround began. He left school that year not knowing how to write his name. Leonard was ready to switch schools but the staff pleaded with her to give turnaround a chance.

She’s glad she did. By second grade, her son had caught up. Now, his test scores are above average. But she’s worried he’ll slip again in middle school.

“These kids form their groups of friends, they feel safe, they know what’s expected of them and then you break them all apart,” she said.

The 28 students in one former McGlone fifth-grade class ended up at 11 schools.

“A lot of kids fall through the cracks,” Leonard said. “That’s my biggest fear.”

Danielle Case has watched her 13-year-old son struggle after leaving McGlone two years ago.

“He had built such a good relationship with all the teachers there that when it came time to go to a middle school, it was really hard,” she said. “His friends didn’t follow him to the school that he selected. That caused a lot of depression for him and he started getting bullied a lot.”

When her son heard about the proposal to expand McGlone, Case said, “he kept saying, ‘I wish that was there when I was having to go into sixth grade.’” He continues to keep in touch with the teachers at McGlone, she said, even visiting them after school and over the summer.

Stories like that are all too common, Goodall said—and all too painful to hear.

“I’m really proud of everything our school has done,” she said. “It’s still not enough.”

McGlone teachers, parents, and students advocated for a middle school at a December school board meeting. (McGlone)

That’s why on a Thursday night in December, a week before Christmas, dozens of McGlone teachers, parents and students filled the gymnasium where the DPS school-board holds its monthly meetings. Dressed in maroon and navy McGlone T-shirts and toting hand-drawn signs, they waited to address the board.

Johnson, the fifth-grade math teacher, told a story about one of his students, named America. The girl had tried to stall taking a tough test by complaining she had to go to the bathroom.

“‘Well, Miss America, we’ve only been here for about five minutes,’” Johnson told her. “‘Do you need to go to the bathroom or do you want to go to the bathroom?’

“Well, Mr. Johnson,” she replied. “What’s the difference?’”

Eventually, Johnson said, America admitted that she wanted to go to the bathroom—and she didn’t want to take the test because it was “boring and hard.” He thanked her for her honesty and then asked another question: But do you need to take the test? Yes, America said, because she knew that understanding math would help her be successful in life.

“I tell you this story because at McGlone, we don’t always give you what you want,” Johnson told the board. “But we definitely make sure our students have what they need. And right now, what we we need is a middle school.”

This post appears courtesy of ChalkBeat Colorado.

Why School Location Matters

The conversation about how to make college more accessible is not new, but a critical piece of the debate has been largely ignored.

The geography of where schools are located and the impact of so-called education deserts on students is the topic of a new paper by a pair of researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“If higher education is to better serve students and expand educational opportunities,” the paper asserts, “then stakeholders must prioritize the importance of place and understand how it shapes college options.”

First-generation and low-income college students are disproportionately likely to attend schools close to home. Increasing numbers of college students are also parents and breadwinners, too, with community ties and jobs that are difficult to uproot. So even when these students are informed about schools far away that might be a good fit, or given scholarships to attend, many, for a variety of reasons both financial and cultural, choose to stay local.

And that can seriously limit their access to college.

The paper points out that more than 57 percent of incoming first-year students who enroll in public four-year schools attend college within 50 miles of home. Students of color and those from lower-income families are even more likely to stay nearby.

Where there are good, affordable, and accessible (not highly selective) options within close range, that’s not a bad thing.

But the paper finds that between 6 and 12 percent of the nation’s adult population lives in an education desert, and between 1.29 and 2.86 million students attend college in education deserts. Most are in the Midwest and Great Plains states, but education deserts are everywhere, and their residents tend to have lower-than-average educational attainment levels. Many are home to colleges, but not broadly accessible public institutions.

“As we talk about equity going forward and we talk about post-traditional students, I do think it’s really an important dynamic and we are going to have to consider it,” said Sarita Brown, the president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit that has looked extensively at ways to expand college access. “Does every student have access to a quality education, if, in fact, the distribution of educational institutions by happenstance or by taxpayer investments sidesteps areas where population growth is occurring?”

