Computer science is driving innovation across all fields, so it makes sense that the Los Angeles Board of Education wants to provide its students with access to the latest technology. Students who develop expertise in computer science will have automatic career advantages. But is the district taking the right steps?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that computing occupations are among the fastest-growing job categories in the United States and that such jobs pay about 75% more than the national median annual salary. Unfortunately, only a narrow band of students — predominantly white and Asian males — is developing the necessary skills to step into these high-paying jobs in computer science. Latinos, African Americans and girls of all ethnic backgrounds are being left behind. In 2013, 29,555 students took the Advanced Placement computer science exam, but only 18% were female, 4% African American and 3% Mexican American.
At many schools, especially those with high numbers of low-income African American and Latino students, meaningful computer courses simply aren't offered. Data gathered by Code.org, a nonprofit organization trying to expand computer science education, suggests that 9 out of 10 K-12 schools nationwide do not even offer computer-programming courses.
Instead, skills such as keyboarding and Internet research are being dressed up as "computer science." The focus tends to be on how to use computers rather than on what makes them work. Students may become adept at surfing the Web and at word processing, but they aren't developing the critical thinking skills essential to creating the software and hardware that power computers.
This is especially unfortunate since there is a growing shortage of computer scientists nationwide. The National Center for Women and Information Technology projects that the number of U.S. college graduates in computing between 2010 and 2020 will meet less than one-third of the demand for them. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that more jobs will be created in computing than in all other science and technology fields combined.
If K-12 schools aren't teaching the necessary skills, where will those workers come from? A great majority of today's computer scientists started down their career paths because of "preparatory privilege." They came from families that could provide parental knowledge, guidance, summer camp opportunities, in-home computers, software, even private tutoring. But for many students in the L.A. Unified School District — some 80% of whom live below the poverty line — that kind of extracurricular enrichment simply isn't available.
The United States has a choice to make. It can continue on its current course, in which case it will need to import even more computer scientists from overseas, or it can provide meaningful computer education to its own students, including the children of immigrants already here.
Six years ago a partnership between UCLA and LAUSD was forged to help bring computer science to a wider range of students, specifically to children of color and girls. A rigorous, yearlong course, "Exploring Computer Science," was developed and is now being offered to more than 2,000 students in more than 30 Los Angeles high schools, as well as at public schools in Chicago and Washington, and it will soon be in New York. But we must do much better.
LAUSD has begun rolling out one of the largest and most ambitious technological interventions in American education, aimed at eventually providing electronic tablets (or in some upper grades, possibly, laptops) to every student.
But is purchasing iPads really the magic bullet? The tablets are certain to engage students, which is a start. But part of their appeal is their ease of use. They are designed to be extremely user-friendly, which means students don't have to understand much about a computer's workings to use one.
A primary goal of any technology initiative should be to teach higher-order computational skills to every student. If LAUSD's huge investment — in the neighborhood of $1 billion — is going to provide students with more than fancy textbooks, the district will have to focus on innovative curriculum development and teacher professional development. Students need to learn how to create and produce with technology, not just passively benefit from and consume what has been created by others.
LAUSD should be applauded for wanting to make technology available to every child. But it will be crucial to make sure it is teaching the right skills. It will take a coalition of school districts, philanthropic visionaries, researchers and community organizations to get this right. We must build on the many available resources in Los Angeles to help strengthen access to computer science education for all kids.
Jane Margolis is a senior researcher at UCLA and the author of "Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing." Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, a professor and dean of education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is the coauthor of "Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World."