Can We Fix Computer Science Education in America?

The tech industry is one of the few bright spots in a dim economy. So why aren't we teaching kids the skills they need to participate in it?

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John Landa / Exploring Computer Science

Students at Gardena High School in Gardena, CA work on a robot in their Exploring Computer Science class.

The tech sector is set to grow faster than all but five industries by 2020. Out of those fields, half of which are related to healthcare, tech pays the best with an average salary of $78,730, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If technology is the future, however, we are doing a woeful job of preparing our kids for it. Computer science is the only one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields that has actually seen a decrease in student participation over the last 20 years, from 25% of high school students to only 19%, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

(MORE: Reboot the School)

Meanwhile, tech companies are so desperate for talent that — in the face of a worker shortage partly due to the H-1B visa cap —  a company is planning to build an 1,800-person floating city for foreign entrepreneurs in international waters off the coast of San Francisco.

Why the disconnect? If technology is, as the White House says on its website, “an essential ingredient of economic growth and job creation,” why aren’t we teaching kids how to create it?

Take a look at the curriculum of many classes labeled computer science today and you’ll find not much has changed from the days of dial-up modems. Most cover the basics: learning how to type and use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.

The only serious computing class available to many students is AP computer science and it’s not very popular. Part of the problem is that the course is primarily focused on Java programming.

“Many kids come to high school without any experience in computer science, especially in lower resource schools,” says Jan Cuny of the National Science Foundation. “They’re not really ready to take a year-long course in Java.”

Even if students wanted to dive into programming, the course is only offered in 10% of American high schools. The result? According to the College Board, in 2010, only 14,517 students took the AP computer science test, compared to the 194,784 students that took the AP calculus test and 109,609 students that took the AP statistics test.

Some students are reticent to even take otherwise engaging computer science classes because they don’t count towards graduation requirements. Why? Except for nine states, computer science isn’t considered a math or science course, but rather an elective like woodshop or band.

“When a course is an elective, it’s often marginalized in a couple different ways,” says Cameron Wilson of Computing in the Core, a non-partisan advocacy group that aims to get computer science listed as a core academic subject in more states. “First is that students often don’t have a lot of room in their schedules to take electives because they’re busy taking four years of math, English, science and social studies courses. Second, when a subject is an elective, it often doesn’t receive the same attention and resources at the state and district level that core courses do.”

Why isn’t computer science a core course? According to Wilson, it’s mostly because it’s a relatively new field being taught in an education system that’s slow to change. While policy-makers do understand how big of a role technology will play in students’ lives, in Wilson’s view they often don’t understand the difference between teaching kids how to use technology and teaching them how to create it.

If schools across the country all implemented engaging, core computer science courses, there’s still the problem of finding qualified teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for a high school teacher is $56,760. Software developers, on the other hand, make an average of $92,080.

That’s a lot of money to leave on the table for a college graduate with a computer science degree. The result is teachers that often have neither a background in computer science or certification saying they’re qualified to teach it. In many states, even if a teacher wants to get certified, there is no path for them to do so.

Tech Repair

If policy-makers want to fix computer science education in this country, they might want to look to Israel. “Start-Up Nation” has the highest density of tech startups and attracts more venture capital dollars per capita than any other country in the world.

It’s also home to what is widely regarded as the world’s best computer science education program. The number of high school students who take computer science is roughly the same as the number who take physics, according to to Judith Gal-Ezer, vice president of academic affairs at the Open University of Israel, who wrote to TIME from Israel.

In the mid 1990s, Israel’s Ministry of Education implemented a clearly defined computer science curriculum with the goal that it “should be taught in high-school on a par with other scientific subjects.” It requires its computer science teachers to earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer science and official certification in the subject. Students are free to choose from two different two-to-three year tracts, one for students with a casual interest in computer science and a more rigorous one for students with a special interest in it.

Of course, Israel is a country of 7 million people with a centralized education system. The United States is a mammoth hodgepodge of state and local education authorities. But Exploring Computer Science, a joint project between the National Science Foundation, UCLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District, is hoping its model will catch on.

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