Take Columbia,  South Carolina. Twenty private colleges serve 13,600 students, but there is just one community college educating 17,800 students. In Laredo, Texas, 94 percent of adults are Latino, and many are lower-income, first-generation students. The population of 260,000 is served by four schools, but just one, the community college, is accessible. While selective Texas A&M and a couple of for-profit schools (which are accessible but costly) serve 40 percent of students in the area, Laredo Community College alone is tasked with serving the remaining 60 percent, or 20,700 students.

Similar stories are playing out across the country. “The private nonprofit colleges operating in these areas tend to be selective (only one in four are broad-access), while local for-profit colleges tend to be smaller and more expensive institutions,” the report notes. “As a result, public community colleges play a significant role in delivering opportunities to residents of education deserts. The role of the community colleges cannot be understated: they enroll over half of all students who live in education deserts.”

Yet community colleges tend to be some of the most cash-strapped schools, with fewer resources and less robust networks of alumni who can offer students, particularly those without their own built-in networks, a path to prosperity.

Lead author Nicholas Hillman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison says he sees the paper as a “proof of concept” that he hopes will ignite a dialogue about equity and the capacity of the higher-education system to serve students.

The issue, he said, is one that is not going away. Tomorrow’s college students don’t fit the untethered, care-free mold, which makes providing accessible options near home even more critical. Certainly, he acknowledged, addressing barriers that prevent students from attending more distant schools, such as the lack of campus childcare and the high cost, would likely encourage more enrollment everywhere. But that’s not going to eliminate the need for quality options close to home.

And he hits back at the idea of online learning as a panacea. While it works for some students, studies suggest that distance learning has particularly negative effects on students of color and those who work and go to school at the same time.

Brown agrees. “Education is a human enterprise,” she said. “Face time is important.”

While there’s no easy fix for addressing the number of education deserts, the report suggests modifying the nation’s higher-education law (which is on Capitol Hill’s agenda, but unlikely to happen before the 2016 elections) to help schools in deserts expand their capacity to serve more community residents. Selective school in college deserts could also work with local community colleges to accept more transfer students or offer opportunities through a partnership.

The New York City College of Technology, Brown noted, has expanded night and weekend classes so students who work can attend. Long Beach City College has increased community outreach and mentoring of underserved students.

“It’s not like it’s not available. It’s still not plentiful,” Brown said. “I think this is the new area for institutions to innovate around.”

Their future could depend on it. College enrollment is down for the fourth straight year, even as more young people and adults say they think degrees are necessary. If we want to address the disconnect and expand access to college, the geography of the options needs to be a part of the conversation.

Fixing Schools Outside of School

KIPP Thrive Academy in Newark, New Jersey, was founded after a public-private school partnership was forged in the city. Mel Evans / AP

How do you fix a school? For more than a decade, test scores have ruled the day—and the idea that if students didn’t perform well, teachers and schools should be held accountable. Shut down the schools with low scores, the thinking went, and start over somewhere else or as charter schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, brought a more market-oriented approach to K-12 education—the idea that rewarding good schools and weeding out the bad ones would drive achievement higher. The law, replaced in December with a new education bill that largely moves oversight to the states, brought advances in keeping schools accountable for students’ performance. But it did little to address root causes of struggling schools—notably, poverty and a lack of support at home. A student from a low-income household faces an uphill battle to succeed in school, and even a talented teacher can do only so much.

The ideal solution: End poverty. That’s out of a school district’s hands, of course. But schools have found ways to help their students’ lives outside of the classroom, or at least adjust to them, by finding partners in the rest of society—businesses, nonprofit groups, foundations, public libraries, parent groups—that have an interest in a strengthened system of education. In a world of limited resources for schools (and for other public endeavors), the schools have come to depend on the kindness of outside partners.

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John King, the acting secretary of education, believes outside partnerships are critical to surmounting obstacles that students face today. He should know. King, who lost both of his parents to illnesses by the time he was 12 years old, credits New York City public schools with providing him hope during a challenging time. “There’s no question that what happens inside of the classroom—the work of teachers and principals—can shape the course of students’ lives,” King said in a telephone interview. “But it’s also true that schools are embedded in communities, and if we want to ensure that all of our schools are successful, we need good partnerships.”

This isn’t just about money. Philanthropic donations to all educational institutions (public, private, libraries, universities, etc.) amounted to roughly $55 billion in 2014, mostly for higher education. The little that goes to K-12 public schools is an afterthought to the nearly $600 billion the nation’s primary and secondary public schools spend each year.

