Who’s Going to Teach America’s Kids to Code?

A new petition advocating computer science for all raises some tough questions.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 27, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic—for centuries, the three R’s have been seen as the basic foundational skills needed to function in society. Now, a new petition to Congress is giving a signal boost to the modern-day push to add computer science to the essential public school curriculum.

Seattle-based nonprofit Code.org and the Computer Science Education Coalition, a national consortium of businesses and nonprofits, asked Congress to allocate $250 million in federal funding for “every student in every school to have an opportunity to learn computer science.” Doing so would “amplify and accelerate the local efforts in classrooms, unlock opportunity in every state, and give an answer to all the parents and teachers who believe that every student, in every school, should have a chance to learn computer science.”

But who will teach those students—and how they’ll be taught—has emerged as a concern among some education experts.

“If Congress passes this funding opportunity, we really need to focus on how to prepare existing teachers who have no computer programming experience on how to integrate computing into math and science education,” Harry Cheng, the director of the Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education at the University of California, Davis, told TakePart.

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The petition comes on the heels of President Obama’s championing of computer science education in his final State of the Union address in January. In his speech, Obama announced his Computer Science for All Initiative, which calls for “offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.”

Supporters of computer science education see it as key to maintaining the nation’s economic edge. “Not only does computer science provide every student foundational knowledge, it also leads to the highest-paying, fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. economy. There are currently over 500,000 open computing jobs, in every sector, from manufacturing to banking, from agriculture to healthcare, but only 50,000 computer science graduates a year,” the petition reads. A White House fact sheet on Computer Science for All states that “by 2018, 51 percent of all STEM jobs are projected to be in CS-related fields.”

“It is the largest category of job growth and wage growth in the country—in every state and in every industry, and it is crucial to national security,” Hadi Partovi, the founder and CEO of Code.org, wrote in an email to TakePart. “Solving this problem is no longer optional for our country, it’s mandatory—for growth, for opportunity, and for security. Sixteen percent of all future wages are in computing occupations.”

Along with backing on social media from tech-industry giants such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Bill Gates, the petition kicked off with the support of 28 governors—14 Republicans and 14 Democrats. The petition also notes that 90 percent of American parents support computer science being taught in schools, with roughly 100,000 educators already teaching it in one form or another.

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The $250 million would go toward “training a workforce of public school teachers who can teach introductory computer science concepts,” Partovi wrote. That’s significantly less than the $4 billion to train teachers and expand access to instructional materials that Obama requested for Computer Science for All.

Rafranz Davis, a nationally known education technology expert and executive director of professional and digital learning for the Lufkin Independent School District in Lufkin, Texas, is among the nearly 24,000 people who have signed the petition since its launch.

Despite her support, Davis is worried that the funding won’t go toward addressing the challenges schools, particularly under-resourced ones, are having getting high-quality computer science education programs up and running. Almost three-fourths of the roughly 9,000 students in Lufkin come from economically disadvantaged homes, and just over 70 percent are kids of color. “If money were our only barrier, we would have figured this out a long time ago,” Davis wrote.

“What do we expect kids to do, with minimal support, beyond drag-and-drop programming games? We haven’t answered that well just yet. Also, what does this mean for teachers? We have questions...and not enough teachers in this discussion,” she wrote.

Some critics have raised the question of what constitutes a tech or computing job and have suggested that the nation doesn’t need every child to learn computer science. Davis acknowledged that an enormous hurdle for adopting computer science in schools is the lack of trained educators. To implement computer science education, “schools would need to hire a technology teacher or rely on the free curriculum that Code.org provides.”

In Lufkin, Davis has overseen giving “teachers certain tools so that kids could take advantage of early learning. For us, that was Code.org.” She wrote that students in Lufkin begin using Code.org’s online lessons in first grade “and manage themselves, because it is self-paced.”

But when classrooms in Lufkin are ready to move beyond what Code.org offers, Davis wrote, “it’s up to us to provide the access to do it, even when we barely have the technology to connect or the internal knowledge to do so. If there is funding, I hope that it provides flexibility to choose what this looks like and the support to make it happen. It can’t be on our classroom teachers alone, though.”

The petition, Partovi wrote, “doesn’t say we need every child to learn CS—and one certainly wouldn’t need that to fill the jobs. We do need every child to be prepared for a world that’s changing with technology, and we do need every school to teach computer science, for the children who wish to pursue it.”

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Partovi wrote that he is committed to ensuring that the $250 million the petition asks for “is spent on building teaching capacity, not on buying computer hardware.” One model of how to build that capacity can be found at Cheng’s Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education.

Over the past decade, Cheng has developed a program that equips existing math and science teachers in the Golden State—most of whom have no previous computer science experience—with the knowledge and skills to teach their students programming.

“We cannot rely on recruiting new computer science teachers,” he said. “Schools are competing with Google and IBM for new computer science graduates. We cannot compete with them. So we have to develop existing math and science teachers.”

Teachers enrolled in Cheng’s program typically take either a two-day or a weeklong course at a cost of up to $750. This year the program has been rolled out in about 200 schools in California, and the center provides ongoing support and professional development to about 500 K–12 educators, Cheng said.

This integration has an added bonus: It boosts students’ mathematical abilities and helps more deeply engage them in computer science because they see “how to apply computer science and robotics to solve real-world problems,” Cheng said.

That real-world applicability is evidenced by Samuel R. Allen, the CEO of John Deere, signing the petition. “Because even the world of agricultural manufacturing is being turned upside down by technology. Today’s tractor trailers are autonomous vehicles, and tomorrow’s farmers need to have a basic understanding of computer science too,” Partovi wrote.

Given the widening gap in resources between schools that serve kids from more well-off, whiter backgrounds and those charged with educating communities of color, some folks might worry that black and brown kids will end up getting “Here’s how to build an app” courses or watered-down digital literacy classes that may be passed off as computer science for all.

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Partovi pointed out that the petition has also been signed by prominent groups that advocate boosting the number of women and people of color, including the NAACP. “They all recognize that computer science is core to diversity in our future workforce,” he said.

Cheng said his program has been successfully adopted in several schools that serve under-resourced populations, enabling kids from diverse backgrounds to learn common programming languages such as C++. In Lufkin, Davis wrote that her team is “redesigning our entire CS program with targeted learning starting in elementary [that’s] no different than how we structure any other subject.”

But, she cautioned, “schools must look at what they offer kids, when they offer it, and where they want to go. Then they must make sure that the programming is vertically aligned so that it is truly ‘CS for all’...by choice. If not, then we’re starting yet another initiative with no plan to get there.”

For Partovi, if the petition successfully spurs congressional action, “the focus of the spending should be on schools that need it most,” he wrote. Then again, “the exact ‘how’ of this is too early to speculate about.”