Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Stop Scapegoating, Start Educating

By Julie Flapan & Jane Margolis — January 24, 2017 5 min read
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Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t taking jobs away—technology is. The 2016 election rubbed raw the divisions between those with the skills for the future and those without. As we look ahead to the Trump presidency, instead of scapegoating, we need significant investments in a sustainable education strategy that prepares youths to effectively participate in the world of tomorrow.

Scapegoating, or blaming an individual or group of people for something for which they are not responsible, is a misguided explanation for declining job opportunities. When a manufacturing plant shuts down in the Rust Belt, automation is the likely culprit, thereby requiring workers with different skill sets. In the near future, when a truck driver loses a job to a driverless car, technology will likely be the cause, not someone doing the same job for less pay.

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Scapegoating immigrants and foreign workers for taking our jobs is not just wrongheaded, it limits our ability to accurately name the problem and solve it. In fact, as technology replaces some jobs, it also allows new ones to emerge. The problem is that we’re not adequately educating our young people to be prepared for this new tech economy that requires a foundational understanding of computer science.

Computing jobs are the No. 1 source of new wages in the United States and are among the highest-paying. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2024, there will be more than 4.4 million computer-specialist job openings nationwide. But according to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics data, only 50,000 of the 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2012-13 were in computer science or information science fields. In other words, we are not preparing enough students to be qualified to fill those jobs. And it’s not just about preparing students for careers in technology; students who know computer science have a jump start across all fields, including arts, agriculture, business, health care, and entertainment. Computing has become essential knowledge in nearly every industry.

Schools aren’t doing an adequate job of providing computer-learning opportunities to meet the demand. A majority of schools don’t even teach computer science, despite a Gallup poll that reported more than 90 percent of parents want their students to learn computer science in school.

Becoming digitally literate, critical, and constructive thinkers about how to use technology responsibly should be required learning for everyone."

Perhaps more troubling, schools that serve demographically underrepresented students—African-American, Latino, and low-income students—are the least likely to offer a pathway of courses in computer science. As explained in Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, which was written by Jane Margolis, computer science education provides a window into how inequality is reproduced in schools. When students in underserved schools are denied access, experience, and role models in computing, they are left further behind.

The College Board reports that student enrollment in Advanced Placement computer science classes is among the lowest of all AP classes, and that the AP computer science exam has the least diverse test-takers of all AP exams. In 2015, 56 percent of all AP test-takers were female, but of the 46,344 test-takers in AP computer science, only 22 percent were girls. Only 13 percent of AP computer science test-takers identified as African-American or Latino, while these students made up more than 24 percent of test-takers across all AP exams in 2015. Ensuring access for all students to this foundational knowledge is important preparation for college, careers, and civic participation.

Computer science isn’t just about operating a computer or a cellphone. It’s about reimagining how computers are a part of what we do every day. Rather than being passive users of technology, students need to learn how to be responsible creators of it. Computer science teaches algorithmic thinking, problem-solving, and creativity as students learn how to build apps, design a web page, and understand how the internet actually works.

Beyond jobs, this past year revealed other reasons why learning computer science is important in a democracy. Whether it be through thinking critically to distinguish fake news from real news, understanding algorithms that are used to target its users, considering cybersecurity and the role it played in email scandals, or amplifying marginalized voices through social media, we can see the power of technology in our everyday lives. Becoming digitally literate, critical, and constructive thinkers about how to use technology responsibly should be required learning for everyone.

With the uncertainty of President Donald Trump’s education agenda and the future policy decisions under the Every Student Succeeds Act, one thing is clear: We need to continue to support public education and the inclusion of computer science as part of the new law’s call for a “well-rounded education.”

We encourage the new administration to continue to support the former administration’s national agenda to promote computer science for all, which prioritizes the needs of students underrepresented in computer science, including girls, low-income students, and students of color. Many education leaders support this national initiative at the local level.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas realized how important computer science opportunities are for his state’s future: In 2015, he signed legislation making Arkansas the first state in the union to require every public high school to teach computer science. States including California, Idaho, and Washington are making strategic, statewide plans to bring computer science into schools. Large school districts in Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco are also prioritizing computer science and making it mandatory learning for all students.

Rather than blaming others, we should provide our youths with the education that will equip them for this new tech landscape. Making America great can be accomplished only by investing in all our students today to help prepare them for the world of tomorrow.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Stop Scapegoating and Start Educating

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