Will the Push for Coding Lead to ‘Technical Ghettos’?

The emphasis on knowing Java and JavaScript could put students of color on the bottom rung of the tech workforce.

Third-grade students work on a coding game as part of an Hour of Code event at an Apple Store. (Mark Lennihan / AP)

For its most ardent champions, enthusiasm for coding comes close to evangelism. From Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt—“Let’s get the whole world coding!”—and the actor Ashton Kutcher, to the NBA player Chris Bosh and the rap royalty Snoop Dogg—“support tha american dream n make coding available to EVERYONE!!”—teaching kids to code has gained high-profile support and widespread acclaim.

Perhaps for good reason. Jobs in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying careers for college graduates, and with the pervasiveness of technology in our daily lives, learning to code is increasingly seen as foundational and essential for learning—not unlike reading, writing, and arithmetic. President Obama in a January weekly radio address latched onto the comparison: “In the new economy … it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘Rs.’” And the White House has put a lot of stock in that idea, reserving $4 billion in its 2017 federal budget proposal for states to bolster computer-science education, and $100 million of those funds targeted for school districts to establish and expand computer science in classrooms across the country.

As the chorus cheering the importance of computing has grown louder, so has the call to create more ways for historically marginalized groups to gain a foothold in tech companies. Kimberly Bryant, the founder and executive director of Black Girls Code, set out to “literally change the face of the [tech] industry” by giving young women of color exposure and hands-on training. Additionally, she sought to remove the cultural isolation she experienced throughout her schooling and career as an electrical engineer. Bryant’s group boasts that 5,000 girls have been served since 2011 by its programs—weekend, after-school, and summer coding camps and workshops—presumably creating a pipeline for youth of color into an industry that is categorically white and male-dominated.

But in the rush to feed the pipeline, though, some are questioning what was overlooked. Educators and technology professionals are voicing concerns about the singular focus on coding—for all students, whether learning coding is enough to build computational thinking and knowledge, and for students of color in particular, whether the emphasis on knowing Java and JavaScript only puts them on the bottom rung of the tech workforce.

The momentum for pushing youngsters into the world of coding is strong and growing. Last week Florida lawmakers approved a measure to allow the state’s high-school students to use computer coding to fulfill their foreign-language requirement for graduation. Fourteen states now permit students to apply computer-programming coursework to satisfy math, science, or foreign-language graduation credits, according to Education Commission of the States, a clearinghouse for state-level education policy. But some warn that computer science as an academic discipline is larger than coding—and in the haste to teach programming skills, the problem-solving and creative thinking that undergirds technical innovations is lost.

Joseph Sweeney, the associate head of school at the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, a private college-prep school in Philadelphia, said the interest in coding academies and coding boot camps is encouraging, calling coding “a new literacy” in a society where computers are involved in nearly all aspects of people’s daily routines, including shopping, banking, entertainment, and travel. But he cautions that computational thinking is an entire body of knowledge and skills—a “mindset”—and needs to be taught as such.

“Coding is one piece of computational literacy and should be taught explicitly in school, but a semester or two of coding won’t do,” said Sweeney, who emphasized that a more “broad and deep approach” is necessary. He advocates a progression where students are challenged to use design thinking—a method that draws on logic, intuition, and different types of reasoning—to identify opportunities, harness the appropriate tools and resources, and demonstrate their outcomes. Offering a glimpse into the not-too-distant future, he describes a day when we can ask a computer to build an app to scan a restaurant’s menu item, build the recipe, make a grocery list, and order the food to our door on demand. “The artificial-intelligence system will build the app,” he said. “Coding might then be nearly obsolete, but computational thinking isn’t going away. It’s the thinking necessary for a world run for us by machines.”

Quincy Brown, the science-and-technology-policy fellow with the National Science Foundation and a computer-science professor at Bowie State University, agrees with Sweeney that merely knowing how to write code is insufficient. As coding gains prominence in the national discourse, Brown says it’s creating “a false equivalence between computer science and programming [when] they are not the same.” She explains that spotting a problem, identifying the first steps to a solution, and plotting a course to a successful resolution is “the heart of computer science,” stressing that the process differs greatly from learning how to code “just as learning how to read is not the same thing as developing [reading] comprehension.”

Coding boot camps are just the first step, Brown said, arming students with simple skills when more complex diagnostic thinking is required to be truly skilled in the field. “The former is training, while the latter is education,” she said. This issue takes on greater significance when students of color are considered, raising issues of equity in the drive to racially diversify the tech sector and underscoring the difference between an occupation and a profession.

Kamau Bobb, the program director in computer-science education at NSF and Brown’s colleague, notes that the dominant argument in support of youth of color learning to code is to “get a good job”—creating a stratified system where students from racial and ethnic groups, and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are prepped for work as service technicians and helpdesk agents. “While those [tech jobs] are needed and noble, they are at the very bottom … in terms of pay and prestige,” he said. Bobb contrasts this with white and Asian middle-class students who are urged to attend college and major in computer science. “What’s missing from this model is that students of color are offered a choice that truncates their ambition.”

What Bobb describes evokes the practice of tracking and ability grouping in K-12 public schools, labeled a modern-day form of segregation for guiding white students into honors and college-prep courses, while black and Latino children are sorted into vocational and remedial classes. Similar issues seem to surface with the new trend toward career academies becoming popular in some school districts. In Pensacola, Florida, school officials earlier this year lauded a firefighter academy at Pine Forest High School as “a feeder for trained employees.” Sixty-one percent of the student body are children of color and black students make up the largest racial group at 44 percent; nearly six out of 10 students (58 percent) are economically disadvantaged. About half of Escambia County public-school students are enrolled in workforce academies in a district where half of the population are students of color.

These kind of patterns can lead to a “bifurcation of pathways,” said Bobb, where students of color are tracked into certain jobs while their white and Asian counterparts earn four-year degrees. To avert the risk of what he calls “technical ghettos,” all students must have access to an expansive computer- science education with a quality math program, he said. “It’s a myth to think that students can simply learn to code and flourish without a minimum level of mathematical sophistication.”

Further, he recommends combining the endless array of out-of-school programs for coding and hackathons with learning opportunities in schools. Brown echoes this point, adding that coding to the uninformed can take many forms, but “you simply cannot learn the analytical skills … without a formal and rigorous education.”

Similarly Sweeney, the private-school administrator, says the priority should be on helping all students develop the competencies and sense of agency to discover and invent. He has reservations about what comes next after coding. “How are you teaching your young people to learn, think, create, and lead in a world transformed by ubiquitous … and increasingly powerful computers?”