Computer Science Education: No Time to Wait

By Paul Escobar

Our society is on the cusp of perhaps the most dramatic shift in modern history.  The digitalization of our society and economy—our greater reliance on artificial intelligence, the use of big data and the ubiquity of computers—promises to radically reshape how we live, work and play.  To remain economically competitive and foster a more inclusive society, we must ensure that everyone is prepared for and can be active contributors to this future.  Crucial to this is widespread access to a robust K-12 computer science education.

Currently only about 25 percent of Californian schools offer any CS courses to their students.  In 2015, the Sacramento Bee writes, of the roughly 2 million public high school students in the state, only 35,000 students were enrolled in computer programming or CS courses.  This disparity in education contributes to disparities in the workplace.  As the Silicon Valley Business Journal reported in March, the underrepresentation in the Valley’s tech workforce of women and minority populations is striking: only 2 percent are African American, 3 percent Latinx and 24 percent women.

Momentum is building, however, and equity of access expanding.  With the introduction of the AP CS Principles exam this year, the College Board experienced the largest exam launch in history.  The number of students taking AP CS exams doubled nationwide between 2016 and 2017 (54,379 and 111,262, respectively).  Most heartening, this year compared to 2016, the number of female and underrepresented minority test takers increased their participation by a striking 135 percent and 170 percent respectively.  In addition, though California is not currently among the only 8 states that have developed rigorous K-12 CS standards, our state is taking an important step to join their ranks with the convening this September of the Computer Science Standards Advisory Committee.

Accessible, robust K-12 CS is not only a moral and social obligation; it is an economic and national imperative.  Providing equitable access to computing resources and education will allow us to substantively expand and diversify the pool of qualified STEM workers, a vital piece to filling the over 200,000 open cybersecurity jobs and the projected shortfall by 2022 of 1.3 million qualified computational workers.  Given that STEM jobs are the number one source of all new wages in the U.S. as well as the growing reliance on computers in all sectors, accessible CS education could ultimately raise more people of all backgrounds and beliefs into a renewed middle class.  The alternative is to risk American economic competitiveness and stifle innovation.

While the state moves to develop standards, there is still much that the rest of us can do to promote access to K-12 CS education in our local districts.  Parents, teachers, administrators and nonprofit partners can all be a catalyst for a budding new CS initiative or program on at a school site or within a district.  For some ideas as to how you can do this, a great place to start is Code.org’s advocacy page.

Paul Escobar is Director of Policy and Education Programs for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.