Can America’s Schools Really Teach Every Kid to Code?

President Obama recently renewed the call for computer science education, but resources—and teachers—are in short supply.
High school students at Dearborn STEM Academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a Boston public school, take an intro to programming class. (Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/'The Christian Science Monitor' via Getty Images)
Jan 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

In an increasingly tech-reliant economy, teaching kids computer science in school is so important that President Barack Obama included it in last week’s State of the Union 2016 speech. He told Congress and television viewers that every U.S. student needs “the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.”

Parents agree: Nine out of every 10 American parents want their kids to learn computer science in school. But just one in four public schools nationwide offer it as part of the curriculum, and nearly half of all states don’t let students use coding or programming classes to fulfill a graduation requirement.

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The news is worse for kids of color attending underserved schools, where computer-science programs—and the resources to teach them—are in short supply, if they exist at all. Yet Amy Hirotaka of the computer literacy group is bullish on the movement to up American students’ tech game, including helping to narrow the income inequality gap between whites and minorities.

“There’s a huge amount of momentum, and I’m really optimistic,” says Hirotaka, the organization’s director of state government affairs. Obama’s emphasis, she says, comes as a growing number of education officials, policy experts, and lawmakers have begun to see coding as an increasingly necessary component of public education.

There’s evidence to back her up: 28 states now allow computer science to count toward graduation, up from 13 states in 2013, Hirotaka says. At the same time, the two biggest public school systems in the country—New York City and Los Angeles Unified—are shifting toward computer science classes for all students, and several other states are weighing it as a graduation requirement.

That includes New Jersey, where pending legislation would allow an advanced placement computer science course to count toward the total mathematics credit requirements for high school graduation, beginning with the 2016–17 freshman class.

Recognition that basic tech skills are becoming increasingly important “has really driven a lot of state legislators to consider computer science” as essential to a well-rounded education, Hirotaka says. “These changes can be made at the state level, at the district level, or in some states even at the school level.”

For years, politicians, economists, and education-policy experts have predicted that at least half of the future economy will depend on workers with computer skills. America’s kids 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.

Yet several studies have shown 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 school in struggling districts or are English-language learners. Besides lacking computer labs and Internet access—and usually suffering the brunt of budget cuts and pressure to raise achievement scores—underserved schools typically have to overcome tough hurdles just to maintain a basic curriculum.

“We should try to offer the same curriculum for all kids,” but in some places, “you’re in a school that only has 15 kids that are ready for calculus,” says Gary Orfield, a researcher with UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, an organization that studies inequality in education. “Some schools are teaching a lot of kids who need basic arithmetic. We can’t say everyone’s ready to learn computers. You have to address a number of fundamental issues first.”

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Hirotaka agrees. “We understand that there are all these barriers in place,” she says. “It’s really hard to talk about a new subject and add something to the school day when already schools are struggling to make sure students are prepared for college and career.”

One possible solution, she says, is to connect schools with education grants that can help them catch up on the basics, train teachers, and incorporate computer science into an upgraded curriculum. Another possibility is a proposal that would forgive college loans for young teachers who decide to work in an underserved school.

Still, Hirotaka acknowledges it’s tough to compete with Silicon Valley for the best and brightest young people with computer-science skills. “You can imagine it would be less attractive to become a teacher earning $40,000 a year than a software developer earning $100,000 a year. I hear that a ton,” she says.

Ultimately, she says, computer science is headed to an increasing number of classrooms, and there’s more work to do to see that minority and poor kids aren’t left behind. But the future, Hirotaka adds, is “just really, really exciting.”