Partnerships with outsiders matter for another reason: They give educators a chance to experiment and innovate in ways that might have been difficult otherwise. A business or foundation can bring a fresh perspective to a problem, as well as expertise and resources. King cites Brooklyn’s P-Tech as a collaboration between schools and companies—in this case, IBM. “That’s a place where school leaders are being smart about identifying business partners who can help students see strong connections between what they’re doing in a high school classroom and their future,” King said. The school, which opened in 2011, lets students earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree in six years, then get an inside track on jobs at IBM.

flip the school day, so that students would watch lectures at home or before class, giving teachers time to help students with homework during classroom hours.

But this wasn’t something the school could do on its own. Green reached out to TechSmith, a Michigan-based software company that offered a screen-recording program, and asked for help. TechSmith first provided free licenses for Clintondale teachers to experiment with prerecorded lectures and later sent staffers to the school on a regular basis to troubleshoot and to research best practices for this upside-down model of education. Eventually, Green applied it school-wide, lowering failure rates dramatically and pulling Clintondale out of an ignominious ranking among the state’s worst-performing schools.

Some of the most effective partnerships are concerned less with pedagogy than with removing impediments to a child’s education. Clintondale found a way to provide services that students might not get at home—a helping hand with homework. Other schools attend to students’ physical well-being. In Lower Price Hill, a mostly white, working-class neighborhood of Cincinnati, Oyler School makes sure students have access to adequate health care. The school has medical and dental clinics on site as well as a vision center where students can get free eye exams. Also, children can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school and bring food home for the weekends.

A student with an empty stomach or a toothache won’t learn as well as one who is healthy. “All kids can learn, and they can learn at high levels, but it’s very conditional on kids having the right opportunities,” said Elaine Weiss, an education expert at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “Those opportunities to learn tend to be extremely disparate, based in particular on social class and also, to a large extent, on race.”

Partnerships have their limits—politically, if not pedagogically—in these ostensibly public schools. Funding alone doesn’t assure a successful partnership. For example, Mark Zuckerberg’s daring announcement in 2010 on Oprah Winfrey’s television show that he would donate $100 million to Newark’s beleaguered public schools. This amounted to an eighth of the school district’s yearly operating budget. The deal was contingent on cooperation between then-Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose office controlled the budget for the school district.

But the experiment ran into resistance from parents and teachers left out of the conversation on how to fix the city’s schools. The results were mixed at best, according to a chronicling in The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Zuckerberg’s $100 million, plus another $100 million in matching funds (from New York hedge fund managers and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others), got spent quickly, with big sums going to labor, contracts, and consultants. Ras Baraka was elected Newark’s mayor in 2014 after a populist campaign aimed at so-called reformers who were “taking away our right to democratically govern our public schools.” While the effort wasn't without its successes—Zuckerberg recently touted a 13 percent increase in Newark's graduation rate since 2010—the acrimonious battle in Newark played out more like a school district takeover than a partnership. “It's very important to understand the desires of a community, to listen and learn from families, teachers, elected officials and other experts,” he wrote, preparing for a similar effort in San Francisco.

More often than not, both sides in well-designed partnerships stand to benefit. Businesses have a stake in helping their communities provide good public education. For one thing, first-rate schools help to lure top talent to a local employer, according to Linda Rosen, the CEO of Change the Equation, a nonprofit group that tries to connect schools and companies to foster science and technology education. Longer-term, businesses may want to groom the type of workforce they’ll need in the coming decades, especially for analytical skills and science-related knowledge. “These companies recognize that the root of that talent is something that needs to be nurtured as early as elementary school,” Rosen said.

Still, it’s important to remember that partnerships between schools and outside entities, while valuable, won’t remedy the deeper causes of struggling schools—poverty and discrimination. Schools can take advantage of whatever resources are available to provide the best education possible. Unless the social and economic forces conspiring against student achievement are eradicated, however, educators will be swimming against the current.

Reno Is Gambling It All on Tech

RENO, Nev.—The first thing that catches the eye on the approach to Reno is a cluster of casinos rising from the valley, a tangible sign of the city’s history as a gambling destination.

