Computer science should be offered in all Calif. public schools, but challenges lie ahead.

GUEST COLUMN | by Muhammed Chaudhry

CREDIT SVEFIt’s one of education’s most burning questions: What kind of computer skills and knowledge do today’s students need to succeed in the modern workforce? How much do they need to know to be able to fill the requirements not only of today’s jobs in technology but jobs in most every other occupation that now rely on computers?

The answer’s not easy. No educator or tech industry leader disputes that today’s children should be computer proficient, especially in California. But how to achieve that across the state’s schools poses significant challenges, especially given that most high schools – 56% — don’t offer computer science courses at all to prepare the bulk of our students for those computer-reliant jobs in their future. Only 13 percent of high schools offer AP (advanced placement) courses in computing.

In general, it’s hard to add a new subject to the K-12 curriculum. Where will the school day fit it in?

We know that companies across many professions are eager for computer-savvy workers. And most jobs today, from business and banking to medicine and law, require workers to have significant computer skills.

According to research group the Conference Board, the demand for computing professionals is roughly four times higher than the demand for all other occupations. Currently, there are more than 75,000 open jobs in computing in California and only 4,324 computer science graduates to fill them. The field of computing is driving 50% of all new STEM jobs.   

Complicating the issue is the fact that most teachers have little or no training to teach computer science, which would require developing new teacher training guidelines and the cost and time to teach them. Schools that do teach computer science offer such a hodgepodge of courses that it’s hard to fit them into a category or department. Some courses are offered under the math department, others under business. Most are electives. Because there are no clear-cut guidelines for teaching computer science, schools wonder whether they should be teaching students programming or fundamental concepts of computing and applications.

In general, it’s hard to add a new subject to the K-12 curriculum. Where will the school day fit it in? And are already-overloaded teachers ready to add another course requirement, like computer science, to their busy schedules? These are challenging issues, but we need to consider them, with the help of state and industry leaders who need to help with creating new funding.

California legislators haven’t helped move the issue forward with any speed. Various bills are winding their way through the legislature that could increase the number of courses offered. But there are no statewide guidelines for the courses. Fourteen other states already have secondary school standards for computer science. It’s especially distressing that California has been slow to adapt to the increased demand for skilled computer science graduates since the computer industry plays a central role in the state’s overall economy.

Locally, the non-profit Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) in San Jose recognizes the need and is bringing innovative computer science programs into K-8 classrooms to fuel students’ interest in learning about computers – and in  programming.  Through its Learning Innovation Hub, or iHub, SVEF connects ed tech startups with educators to introduce cutting-edge tech software to classrooms to test what works best.  A competition called the “iHub Pitch Games” selects the startups, which go into two dozen Silicon Valley school districts for a three-month testing period.

Many of us who promote forward thinking in education, including tech industry leaders, say learning introductory concepts of computing, including programming, should start at pre-school age, with games, to teach kids how the Internet and how apps works.   

Business and education leaders from across California recently gathered in San Jose for a first-time meeting to discuss new policies for increasing computer science courses and access to all students.  The Silicon Valley Education Foundation convened them.

Some of the highlights:

Computer science standards need to be clearly defined, whether that means teaching fundamental computing concepts or programming.

Computer science courses should be offered at all California public high schools.

Allow computer science courses, which are largely electives, to be counted toward high school graduation and college admission.   

Allocate state funding for teacher professional development.

Focus on underrepresented students – females and minority students  – who have appallingly low enrollment in computer science courses.     

While we have already begun work on this issue, we know the task is long and the challenges are real. Meeting them takes persistence, patience and continued support from the education and business communities, parents and the public to be able to provide all California students with the best technology training for the future.

Muhammed Chaudhry is president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.