Major American companies, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, union leaders, and some big-name city superintendents agree: Expanding computer science education is critical to preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s careers.
Despite that sentiment—and billions of dollars in one-time federal money for new laptops, tablets, and internet connectivity—the number of students taking computer science education courses continues to rise at just a modest pace and stubborn gaps in access to courses persist, concludes a report released Sept. 21 by Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to the subject.
A little more than half—53 percent—of U.S. high schools offered foundational computer science classes in 2022. That’s just a small increase from 51 percent the previous year, but a significant jump from 35 percent several years ago. And across all states, 6 percent of high school students are enrolled in computer science courses, up from 4.7 percent last year.
Black, Native American, and Native Alaskan students make up about the same percentage of computer science enrollment as they do of the student population in grades 9-12. For instance, Black students comprise about 15 percent of all public high school students, and about 16 percent of the enrollment in foundational computer science classes.
But Hispanic and Latino students aren’t as well represented. While these students make up about 27 percent of the teens in grades 9-12, they represent only 20 percent of those participating in foundational computer science courses.
The gap is even wider for students living in poverty, who make up 52 percent of students in grades 9-12, but only 36 percent of those enrolled in foundational computer science courses nationwide.
Girls also tend to lag behind boys in participation in the courses, making up 32 percent of high school students enrolled in foundational classes nationwide. In fact, that average ticks up above 40 percent in just three states: Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Each of those states has made computer science education a new graduation requirement or the primary way to satisfy a graduation requirement already on the books.
Just seven states have adopted Code.org’s nine recommended policies for expanding computer science education: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, and Washington. The organization’s recommendations include creating a state plan to expand computer science education, requiring that all high schools implement computer science education, establishing computer science supervisory positions in state education offices, and establishing computer science standards.
Taking those steps has started to pay off for Nevada, where 95 percent of students attend a school that offers foundational computer science, though just 4 percent are enrolled in the courses. Notably, economically disadvantaged kids make up almost two-thirds of Nevada’s 9-12 grade population, but are actually overrepresented in foundational computer science classes, at 82 percent.
Making the expansion of computer science education a policy priority “doesn’t just happen,” Jhone Ebert, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, said in an interview. States need support from the governor, the legislature, local superintendents, and communities.
Finding qualified computer science teachers is a challenge
Finding teachers who are qualified to teach computer science has been one of the biggest challenges schools face. Nevada has made it easier for people who have expertise in the subject—but may not hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree in it—to get certified to lead courses, in part by giving teachers credit for successful work in the computer science field, Ebert said.
Even once all the policies are in place, states must continue to follow through, Ebert said.
Her advice to states seeking to go big on computer science education? “Make sure you’re constantly working with your teachers in your classrooms,” she said. “It’s one thing to do policy, but it’s another thing to make sure that it’s implemented appropriately, and continually to look at your data” to make sure all groups of kids are benefitting.