But if the orange glow of Circus Circus and Silver Legacy’s moon-like dome entice visitors by night, by day, they are drab reminders of a past this city of 240,000 wants to outgrow.

It is in the midst of trying to reinvent itself as a center of tech innovation where graduates of the University of Nevada’s Reno campus would actually want to live.

Already, there are signs of progress. On the outskirts of town, Tesla is building a gigafactory expected to create 6,500 jobs by 2020. Drone companies, drawn by the area’s status as one of a handful of commercial testing sites, have settled into the area in the last couple of years. Las Vegas-based Switch, Apple, and the cloud company Rackspace have all recently announced new data centers. The city dubbed a stretch of downtown Start-Up Row, and a popular coworking space has given rise to local entrepreneurial ventures.

The transformation isn’t a mere facelift. Reno’s economic health and prosperity depend on it.

Gambling tourism is down and people are more apt to head for the slopes and casinos of Lake Tahoe 40 miles southwest. Reno cannot compete with Las Vegas in terms of entertainment and restaurants, and there is little else to draw vacationers here. The housing-market crash hit locals especially hard, and downtown is dotted more with cheap motels than apartments where software engineers would want to reside.

While city officials say the current revitalization has been in the works for years, the Tesla announcement has lent a certain legitimacy to the idea that the city is a budding destination for tech companies, and sparked a sense of hope among locals that pulling this casino town into the 21st century is possible.

report that suggests Nevada has not done an adequate job of aligning education policy and workforce needs, particularly when it comes to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

In 2013, the report found, 15 percent of the state’s jobs required “a high level of knowledge in at least one STEM field,” whether a four-year degree in computer science or lower-level technical training. Those jobs have driven a significant portion of the state’s economic recovery, helping lower unemployment from 14 percent in 2010 to around 6.4 percent today, and paying 28 to 68 percent more than non-STEM jobs. Yet, the average STEM job in Nevada takes 30 days, or a week longer than non-STEM jobs, to fill. Three-quarters of local kids don’t earn bachelor’s degrees.

In many ways, Muro, whose department looks at demographic and social changes happening in metro areas around the country, added, “what’s happening in Reno is an extreme example of the kinds of challenges many of our metropolitan areas face.” From Detroit to Houston, cities around the country are grappling with how to grow their supplies of middle-skill STEM workers.

Where producing qualified workers wasn’t a major challenge when the casinos were booming (“It doesn’t require a degree to flip cards,” one resident said), the years of coasting are over.

“We don’t have that luxury anymore,” said Mike Kazmierski, the president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada during an interview at his office just south of the Reno airport. “We need educated people.”

Tesla is building a gigafactory outside Reno that will generate thousands of jobs. (James Glover / Reuters)

So the city has adopted a multi-pronged approach that involves ramping up STEM education in schools, strengthening its relationship with the university, and bringing more restaurants, housing, and culture into downtown to convince workers that Reno is a desirable place to live.

On a recent Friday at Dilworth STEM Academy, a formerly struggling middle school just east of Reno in Sparks that has been reworked with a math and science focus, eighth graders Daniel Villasenor and James Tidwell are researching robots online. Later in the school year, they’ll learn to build and program them. There’s not a textbook in sight. Lea Bell, their 33-year-old teacher, received training in how to teach the course through Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that offers professional development for STEM instructors.

Across town at the career-and-technical high school in Reno, transformed in 2009 from a part-time school for juniors and seniors into a comprehensive full-time school offering both core academics and career training, engineering has become one of the most popular courses of study. Tesla, instructors and students said, visited the campus and told students, “We want you to come work for us.” The company will contribute $37 million to K-12 education in the state over the course of five years, and $1 million to battery research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While these steps to expand STEM education, particularly for younger children, are promising, Nevada is among the worst-performing states in the country when it comes to education. A recent Education Week report gave the state an F on education spending and just a D+ on adult outcomes. Washoe County, where Reno is located, has a graduation rate of 75 percent, higher than the state’s 70 percent average but below the national average of 82 percent. While the state’s white students graduate at a rate of 77 percent, just 65 percent of Latino students and 54 percent of black students do.

