Times have never been better for computer science workers. Jobs in computing are growing at twice the national rate of other types of jobs. By 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 1 million more computer science-related jobs than graduating students qualified to fill them.
If any company has a vested interest in cultivating a strong talent pool of computer scientists, it’s Google. So the search giant set out to learn why students in the US aren’t being prepared to bridge the talent deficit. In a big survey conducted with Gallup and released today, Google found a range of dysfunctional reasons more K-12 students aren’t learning computer science skills. Perhaps the most surprising: schools don’t think the demand from parents and students is there.
Google and Gallup spent a year and a half surveying thousands of students, parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents across the US. And it’s not that parents don’t want computer science for their kids. A full nine in ten parents surveyed viewed computer science education as a good use of school resources. It’s the gap between actual and perceived demand that appears to be the problem.
“Most principals and superintendents surveyed say it is important to offer computer science education,” the survey’s authors wrote. “However, given the tendency to prioritize subjects that are included in required testing, computer science is not a top priority.”
Perhaps even more troubling, the very people elected to represent the interests of parents and the community don’t seem to get it.
“Less than half of principals and superintendents surveyed say their school board thinks offering computer science education is important.”
Though computer science can be learned from scratch on the college level, early exposure is crucial to attracting more people to the field. According to another study conducted by Google last year, those who had the opportunity to take an advanced-placement computer science exam were 46 percent more likely to indicate interest in a computer science major.
And just about everybody involved in educating kids seems to agree that this exposure is important. A majority of parents, teachers, principals and superintendents said they thought computer science was just as important to a student’s future success as math, science, history and English. Two-thirds of parents surveyed said computer science should be required learning in schools; in lower-income households, parents were even more likely to hold that view.
“We’re bickering all over the place in this country about what should and shouldn’t be taught in school,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, tells WIRED. “But what was surprising and clear from this study was that Americans very clearly want coding in the classroom.”
School administrators surveyed were most likely to say the main practical barriers to offering computer science are the limited time they have to devote to classes not tied to testing requirements and the low availability and lack of budget for computer science teachers. Just one-tenth of administrators said access to the Internet was a barrier; access to software and hardware was also not an issue for most.
Bennett Brown, director of curriculum at Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit has developed a K-12 computer science program, says scaling professional development in order to have enough teachers actually qualified to teach computer science to kids is key—and also one of the biggest challenges.
“With most K-12 teachers having little or no CS experience in their own education, professional development is critical to help them gain content knowledge and confidence,” he says.
The Role of Race and Gender
Three in four principals surveyed said their schools offer no computer science programs or coding classes. Of the ones that do, only one in five offer AP classes in computer science. The situation is even worse for minority groups. Black students, Hispanic students, women and low-income students are all less likely to have opportunities to learn computer science in school. Among Hispanic students, only 75 percent of students have a computer with Internet access, compared to 98 percent of white students and 85 percent of Black students.
But while that relative lack of access may be a hurdle, Busteed believes that the proliferation of mobile tech creates more options. Regardless of race or gender, the study showed, 90 percent or more of students had access to the Internet through a phone or a tablet. “Almost everybody has access to the Internet through that avenue,” Busteed says. “There may be something to think about in considering opportunities for computer science education through that route.” Schools are also experimenting with other ways to teach students the fundamentals of computer science—computational thinking, for instance—without actual computers.
Computer Science Is on the Rise
“We may have painted a dire picture here,” says Hai Hong, program manager of Google’s K-12 education outreach. “But there is a silver lining.” He says half of principals at schools that do offer computer science say learning opportunities have been on the rise over the last three years. But more work needs to be done, he says, especially around improving awareness about the demand for computer science education and the importance of programming and coding as an essential element of teaching computer science to students.
Google itself is one of those organizations working to dig into these issues by creating programs it hopes will make an impact. Some of the programs the company has already implemented include Google’s RISE Awards, which give out grants to organizations around the globe that promote computer science initiatives that reach girls, underrepresented minorities, and students facing socioeconomic barriers; and Made with Code, a campaign to get more girls into computer science. Hong says the survey itself also gives Google a solid jumping-off point to do more informed work to get more kids coding.
“Any solutions or programs that we develop need to start with data,” Hong says. “If we’re trying to address existing disparities and access, we need the rigorous research to understand what the landscape of computer science even looks like.”