Read, Write, Code: The New Basics

Laptops, tablets and smartphones are ubiquitous accessories to today’s students.  Attempting to survive almost any level of school, from elementary to post-graduate, without access to technology, is an unfathomable concept. It is also widely understood that technology will be the engine of growth for the global economy and that the United States is the source of many of the world’s technological advances.  So why is the U.S. educational establishment struggling with a topic as basic as teaching children to write program code?

Low AP Enrollment & Exams

Despite technology’s pervasiveness in our world, most schools and districts do not consider computer science a core subject. This lack of focus on the subject is evidenced by enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses in computer science.  According to the College Board, last year only 30,000 students took the AP computer science exam while 270,000 took the AP calculus exam and 200,000 took AP biology exams.  In addition, girls accounted for approximately 19% of exam takers, Hispanic students 8.1% and African-American 3.7%. At a time when achievement gap and future employability are hot topics, school districts should not only be teaching basic computer skills but providing resources for students to master technology.

A Top Paying College Degree

Other countries seem to have come to grips with the importance of teaching computer science to students in pre-college years.  Great Britain has recently introduced a new technology curriculum that starts at age 5.  Estonia, a small but highly computer literate country, is teaching first graders how to create their own computer programs.  A recent New York Times article (March, 2014)summed it up clearly, stating “such knowledge, the advocates say, is important not only to individual students’ future career prospects, but also for their countries’ economic competitiveness and the technology industry’s ability to find qualified workers.” According to Forbes.com, the college degree with the highest average salary is from Carnegie Mellon, School of Computer Science at $84,400.

Expanding Participation In Computer Science

The gap in computer science education has not gone unnoticed.  Code.org, a foundation backed by such technology luminaries as Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, is looking to push school districts to teach coding to children as early as possible.  Their vision is that “every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science.” Hadi Partovi, one of its founders, explains the accessibility to such opportunities “needs to start in elementary school where classrooms are split equally with students of all backgrounds, and the playing field is still relatively level.”

One independent school that has adopted this model is the Beacon School in Stamford, which integrates computer programming and robotics classes beginning in the elementary grades, to ensure that students develop technological literacy from an early age. "Many parents and educational professionals assume that today's digital natives don't need direct instruction in technology," says Head of School Meredith Hafer. "However, just because they know how to use the latest social media platform or crack the password on your iPad does not mean that they have the skills to participate in the next phase of the information revolution. If we want to prepare our students to drive 21st century innovation, this has to be a priority."

Some school districts such as Chicago and New York are starting to roll out programs aimed at teaching rudimentary computer skills to students, but the national coverage is still in its infancy stage.  Most districts must construct their curriculum from scratch.  Advocates argue between the need to teach concepts versus the actual writing of programs as the appropriate right steps.  In addition, there are districts who are debating whether coding should be considered a foreign language rather than math, science or business or something entirely different. In fact, in 28 out of 50 states, computer science can’t count towards high school graduation requirements in math or science.

CS in Greenwich

Greenwich High School teacher Matt Myers is also the CEO of Slates & Tablets, a company that he co-founded with his brother with “the goal of filling the gaps he saw in classroom technology.” Recently Myers was recognized as one of GOOD Magazine’s Ten Most Innovative Teachers in America, as well as one of “20 to Watch in Ed Tech” from the National School Boards Association. He’s also responsible for the curriculum of Greenwich High School’s new computer science program, which he teaches at the school.

“The computer science course of study at Greenwich High School looks to provide three levels of instruction to students,” explains Myers.  His suggested approach includes an introductory level to attract students of all backgrounds and genders to the study of the subject followed by an intermediate level, to provide some real-world technical training on the fundamentals of programming in the world's most common languages.  The final step is an advanced level, to give students the opportunity and guidance to design and build their own original concepts and product ideas. “We plan on doing this through a mix of classroom instruction, business education, technical training, and interaction with experts from the tech world,” he explains. “We've accomplished that in spades this year, the last piece as evidenced by the first GHS Technology Expo, featuring guest presentations by Greenwich locals Geoff Massam and Howard Morgan.”

Drag, Drop, Repeat Loops

While the educational world works through the issue of how to best teach computer science, the focus on coding as a basic skill has nevertheless been intensified. Code.org recently launched “An Hour of Coding,” a self-directed tutorial intended to introduce coding to as many people as possible.  Celebrities as diverse as actor Ashton Kucher, singer Will.i.am and NBA star Chris Bosh are admitted coders. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently stated that he is teaching his kids to code while also learning himself.  While no federal mandate to teach coding is in the works, the fact that the most senior educator in the country recognizes its importance is a sign that progress is happening.

With education policy determined at the state level, it is unlikely that a unified, cohesive approach to teaching computer science will be seen in the near future.  But, to quote from a recent article published on the White House website, “advances in computer science, which includes problem solving, creativity, abstraction and programing, have transformed the way we live, work, learn, play and communicate; they are actually changing the world.” Beyond the empowerment that accompanies computational skills, “computer skills also lead to great jobs.”

The ability to code will become a skill as basic as reading and writing.  Beacon School teacher Stephen Muffati may have a simple answer, but one that is powerful and profound; “the odd thing about programming is that it is something that you have to want to learn.”  It is a sentiment that may be applicable to many subjects but given our technologically dependent world, applying it to programming and coding currently makes our country’s future dependent on a large group of self-learners.  It may make more sense, however, for the educational establishment to take on the challenge of how to teach computer science and coding as a fundamental part of our children’s education, and to instill the appetite to learn about it as early as possible.