Kelly Cannon, the science program coordinator for the Washoe County School District, said the district has made progress in increasing its STEM education in recent years, but acknowledged that a lack of professional development for teachers means some STEM-related resources sit unused. The state, Reno included, has also been plagued by a serious shortage of qualified science and math teachers.

To help fill the gap, the University of Nevada’s Reno campus last fall joined UTeach, a national effort to produce more STEM middle- and high-school teachers. The university, which recently began offering a minor in batteries and energy storage technologies, in September unveiled the InNevation Center in a midtown space it acquired from the city. The center, to which Switch contributed half a million dollars, is intended to serve as something of a start-up incubator for both students and community members. That the center is downtown and accessible to non-students (for a membership fee) is an important step. Interstate 80 divides the university from the bulk of Reno and multiple people interviewed for this story faulted both the city and school for largely ignoring each other for years, but said there is increased conversation about how to make Reno more of a college town à la Boulder, Colorado, than simply a town with a college.

“We want to really engage with the community … and foster that connection of people and students and businesses,” said Heidi Gansert, a university spokeswoman who served in the state assembly and is running as a Republican for a state senate seat.

The university’s engineering college, which Gansert said has doubled enrollment in the last 10 years, runs a mobile “engineering-education laboratory” that it took to 320 classrooms in 2014.

The trick, Muro, the Brookings fellow, noted, will be to quickly scale up the number of STEM graduates in a way that, when the casinos were booming, wasn’t important. “It’s really a major cultural shift,” he said. Kids who might become interested in tech through the mobile lab, for instance, are years from entering the workforce, and tech companies are working on a much tighter timeline.

“Nevada’s P-12 public education system and its universities and colleges must begin to ameliorate the state’s existing proficiency crisis if Nevada hopes to prepare greater numbers of students for future opportunities in STEM occupations,” reads the report.

Eighth graders Daniel Villasenor and James Tidwell research robots at Dilworth STEM Academy in Reno. (Emily DeRuy / The Atlantic)

While the city works to produce graduates who are qualified to fill tech jobs and attract companies like Tesla with cushy tax incentives, convincing young people who might be eyeing the vibrancy of a place like San Francisco or Austin that Reno is right for them is another matter entirely. Reno isn’t immediately appealing the way such cities are, but midtown boasts an increasingly vibrant restaurant scene, with hip outposts like Bowl offering diners seared scallops with sunchoke-potato gratin, creamed spinach, and fennel relish for $18. And nearby, a cafe that would be at home in Brooklyn has brought people back to the riverwalk.

Downtown, the former post office reopened as a would-be Chelsea Market, with a juice bar and chocolate and flower shops. An adjacent plaza and bridge are slated to be complete by June. A few blocks east, bars and restaurants have gone up near the new minor league ballpark in the so-called Freight House District. Dotted around the city are works of art from Burning Man (the annual festival takes place in the Black Rock Desert, northeast of Reno). The non-gaming hotel Whitney Peak is gaining traction.

Reno is “on a path to rapid rebirth,” Kazmierski said.

But even he acknowledges that producing enough affordable housing is a concern. Home prices have doubled in the last four years. The city will also have to contend with casinos clinging tightly to the city’s gambling roots. Even with the revitalization effort underway, they are still the city’s most dominant feature.

Bob Fulkerson, the state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and a longtime resident of Reno, worried during an interview at his office along the river that the city has become a place for “resource extraction.”

“We want that money to stay here to build wealth for our families,” he said.

But while city officials like Kazmierski say they are committed to supporting local students and workers, they also have no qualms about attracting big-name companies and new residents to Reno.

“We’re going to have to attract talent to the region,” Kazmierski said.

Muro agrees. Regardless of the growing pains, the opportunity to become a tech hub is a good one for the state. It’s impossible, he said, to underestimate “the symbolic and material importance” of that opportunity in forcing a push toward a more diversified, sustainable economy.

How Should Colleges Share Ideas?

Innovation in higher education has mostly been relegated to individual campuses, often in the form of a small pilot program. A college tests an initiative with a small pool of students, and if the data look promising, it may expand it—eventually. What colleges want now, they say, is scale. Enter crowdsourcing.

Academia is turning to the power of crowdsourcing to solve one of its most pressing problems: how to better serve and adapt to the changing needs of first-year students who are more likely to work full-time and support a family, and are also increasingly low-income and first-generation, many of them students of color.

