A Plea to Integrate the Private Sector into Computer Science Curricula

Technology permeates almost every aspect of our lives, and its influence on us is only expected to grow. Yet, computer science is overwhelming under-taught at schools across the country. 90 percent of schools don’t even teach computer science courses. And, on average, only 12 states allow computer science courses to qualify for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) requirements of Common Core, which means 38 states deemphasize classes that would provide children with the tools to develop their own apps and software. Estimates suggest that computer science is the primary driving force for job creation throughout all STEM fields: More than 50 percent of new STEM jobs are classified as computing occupations. Given the ever-growing role of computer science in the modern business world, public schools around the country should work to better integrate online-based computer science education into the curricula.

The biggest challenge schools face when trying to introduce computer science classes is a lack of resources. Schools not only lack technology, but also can’t find teachers who are qualified and willing to teach the subject. A recent Gallup pole has found that as little as 25 percent of public schools even provide computers for students.

An even bigger problem is the dearth of people with the qualifications to teach high school students to code. Ever since No Child Left Behind, the gold standard of teaching qualifications in any subject is an undergraduate degree in that topic. But finding STEM teachers with degrees in computer science is incredibly difficult: How many students with a computer science degree will realistically turn to America’s public school system to earn $30,000 a year instead of a six-figure salary in Silicon Valley or New York? The answer is very few, and as a result, states have turned to other pathways to try to produce computer science teachers.

In many states, teachers who specialize in other STEM subjects are asked to enroll in CS certification programs, a scenario that places teachers with meager programming fundamentals in a classroom with children eager to build games and apps. This results in flagrant disappointment for both parties.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of resources, most of the public schools that offer computer science courses demonstrate sub-par results in their ability to teach the subject. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) released a lengthy report on the matter on the state of pedagogy within CS; they attributed the dearth of successful computer science programs to difficulties in certifying computer science teachers and ineffective requirements.

Schools not only lack technology, but also can’t find teachers who are qualified and willing to teach the subject. A recent Gallup pole has found that as little as 25 percent of public schools even provide computers for students.

Many of the failures the CSTA cites can be attributed to complicated course designations within Common Core. Without independent standing in STEM, computer science falls within other disciplines like Math, Science, Business or Career and Technical / Technology Education according to the Common Core. As a result, certification to teach computer science depends on the discipline a school houses computer science in: the qualifications for teaching CS when it is considered an area of “business” versus a “science” are different. As a result of this varying classification, computer science teacher certification is either ignored or mishandled, leading to failures in the classroom.

But until this regulatory failure is addressed, one can anticipate that computer science programs will continue to be understaffed and under-resourced. Thankfully though, a number of nonprofits, like Code.org, Kodable, and Code in Schools, are all attempting to solve the gaping hole in children’s education by making CS more accessible. They provide the software to facilitate CS courses and barely demand any deep understanding of programming from teachers. These types of software are self-directing, meaning kids simply interact with the courses and can depend almost entirely on the computer for instruction. In a time when online-learning has become the new frontier of education reform, these kinds of computer science courses offer the ideal place the begin learning this kind of complicated material.

If even a few states allowed one of these programs to qualify as a course that satisfies a STEM requirement, millions of kids would have an introduction to this prevalent field. Each and every day American schools are falling further and further behind as the field continues to grow and innovate. It’s estimated that in California alone, there are only about 4,324 graduates to fill over 75,000 jobs in computing. Without early exposure, it’s difficult to assume colleges can allay the burden left behind by failing schools. In fact, Daniel Gelenter, CEO of the DittachApp wrote about his tendency to hire non-computer science majors as his software developers in the Wall Street Journal recently, contending that even college’s computer science departments are a decade behind on the ever-evolving industry. Online computer science education would combat the difficulties of procuring teachers and keeping up with this ever-changing, ever-complicating subject.

Furthermore, online computer science classes might help to close the racial achievement gap in CS fields. In computer science fields, both academic and professional, there is an enormous achievement gap between white students and those of color. Data from last year’s AP Computer Science exam indicate that in 11 states, no black students even took the AP exam, while students of color represented only 13 percent of test takers. Interestingly enough, Black and Hispanic students who try AP Computer Science courses during high school are seven to eight times more likely to major in computer science in college so this early exposure is crucial. Providing children with the opportunity to learn computer science before entering college is one way to address the larger disparities in the computer science workforce, of which only 7 percent and 6 percent of which is composed of Blacks and Hispanics, respectively.

Though other countries like Australia and the United Kingdom have already shifted their educational requirements to reflect the need to teach computer science, the United States could take a welcome departure from their behind-the-curve approach to education and spearhead the move towards online-based instruction. The UK, for example, has taken a bold approach, mandating computer science classes for every student between five and sixteen. The country’s education system received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from Google and Microsoft to design new training programs and curricula. While there has been controversy over the integration of private companies within the school curriculum, in principle this is the same as private companies who product textbooks and the money is badly needed in a cash strapped system.

Not only would online computer science courses skirt the need to recruit and train CS teachers, but it would also place students on a path to self-edification in a field that depends largely on an ability to problem-solve and self-teach. To combat nebulous requirements, state departments of education should look to a larger scale reform by classifying computer science either in its own right or within one of the STEM disciplines to streamline the process. With only 5-10 percent of schools actually teaching the subject, the US education system has dug itself into a worrying predicament.

As computer science increasingly becomes an integral part of our workforce, it is imperative that our schools give kids the tools they need to be successful. The time to start is now.