The Reality of Coding Classes

President Obama wants to prepare the next generation for the workforce by spreading computer-science education to more students of all ages.

Elementary-school students work in the computer lab.  (Sue Ogrocki / AP)

The White House wants every child in the United States to learn computer science.

The president’s plan to reach that goal? Ask Congress to fund a new $4 billion program for states and another $100 million for districts to train teachers and purchase the tools “so that our elementary, middle, and high schools can provide opportunities to learn computer science for all students,” Obama said in his weekly address on January 30.

With Congress’s approval, the $4 billion will be spent over three years to train teachers, connect schools with corporate and nonprofit partners, and expand instructional material. States would apply for a slice of the $4 billion and have five years to use the money. The funding programs, which will appear in the president’s forthcoming budget proposal for 2017, are just the latest effort from the White House to bring more science and technology education to students.

The Obama Administration is hopeful that the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, signals support for additional education spending. But is advocacy for the plan relying on faulty notions about the economy’s need for more coders? And is the price tag enough to underwrite the president’s ambitious goal?

The United States spends magnitudes more on educating the nation’s public-school students than the computer-science money the White House is proposing: Over half a trillion dollars go toward education spending, amounting to roughly $10,800 per student—a tenth of that coming from federal resources. On instruction alone, federal, state, and local governments spent $326 billion in 2013.

With 50 million students in U.S. public schools, the $4.1 billion proposal and additional $135 million from currently funded programs would translate into $86 per kid.

Among administration officials, there’s been some acknowledgment that federal spending alone won’t be enough to teach every student computing. “This is an investment to accelerate state and local efforts,” said acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. during a call on Friday with reporters. “It will need to be accompanied by continued investments on the part of states and districts.”

Still, the White House is hopeful its computer-science-for-all initiative will get the ball rolling on exposing the nation’s students to coding and other related skills. During the press call, Megan Smith, the administration’s chief technology advisor, said the initiative is an “ambitious, all-hands-on-deck effort to get every student in America an early start with the skills they’ll need to be part of the new economy.”

The White House also enlisted advocacy chops of technology-industry heavyweights to back its proposal. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, stressed to reporters on the call that the United States is lagging behind other countries in producing talented workers who can fill computer-science positions. “The country has a problem,” he said, because the “the skills gap is leading too many of these jobs unfilled.” He noted that half a million new jobs over the next decade will be created that will require computer-science know-how, from agriculture to manufacturing to more traditional forms of information technology.

But a loud chorus of researchers in education and labor markets question the notion that workers are unqualified for the growing sophistication of tech jobs. For several years some academics have pushed back against concern the U.S. labor market has a dearth of employees for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), citing data that shows positions in those fields aren’t experiencing spikes in wages—something economists say would need to happen in a labor shortage because it shows employers are willing to pay more to attract the talent they need.

Michael Teitelbaum, a scholar on the history of STEM, said in 2014 to an audience of education reporters that the post-war U.S. period is dotted with “repeated cycles of alarm, boom, and bust.” He went on to say that “many of the people who were attracted in during the boom phase into majors and graduate degrees in these fields … end up graduating and finding there’s no attractive career path.”

Ron Hira, a scholar at Howard University who studies labor and technology, has been one of the most vocal skeptics about shortages in the informational technology fields. He argues that employers want to saturate the labor market with foreign employees— who are here on work visas and typically earn less than their American counterparts—with the goal of, driving down wages in the IT sector. Others have argued the recent rash of layoffs at tech companies belies concerns there’s a worker shortage in that sector.

STEM skeptics have their detractors, including Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who has written that Hira and others are motivated by “an agenda of redistribution” that boosts the wages of all workers.

Atkinson has also argued that without warnings of worker shortages, public policy to improve STEM outcomes will lag. “If you don’t say there’s a shortage, you don’t drive improvement,” he said in 2015 during a debate with STEM-shortage skeptics.

Other studies show that while information-technology jobs in the future will largely require a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent of jobs won’t, suggesting that a debate around the link between college and jobs may tell an incomplete picture about the STEM workforce landscape.

But even among those critical of the idea there’s a skills shortage, scholars like Teitelbaum believe the U.S. education system could do more to educate students in the sciences. Indeed, national figures suggest computing isn’t as widely taught as more traditional K-12 courses. A small fraction of U.S. high schools offer their students the Advanced Placement class for computer science—4,310 out of the roughly 37,000 high schools in the nation in 2015. By comparison, students took biology, chemistry, and U.S. history AP courses in 9,000, 11,000, and 13,000 schools, respectively. And while roughly 49,000 students took the AP computer-science exam, more than 370,000 sat for biology and chemistry (470,000 for U.S. history).

There’s a diversity problem among AP computer-science students, too. Last year’s crop of test-takers were overwhelmingly male (78 percent) and just 13 percent were either black or Latino. In nine states not one black student took the test, Education Week calculated. (A review of 2014 test data indicates biology, chemistry, and physics B—the most popular of the several physics AP tests—had higher rates of black and Latino test-takers.)

Some data suggests studying computer science in high school can lead to a major in the field once students enter higher education. In 2012, the College Board, the maker of the AP program, released data suggesting that students who took the computer-science AP course were six to 10 times more likely to study the field in college.

Megan Smith said that in addition to funding computer-science education, the White House initiative would disseminate recent research on how different students learn coding and computing. “One child might be more interested in earth science, one child might be more interested in gaming, one might be interested in social justice,” she said.

The initiative would also encourage states to begin offering computer-science education to younger students, “so that kids don’t have the stereotypes already built in that much of our society delivers to them.” To that effect, she said popular depictions of computer science could use an update to tell a fuller story of who codes. She noted that Obama’s State of the Union Speech this year included a nod to Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who’s credited with inventing the first user-friendly computer language.

The National Science Foundation has funded what it calls more equitable computer-science instructional guides to attract a wider array of students. It’s also been a backer of the push to bring 10,000 computer-science teachers to the nation’s classrooms. NSF’s curriculum designs have been embraced by the College Board and Google’s own outreach efforts to expand computer-science education.

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the assistant director of the NSF, said that “We’re ready now in what we know about how to help teachers develop, especially in fields that they’re not necessarily deeply expert in, and we know a lot about how to support the introduction of computing concepts and computer science in school, in conjunction with other subjects as well as separately.”

Corporations and nonprofits have also been contributing financial support to train more teachers and students in computer science. Microsoft’s Smith said that the company’s employees have taken part in training at 18 states plus the District of Columbia through its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools. Cartoon Network has also committed $30 million to computer-science education.

And it’s not just money. Microsoft and other tech companies have been advocating for computer-science courses to count toward high-school graduation requirements. White House officials said that 22 states don’t allow such classes to count toward a diploma. (The White House’s Smith said in recent years 17 states have made the switch to have those classes count toward graduation requirements.)

But while the White House is urging private companies and philanthropies to do more to expand computer-science training in public schools, Microsoft’s Smith believes the government should be the main driver. “We clearly need the tech sector to continue to do more,” he said. “But there is no way that the private sector or philanthropy can fill this gap by itself. We need more public funding and we need more federal funding.”