Historically, innovating and implementing new ideas in academia is slow. Humboldt State University, for example, offers one-on-one mentoring for first-year, first-generation students. Last year, it launched a STEM program for first-time freshmen that promotes hands-on, interdisciplinary learning. Though successful, both are small—built for 75 students in the case of the STEM program; the mentoring program is not yet offered to all eligible first-years.

“We haven’t yet been able to build out everything to get to everybody and we still have a retention rate and four- and six-year graduation rates that are not where we think they can be,” says Theo Kalikow, Humboldt State’s outgoing interim provost. “There are a lot of other things we need to know that we don’t know on our campus. While we can share some of the things that seem to be working for us, there are other campuses that have other pieces of a first-year program that we can learn from.”

Humboldt State is one of 44 campuses selected by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, its parent association, to participate in a major crowdsourcing effort launching Thursday. AASCU has curated a list of what it calls “the most promising practices” from a review of tested strategies from across the country. Each campus has to commit to at least one strategy at four levels: institutional, curriculum, faculty/staff, and students.

Individual campuses may have figured out how to serve students better in a particular area, say mentoring and advising, but might need help in navigating things like curriculum redesign, rewarding faculty, developing career pathways, and using predictive analytics.

“We don’t have a knowledge problem, we have an implementation problem,” says George Mehaffy, AASCU’s vice president for academic leadership and change. “Collectively we do know what works, but individually we don’t. This is an attempt to move from a whole series of people who have their own experience of success with a particular strategy, policy, or practice and now bringing a lot of people together and having everyone understand that and begin to implement that on multiple campuses.”

Students learn water sampling techniques as part of Humboldt State University’s Klamath Connection, a learning community for first-time freshmen. (Courtesy of Humboldt State University)

Each campus will have direct support from AASCU, which will connect campuses tackling similar issues and send education and technical consultants to campuses. AASCU will collect metrics on progress and share the results with all 44 campuses. The project, “Re-Imagining the First Year of college,” is designed to provide campuses with a safe space to experiment and fail—to swap out what simply isn’t working—as well as to make good ideas better and adapt new ideas to fit their needs.

By the end of three years, the goal is for each campus to have a beefed-up strategy for student success with measurable results on things like retention and credits earned, plus a broader support network. AASCU will have a fine-tuned repository of best practices with qualitative and quantitative metrics to share with both its network and the broader higher education community.

Disclosure: The American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ “Re-imagining The First Year of College” program is funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds. The Atlantic’s Next America project is funded in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Reality of Coding Classes

The White House wants every child in the United States to learn computer science.

The president’s plan to reach that goal? Ask Congress to fund a new $4 billion program for states and another $100 million for districts to train teachers and purchase the tools “so that our elementary, middle, and high schools can provide opportunities to learn computer science for all students,” Obama said in his weekly address on January 30.

With Congress’s approval, the $4 billion will be spent over three years to train teachers, connect schools with corporate and nonprofit partners, and expand instructional material. States would apply for a slice of the $4 billion and have five years to use the money. The funding programs, which will appear in the president’s forthcoming budget proposal for 2017, are just the latest effort from the White House to bring more science and technology education to students.

The Obama Administration is hopeful that the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, signals support for additional education spending. But is advocacy for the plan relying on faulty notions about the economy’s need for more coders? And is the price tag enough to underwrite the president’s ambitious goal?

The United States spends magnitudes more on educating the nation’s public-school students than the computer-science money the White House is proposing: Over half a trillion dollars go toward education spending, amounting to roughly $10,800 per student—a tenth of that coming from federal resources. On instruction alone, federal, state, and local governments spent $326 billion in 2013.

With 50 million students in U.S. public schools, the $4.1 billion proposal and additional $135 million from currently funded programs would translate into $86 per kid.

Among administration officials, there’s been some acknowledgment that federal spending alone won’t be enough to teach every student computing. “This is an investment to accelerate state and local efforts,” said acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. during a call on Friday with reporters. “It will need to be accompanied by continued investments on the part of states and districts.”

citing data that shows positions in those fields aren’t experiencing spikes in wages—something economists say would need to happen in a labor shortage because it shows employers are willing to pay more to attract the talent they need.

