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.

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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.

Anthony Pagan has been teaching its curriculum for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles, a school with a student body that’s 90% Latino. When he first arrived, the school offered only one computer course which taught typing and how to use Microsoft Office.

“The word of mouth spread after the first year I taught the course and during the second year I was teaching four sections of Exploring Computer Science,” says Pagan. “It proves that, in the end, all that hard work is worth it. These kids can do it, whether or not English is their first language.”

The course ditches Java for a visual drag-and-drop language developed by MIT called Scratch, which introduces students to programming concepts with what Pagan likens to “virtual LEGOs.”

Speaking of LEGOs, students get to build robots they program themselves. They also create computer games and learn how to organize huge data sets they create with donated smartphones.

Other teachers have had similar success, like Elaine Blomeyer at South Gate High School, located southeast of Los Angeles. Blomeyer left teaching to code for companies like Hughes Aircraft for 25 years before returning to the classroom four years ago.

“The one thing I love about teaching computer science as opposed to math, which is what I taught before, is that students typically want to learn this,” says Blomeyer. “They get immediate feedback. They get excited. They put together some HTML and, voila, they can instantly look at a web page.”

In a field as quickly moving as technology, Blomeyer stresses the importance of building communities of teachers, either through physical meetings or online. She personally puts her lesson plans on her website so that other teachers from across the country can access them.

Still, once students take Exploring Computer Science, they still need something to advance toward afterwards. That’s why educators are looking to provide an alternative to the current, Java-heavy AP computer science course with Computer Science: Principles, which, aside from programming, also focuses on algorithm design, big data and social implications of technology.

While pilot courses are currently being taught around the country, they can’t become official AP courses until the tests are created and approved. Still, with programs like Exploring Computer Science, this represents a move to create computer science classes that might  actually excite students who don’t have a lot of previous experience with computers.

Right now Exploring Computer Science is being taught to 2,000 students in Southern California. The new AP course is being piloted at 10 high schools across the country.

If educators want to scale up their cause, they’re going to need to create a national framework. That’s where the Computer Science Education Act comes in. The bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado), looks to take a page from the Israeli playbook and create clearly defined computer science education standards. It aims to give grants to states to update their computer science programs and to establish a national commission to evaluate those programs as well.

Why It Matters

The myth of the brilliant, self-taught tech entrepreneur has a strong hold on the American imagination. When people think of Mark Zuckerberg, they often think of the heady entrepreneur who dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook.

They don’t think about the fact that his parents hired him a private tutor to encourage his love of computers as a child and that he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive prep school in New Hampshire that boasts such alumni as George Plimpton and Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States.

Not every kid has those advantages.

“There is this assumption that if you have this innate talent and you’re drawn to it, you’ll learn it on your own and you don’t really need it at school,” says Jane Margolis, senior researcher at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. “Kids that have a lot of resources at home, often with parents with a lot of technical know-how and access to software, people look at them and say ‘Oh, they just take to it.’”

In 2010, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the percentage of computer workers in Silicon Valley that were black or Latino stood at 1.5% and 4.7%, respectively. Girls Who Code, an organization that encourages teen girls to pursue opportunities in technology, points out that only 14% of undergraduate computer science degrees are earned by women.

While a new computer lab or tablets are certainly welcome in low-income schools, they don’t guarantee that students will be able to fully utilize them.

“What often happens is that we spend a lot of effort trying to get technology into schools, but that isn’t coupled with ensuring that there is a really strong computer science curriculum behind it with really good teachers,” says Wilson of Computing in the Core.

Professionals in Silicon Valley like to talk about technology being disruptive, replacing old, outdated models with creativity and hard work instead of access to traditional centers of power. Yet from a demographic standpoint, the tech industry doesn’t look that different from the older industries it’s trying to disrupt.

“Unless you are going to have this knowledge be only accessible to a very narrow strata — which is mostly white and Asian males from comfortable backgrounds — it’s going to have to be part of our education system,” says Margolis. “We feel that having it in the schools and having a strong program is important if you’re going to democratize computer science knowledge.”

MORE: ‘Girls Who Code’ Looks to Close the Tech Gender Gap

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