Kids of Color Are Already Behind on Landing These Future Jobs
Anyone with a computer probably knows the legend of Google: A pair of Stanford computer geeks in suburban San Francisco put their heads together and created a company that transformed the California economy and changed the world. But if you’re a poor and minority public high school student in the Golden State—or anywhere else in the country—that legend feels like a particularly challenging mythology.
Regular and Advanced Placement Computer Science courses—and teachers to lead them—are nearly nonexistent for African American and Latino students, particularly if they attend underserved schools or are English-language learners, according to a new study from the Level Playing Field Institute, an organization dedicated to bringing black and Latino kids up to speed on the information superhighway.
The study found that nearly two-thirds of California’s mostly minority public schools have no computer science courses, and of the ones that do, only 2 percent offer Advanced Placement classes in the subject. Although African American and Latino kids make up just under 60 percent of the state’s public school population, only 11 percent of them took the AP Computer Science test—considered the key to a top-notch tech education—in 2014.
The disparity is even starker in the region that gave birth to Google, Yahoo, and other tech giants. In San Francisco and Oakland, poor and minority high school students enroll in computer science classes at a rate of less than 2 percent, according to the report.
Of the more than 500,000 African American and Latino students in California’s largest 20 school districts, just 1 percent are studying computer science at all.
“Unfortunately, even here in Silicon Valley in California, our schools are woefully behind,” says Freada Kapor Klein, cofounder of the Oakland-based LPFI. “We’ve seen time and time again that those students who are not born into privilege are at an even greater disadvantage than their more privileged peers.”
Economists predict at least half of the future economy will depend on workers with computer skills, but they will be competing for jobs with applicants from countries such as China and India, two of the world’s leading producers of tech-trained college graduates. African Americans and Latinos make up 12 percent and 16 percent of the American workforce, respectively, but they’re a minuscule portion of the tech workforce.
Last week, Google reported that minorities make up less than 2 percent of its workforce, which experts say is typical for the industry. The company then pledged $150 million to diversify its workforce. But Kapor Klein and others say the problem begins in public schools.
Without access to standard and Advanced Placement Computer Ccience classes in schools, minorities are far less likely to major in computer science in college and enter the pipeline that Silicon Valley needs to diversify. Black and Latino kids, Kapor Klein says, are at risk of being left behind and shut out of well-paying jobs.
Consider this: If it were an independent nation, California would have the eighth-largest economy in the world, just behind Brazil. Silicon Valley alone accounts for 9 percent of the state’s jobs and kicks in nearly 10 percent of its $2 trillion GDP.
Jan Cuny, director of the National Science Foundation’s computer education program, says California is not an outlier in the shortage of elementary and secondary-school students who lack access to computer science courses. “It’s true everywhere,” she says.
Poor and minority students from Los Angeles to Boston lack not only up-to-date computers and Wi-Fi access but teachers qualified to train them, Cuny says. A quality education in computing, she adds, goes beyond compiling a spreadsheet or using Microsoft Word; it involves coding a computer and using it to solve problems, design products, or create content.
Many jobs of the future, ranging from financial analysis to automotive repair, will involve a computer: “No matter what your job is, you’re going to have to have an understanding of computing,” Cuny says.
Claire Shorall, a computer science teacher at Castlemont High School in Oakland, confirmed the shortage when she took on a computer science class at her school, where nearly 90 percent of the student body receives subsidized meals.
Trained to teach biology and math, Shorall had to learn how to teach computer science and launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy computers for the class. Even then there weren’t enough to go around, she says: “There’s a 23-to-1 student-to-computer ratio.”
The hard work, however, is paying off: Of the students in her classroom now, “nine of 14 have declared computer science as their major. To say that this is life-changing is a fair assessment,” Shorall says.
Still, “it is certainly not scalable or sustainable for one teacher to lead those efforts,” she adds.
Cuny agrees and points to programs like Level Playing Field, Black Girls Code, the SMASH Institute, and Exploring Computer Science, which are all designed to boost minority participation in computer science. But state and federal governments and companies like Google have to pitch in too.
“It needs to be a huge effort by a lot of organizations,” she says. “The good news is, I think this is starting to happen.”