Michael Teitelbaum, a scholar on the history of STEM, said in 2014 to an audience of education reporters that the post-war U.S. period is dotted with “repeated cycles of alarm, boom, and bust.” He went on to say that “many of the people who were attracted in during the boom phase into majors and graduate degrees in these fields … end up graduating and finding there’s no attractive career path.”

Ron Hira, a scholar at Howard University who studies labor and technology, has been one of the most vocal skeptics about shortages in the informational technology fields. He argues that employers want to saturate the labor market with foreign employees— who are here on work visas and typically earn less than their American counterparts—with the goal of, driving down wages in the IT sector. Others have argued the recent rash of layoffs at tech companies belies concerns there’s a worker shortage in that sector.

STEM skeptics have their detractors, including Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who has written that Hira and others are motivated by “an agenda of redistribution” that boosts the wages of all workers.

Atkinson has also argued that without warnings of worker shortages, public policy to improve STEM outcomes will lag. “If you don’t say there’s a shortage, you don’t drive improvement,” he said in 2015 during a debate with STEM-shortage skeptics.

Other studies show that while information-technology jobs in the future will largely require a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent of jobs won’t, suggesting that a debate around the link between college and jobs may tell an incomplete picture about the STEM workforce landscape.

But even among those critical of the idea there’s a skills shortage, scholars like Teitelbaum believe the U.S. education system could do more to educate students in the sciences. Indeed, national figures suggest computing isn’t as widely taught as more traditional K-12 courses. A small fraction of U.S. high schools offer their students the Advanced Placement class for computer science—4,310 out of the roughly 37,000 high schools in the nation in 2015. By comparison, students took biology, chemistry, and U.S. history AP courses in 9,000, 11,000, and 13,000 schools, respectively. And while roughly 49,000 students took the AP computer-science exam, more than 370,000 sat for biology and chemistry (470,000 for U.S. history).

There’s a diversity problem among AP computer-science students, too. Last year’s crop of test-takers were overwhelmingly male (78 percent) and just 13 percent were either black or Latino. In nine states not one black student took the test, Education Week calculated. (A review of 2014 test data indicates biology, chemistry, and physics B—the most popular of the several physics AP tests—had higher rates of black and Latino test-takers.)

were six to 10 times more likely to study the field in college.

Megan Smith said that in addition to funding computer-science education, the White House initiative would disseminate recent research on how different students learn coding and computing. “One child might be more interested in earth science, one child might be more interested in gaming, one might be interested in social justice,” she said.

The initiative would also encourage states to begin offering computer-science education to younger students, “so that kids don’t have the stereotypes already built in that much of our society delivers to them.” To that effect, she said popular depictions of computer science could use an update to tell a fuller story of who codes. She noted that Obama’s State of the Union Speech this year included a nod to Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who’s credited with inventing the first user-friendly computer language.

The National Science Foundation has funded what it calls more equitable computer-science instructional guides to attract a wider array of students. It’s also been a backer of the push to bring 10,000 computer-science teachers to the nation’s classrooms. NSF’s curriculum designs have been embraced by the College Board and Google’s own outreach efforts to expand computer-science education.

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the assistant director of the NSF, said that “We’re ready now in what we know about how to help teachers develop, especially in fields that they’re not necessarily deeply expert in, and we know a lot about how to support the introduction of computing concepts and computer science in school, in conjunction with other subjects as well as separately.”

Corporations and nonprofits have also been contributing financial support to train more teachers and students in computer science. Microsoft’s Smith said that the company’s employees have taken part in training at 18 states plus the District of Columbia through its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools. Cartoon Network has also committed $30 million to computer-science education.

And it’s not just money. Microsoft and other tech companies have been advocating for computer-science courses to count toward high-school graduation requirements. White House officials said that 22 states don’t allow such classes to count toward a diploma. (The White House’s Smith said in recent years 17 states have made the switch to have those classes count toward graduation requirements.)

But while the White House is urging private companies and philanthropies to do more to expand computer-science training in public schools, Microsoft’s Smith believes the government should be the main driver. “We clearly need the tech sector to continue to do more,” he said. “But there is no way that the private sector or philanthropy can fill this gap by itself. We need more public funding and we need more federal funding.”