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Top business leaders, 27 governors, urge Congress to boost computer science education

🕐 8 min read

WASHINGTON – Leaders of dozens of the nation’s top businesses – from Apple and Facebook to Target, Walmart and AT&T – are calling on Congress to help provide computer science education in all K-12 schools, arguing that the United States needs far more students who are literate in the technologies that are transforming nearly every industry.

They worry that the United States could lose its competitive edge without significant efforts to boost computer science among the nation’s youth. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort, saying they see teaching coding and programming as a way to draw middle-class jobs to their states, and dozens of school system superintendents and nonprofit leaders say they see computer science courses as essential for giving children the skills they’ll need to be successful in the modern economy.

“Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers – not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”

An estimated 500,000 unfilled U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often sending companies turning to foreign workers for specialized skills. The federal government isn’t doing much to help: Virtually no federal funding is dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools.

Computer science education has long been treated as an elective in K-12 schools, a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. But there is a growing movement to treat computer science instead as a core subject, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed.

“It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, Dictionary.com and the dating site Match.com.

Hadi Partovi, the chief executive of Code.org – a nonprofit that has helped more than 100 school districts train teachers and expand computer science offerings – was a driving force behind Tuesday’s letter to Congress. He said that the range of industries represented – including retail, tech, finance, airlines, media and even the tractor company John Deere – shows that every business sector has an interest in ensuring that children are learning not just to use software, but to create it.

“It used to be that computer science and technology were about tech companies in California,” Partovi said. “At this point, there’s not a single industry or a single state you can look at where the field and the market isn’t being changed by technology.”

The movement to push computer science has been focused within states and school districts, aided by many millions of dollars in donations from private companies. But advocates say federal funding is key to giving every student access to computer science courses; such courses have been more available in affluent communities than in poor ones and have enrolled students who as a group skew whiter and more male than the general student population.

Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job.

“Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field,”

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn, said he took a little programming in high school and messed around with an Apple IIe as a teenager.

“I’m a perfect example of someone who is not an engineer, but my path was greatly improved by understanding how software is growing, how it works, how it is transforming the world and what are the kinds of things I could do with my life and career,” said Hoffman, who has a net worth of $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

Private-sector donations tend to fund camps and weekend classes, and that’s not enough, said Melinda Gates, who has invested billions of dollars in U.S. education reform through the foundation she heads with husband Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.

“Learning computer science in short bursts is not nearly as effective as having computer science as part of students’ continuous curriculum,” said Melinda Gates, who signed the letter. “Public schools are the only place we can ensure that all students, from all walks of life, have the chance to learn computer science.”

Among other signers of the letter were Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc.; Larry Fink, chief executive of the investment management firm BlackRock; James Murdoch, chief executive of 21st Century Fox; and Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. (Bezos owns The Washington Post and, through a spokesman, declined to comment.) The governor of Texas did not sign the letter. 

College Board data show that more than 160,000 females in the high school Class of 2015 were academically ready to succeed in advanced computer science, according to their scores on standardized tests such as the PSAT. But only 10,142 of those girls – 6 percent – went on to take the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam, said College Board chief executive David Coleman.

Similar statistics show that black and Latino students who show academic readiness for AP computer science also are not taking the course, Coleman said. “That is a great waste of talent for this country,” he said.

President Barack Obama in January asked lawmakers to make a $4 billion investment in providing computer science to all students, calling it a “basic skill, right along with the three R’s.”

Many observers say that while it’s unlikely that the GOP-led Congress will agree to new spending at that level, there is a general consensus among politicians about the importance of teaching computer science to more students.

The Computer Science Education Coalition – whose members include many of the companies whose executives signed Tuesday’s letter – is asking Congress for a more modest investment: $250 million, an amount that the coalition says would help reach more than 3.5 million students in 52,000 classrooms nationwide.

Tuesday’s letter does not request a specific dollar figure and describes funding for computer-science education as a “bipartisan issue can be addressed without growing the federal budget.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, R, who led the push to make his state one of the first to put comprehensive computer science requirements into law, said the goal is to allocate existing education dollars with a new emphasis on coding and programming.

The budget debate on Capitol Hill won’t be about whether to invest in computer science education, Hutchinson predicted, but on how much: “This should be a real easy way to bring people in Washington together,” he said.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, who is slated to become chair of the National Governors Association in July, said he will use that perch to advocate for federal support for computer science. Virginia has about 30,000 unfilled computing jobs, McAuliffe said, which means an estimated $3 billion in unrealized wages and $165 million in lost income tax. This spring the state legislature passed a bill that requires computer science to be woven into the K-12 curriculum.

“I want us to be the cyber capital of the United States,” McAuliffe said. “The only way we’re going to do it is lean in on building those digital skills.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee, said that Congress already passed a new federal education law that explicitly allows states and districts to use federal funds for computer-science programs and teacher-training.

It’s such encouragement – not mandates – that is “the way to unleash real innovation and student achievement in our nation’s 100,000 public schools,” Alexander said.

Besides asking Congress to contribute, many of those who signed the letter announced private donations totaling $48 million to boost computer science education nationwide, $23 million of which will go to Code.org.

Among the most generous donors is Microsoft. Chief executive Brad Smith said there’s a need for the same kind of urgency and bipartisan spirit that characterized the push for stronger science education in the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first satellite.

“I think every company in our industry, and increasingly many other companies across the country, are confronting challenges in finding people with the right skills,” Smith said. “That’s one of the reasons . . . why we turn to people from other countries, and one of the reasons we increasingly face the specter of putting jobs in other countries. If we can’t fill the jobs here, we need to fill them somewhere else.”

To read the letter:

www.change.org/p/offer-computer-science-in-our-public-schools

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