Science

Computer Science: Not Just an Elective Anymore

By Liana Loewus — February 25, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
Teacher Maureen Kildee works alongside Janiah McKnuckle as the 3rd grader learns computer-coding skills during an "Hour of Code" event last December at Brownell/Holmes Elementary School in Flint, Mich. The initiative aims to expose more students to computer programming, and to raise public awareness about the importance of computer science education.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of basketball star Chris Bosh.

Computer science education is getting something of a fresh look from state and local policymakers, with many starting to push new measures to broaden K-12 students’ access to the subject.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit, rather than as an elective, in high schools—and that number is on the rise. Wisconsin, Alabama, and Maryland have adopted such policies since December, and Idaho has a legislative measure awaiting final action.

At least eight more states are in the process of reviewing proposals for similar legislative or regulatory changes.

“The amazing thing is not only the level to which policy changes are increasing, but the diversity, both regional and political,” of where it’s happening, said Cameron Wilson, the chief operating officer for the computer science advocacy group Code.org. “These are red states and blue states, and they’re all embracing this.”

In January, Texas lawmakers approved legislation that would allow students to take a computer science course to satisfy a foreign-language requirement—a move that alarmed some computing advocates, who say it denies computer science’s deep roots in math and science. Several other states, including Kentucky and New Mexico, are considering a similar approach.

In addition, some large urban districts are getting in on the action. The Chicago and Broward County, Fla., systems are finding ways to bring computer science courses to more students and schools in the next academic year.

There’s widespread agreement that the recent surge in public interest around computer science education was partly triggered by a hip, well-financed marketing campaign by Code.org. The year-old nonprofit sponsored December’s Hour of Code, an initiative to get 10 million students to spend at least one hour learning computer-programming skills. According to Code.org, more than 20 million students participated.

A data point frequently cited by Code.org is that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs in the computing field, but just 400,000 college computer science majors to fill them. The group also says that only 10 percent of high schools in the United States currently offer computer science—though other computer science advocates indicate that’s just a best guess.

“We know for sure it’s really low, but we don’t have an exact number,” said Chris Stephenson, the executive director of the New York City-based Computer Science Teachers Association, a group that advocates increased access to computer science in K-12 education.

According to recent state data from the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, not a single student took the AP computer science test in Wyoming in 2013. Just one student took the exam last year in Mississippi, and 11 students took the test in Montana.

Barbara J. Ericson, the director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, examined the same data and found stark inequities in the racial and gender profiles of test-takers.

For instance, in 2013, no African-American students took the exam in a total of 11 states, and no Hispanic students took it in eight states. Fewer than 20 percent of test-takers overall were female, and three states had no female test-takers.

Alison Derbenwick Miller, a vice president of the Oracle Academy, a philanthropic arm of the information technology giant Oracle that provides computer science curricula to schools and teachers, called access to computer science “a social-justice issue.”

“In the future, students who don’t have an understanding of computing and computer science won’t be able to get good-paying jobs because those jobs just won’t exist,” she said.

Code.org estimates that 60 percent of STEM-related jobs are currently in computing.

Laying the Groundwork

Proponents of teaching computer science—which the CSTA defines as the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including hardware, software, and programming—say they’ve been working behind the scenes to broaden access at the high school level for more than two decades.

“The interest we’re seeing now is a culmination of a lot of people working really hard for a lot of years,” said Ms. Derbenwick Miller.

Third graders Jojuana White, left, and Eddit Turner, learn computer-coding techniques by playing an "Angry Birds" game during an "Hour of Code" event at Brownell/Holmes Elementary School in Flint, Mich. The initiative is intended to expose more students to computer programming.

Groups, such as the Association for Computer Machinery and Computing in the Core, have been laying the foundational policy work and raising awareness about computer science education.

The NSF began investing in computer science curricula a few years ago as part of an effort to get 10,000 computer science teachers in 10,000 high schools by 2016. Then a year ago, Code.org, funded by a list of corporate donors including Google and Microsoft and co-founders Hadi and Ali Partovi, kicked off its campaign with a video featuring basketball star Chris Bosh, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and musician will.i.am, among other celebrities, explaining the importance of learning to code. The Code.org video went viral, and it has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.

The recent economic recession also turned the public’s attention to preparing students for future employability.

Those factors created “a perfect storm,” said Ms. Stephenson of the CSTA. “All of a sudden, [computer science] reached the level of public consciousness, and legislators started to pay attention.”

Washington state appeared to kick off a new round of policy activity in May 2013, when Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, signed a measure allowing students to earn a math or science credit toward graduation by taking a computer science course. Several other states quickly followed suit, including Wisconsin, Alabama, and Maryland, according to Computing in the Core.

David L. Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, declined to comment on whether his group supports or opposes particular policies that allow computer science to count as a math or science credit. He said only, “Schools and districts should be encouraged to offer their students the best courses that will prepare them for college and the workforce, and that includes computer science courses.”

However, he said, “it shouldn’t be an either-or proposition to take computer science or another core course.”

The 404,000-student Chicago district announced in January that it would add computer science as a core subject rather than an elective. The 263,000-student Broward County district in Florida is adding curriculum and courses on computer programming at 38 schools.

Texas took a different tack—as part of a larger piece of legislation, lawmakers included a provision that would allow existing computer science courses to fulfill a foreign-language requirement.

Ms. Stephenson, who has devoted her career to improving computer science education, said the Texas brand of legislation is “very worrisome,” mainly because it perpetuates the misconception that coding is the same as computer science.

“A coding language is just a tool in computer science; it’s not the course itself,” she said. “It’s like saying that because multiplication is part of the tool set of math, all you learn in math is multiplication.”

Mr. Wilson of Code.org is adamantly against such legislation, too. It “can hurt both computer science and languages,” he said.

A similar bill has passed the Kentucky Senate, but still needs to clear the House. New Mexico is also considering comparable legislation. And U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., introduced federal legislation in December that would designate programming languages as “critical foreign languages.”

“This is wildfire,” Ms. Stephenson said of the coding-as-foreign-language proposals. “We understand why they’re trying to do this, but go the other route. Make it count as a math or science credit.”

In Kentucky, foreign-language advocates have pushed back on the proposed legislation, in part out of concern that it would reduce students’ options in learning languages.

David P. Givens, the Republican state senator who sponsored the bill, said that he, too, would prefer to have computer science fulfill a math or science requirement, but that the state already has stringent course requirements. “It’s as much a time-constraint challenge as anything,” he said.

Hurdles Ahead

Even with legislation to broaden access to computer science moving forward, hurdles in school implementation remain. First, there’s the issue of finding qualified teachers.

“Most states don’t allow teachers to be certified just as computer science teachers,” said Ms. Stephenson. “So either they force teachers to get a secondary endorsement, or they let anybody teach the course.”

States end up dealing with what Ms. Ericson of Georgia Tech calls a “chicken-and-egg problem": Teacher-certification programs won’t train teachers because there’s no state computer science certification, and the state won’t create a certification program because there’s no teacher training for it.

Among teachers who are proficient in computer science, turnover can be a problem, said Ms. Ericson. They often leave the classroom for more-lucrative jobs in industry.

And student interest can’t be taken for granted either.

“Surprisingly, we train teachers and they get excited to go back and teach, and they can’t get enough students,” said Ms. Derbenwick Miller. “On the ground, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Computer Science Education: Not Just an Elective Anymore

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