Would it surprise you to know that most schools don’t teach computer science—not even the basics? It should, especially given that there will be about 1 million more U.S. jobs in the tech sector in the next decade than computer science graduates to fill them, according to Code.org, a nonprofit launched last year to promote computer science in schools.
Failure to teach students basic theory behind how computer technology works has several implications—none of them positive. First, employers are clamoring for qualified people to fill tech-related jobs. Yet students aren’t introduced to this potentially high-paying field as they take the first steps toward a career.
This is particularly true for women and minorities, two groups woefully underrepresented in technology jobs. Earlier exposure to computer science careers not only points more people toward the industry, it also eases stereotypes about who “belongs” in these jobs.
Second, the lack of computer science in earlier grades also makes it more difficult to attract students into computer science majors in college. In disciplines like math, we don’t expect students to jump directly into advanced subjects like calculus. Expecting them to enter college-level computer science classes without a grounding in the basics is just as unrealistic.
Finally, and perhaps most important, basic education in computer science makes sense for all students—even kids who’ll never earn a living writing software code. A few years ago, schools in Estonia, a global leader in science and technology education, began teaching kids as young as age 7 to write computer code. The idea wasn’t to create an army of app developers; it was to help citizens develop smarter relationships with technology, computers and the Web.
With technology touching nearly all parts of everyday life, can we really afford a society where most people lack even a rudimentary understanding of the automated devices surrounding them?
In 2012, Time magazine reported that the only serious computing class available to most students is AP computer science, which focuses on Java programming. And even that course was offered at just 10 percent of American high schools.
Code.org says 33 of 50 states don’t offer graduation credit for computer science courses. Where courses are offered, they’re usually electives, which don’t fulfill core math or science requirements and discourages bright college-bound students from taking them.
A few obstacles stand in the way of making computer science a core subject for students in the U.S., says Code.org’s Roxanne Emadi. For one, policymakers often confuse “digital literacy” courses that teach students how to use programs like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint with real computer science instruction. In addition, computer science gets crowded out by schools’ focus on other core subjects.
“Computer science is still new, and I think it’s a challenge to convince lawmakers and school boards that it can be added to the curriculum without taking away from the core,” Emadi says. “The good news is that in states where laws have been passed to let computer science count for either math or science credit, enrollment goes up in computer science courses, but it does not drop in math or science.”
Five states added computer science to the core curriculum in 2013, says Emadi. And Code.org hopes to add more this year, including Arizona, California and New York. That’s great news. We teach kids a range of basic sciences—from biology to physics to chemistry—so they can understand the world around them. It’s time to add computer science to the list.