Computer Science (CS) Education Week is an annual initiative that aims to get kids excited about computer science and inspire interest in technology careers—an effort that is more important now than ever. It’s no secret that demand for computer science professionals has skyrocketed in recent years. Virtually every industry has an increasing need for STEM workers, especially those with a background in computer science and coding. And yet, there is a growing gap in the availability of these skilled individuals. There are currently over 500,000 open computing jobs nationwide, but last year, only 42,969 computer science students graduated into the workforce. In fact, there are fewer students graduating with degrees in computer science today than there were ten years ago. Our workforce is woefully unprepared to meet the growing demand for IT professionals.
While there are ongoing efforts to address short term workforce needs through innovative training programs like coding bootcamps and policy changes that would make it easier for global tech talent to work in the U.S., policymakers must also focus on more long term solutions that will improve the pipeline of talent well into the future. One piece of this is ensuring that computer science is an integral part of K-12 education.
Today, computer science remains largely absent from elementary and secondary education. Just 40 percent of schools offer computer programming courses, even though 90 percent of parents want their children to study the subject. Additionally, just 32 states allow CS courses to count towards graduation requirements. Further exacerbating the problem is the challenge of finding qualified instructors to teach CS classes.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels can take to address some of these challenges. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it includes a few actions that elected officials can pursue to improve access to quality computer science education across the country:
1. Increase the availability of CS courses throughout the K-12 pipeline.
As noted above, computer science isn’t widely taught in our schools. In fact, the majority of schools do not offer a single CS course. This problem is exacerbated along racial, socioeconomic, and geographic lines: students with the least access to CS classes are typically Black, Latino, or Native American and come from lower income households and rural areas.
The good news is that many localities, cities, and states are addressing this problem by committing to making computer science classes more widely available to students. Chicago was one of the first cities to recognize this problem, announcing in 2013 a five-year plan to establish a CS course in every high school and elevate computer science to a core course. Since then, a number of other cities, including San Francisco and New York, have followed suit. States are also getting on board, with policymakers in Arkansas, Washington, Rhode Island, and many other states making major pushes to expand access to computer science education.
2. Allow CS courses to count toward math and/or science graduation requirements.
In schools where CS courses are available, many students may want to take the course but don’t do so because it will not count toward their graduation requirements. This is the case in 17 states that have not yet acted to allow computer science to fulfill a math or science graduation requirement. However, data shows that states that allow CS to count towards graduation see 50 percent higher enrollment in their AP computer science courses and increased participation from underrepresented minorities. Those states that have not yet acted should make this policy change to encourage more students to pursue computer science education.
For a full list of states where computer science counts, visit code.org/action.
3. Improve access to quality teacher training.
Efforts to expand access to computer science education are hindered by a lack of qualified CS teachers. Arkansas, for example, was the first state to pass comprehensive legislation requiring computer science be taught in all public schools. However, shortly after the new law was passed, Governor Asa Hutchinson lamented that there were only 20 teachers in the entire state who were “properly prepared” to teach the new courses.
Unfortunately, many states currently lack a pathway to computer science certification for teachers, creating a “chicken-or-the-egg” problem where states won’t create a certification program because there is not adequate teacher training for it, and teacher training programs won’t create programs because there is no clear certification pathway.
There are a number of national and local efforts aimed at addressing this challenge, including President Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, which set a goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers within the next decade. In terms of state efforts, Washington has set a great example: in 2015, the legislature allocated $2 million to train high school teachers to teach computer science and get computer science programs off the ground in schools across the state. Similarly, Massachusetts recently launched a public-private partnership, funded by $1.5 million from the state, with a goal of training 3,000 computer science teachers in 3 years. More states and school districts should be investing in training quality CS teachers.
While there is no silver bullet for addressing our nation’s skills gap and workforce issues, these policy recommendations could have a real impact. Many of the states and localities that have implemented some or all of these changes are already seeing positive outcomes. There is still a long way to go, but the progress that has been made so far is promising. We must continue to work together to equip our students for the jobs of the future.