Computer Science for All: Can Schools Pull It Off?
Alante Klyce wants to be a dancer.
Source: Benjamin Herold
Yet here she is, inside a sun-filled classroom at Lindblom Math & Science Academy on the city’s South Side, throwing around tech-industry terms like "ideation" and working with friends to design her first mobile app.
It’s all part of the introductory computer-science course that every student in Chicago must now take in order to graduate.
“I’m still not really that into technology,” said Klyce, 15. “But this is actually my favorite class now.”
This is the promise of the nascent “Computer Science for All” movement: that the nation’s K-12 schools can prepare every student, regardless of background or career interests, to thrive in a tech-driven future.
“We’re changing kids’ minds about who they are and what they can do,” said Brenda Wilkerson, the architect of Chicago’s groundbreaking computer-science initiative. “Imagine that across millions.”
From the White House, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both pledged support for that vision. Companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce have pushed the idea with hundreds of millions of dollars and an extensive lobbying campaign. Dozens of states have gotten on board, adopting new standards and allowing computer-science courses to count towards graduation.
As a result, from Arkansas to California to South Carolina, K-12 computer-science offerings are taking off.
Now comes the hard part.
The movement sits on a clear fault line: Should computer-science education focus on preparing students for jobs, or teaching them new ways to think and solve problems?
Many observers question whether the current emphasis on workforce development makes sense. Hundreds of schools still try to pass off keyboarding classes as computer science. Completing an hourlong coding tutorial won’t land anyone a six-figure software-developer gig. And artificial intelligence may soon take over most entry-level programming work.
Then there are the practical challenges.
How, exactly, are the nation’s public schools—already stretched thin, riddled with inequities, and oft-derided as failing—supposed to keep up with the dizzying changes in Silicon Valley? Where are schools supposed to find teachers who know how to run a classroom, can program in Python, and are willing to work for $40,000 a year?
It’s a fraught moment for K-12 educators and policymakers, said Wilkerson, now president of AnitaB.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the role of women in technology.
Lay a strong foundation, and Computer Science for All has the potential to be life-changing for entire generations of students like Alante Klyce.
“But if we screw this up,” she said, “we’ll be locking in the status quo, especially for those who have been systematically shut out from opportunity.”
The Rapid Expansion of Computer Science
How many K-12 schools currently offer computer science?
It’s hard to say.
A 2016 survey by Google and Gallup suggests the figure is somewhere between 40 and 70 percent (depending on whether you only count courses that include computer programming, or you include such offerings as after-school robotics clubs.)
Big-picture, though, the trend lines are clear. Eight years ago, just 19,390 students took an Advanced Placement Computer Science exam. By last spring, that was up to 99,868—a 415 percent jump.