With this week’s star-studded "Hour of Code" and Computer Science Education Week, hundreds of thousands of schools around the country are introducing children to computer science and working to get them interested in a field that is almost guaranteed to be in high demand when they hit the job market.
But there’s just one snag: Computer science may not help them graduate high school and or even help them meet the minimum requirements established to attend public colleges and universities in tech-centric states like California. Neither a core math or science subject officially, computer science falls in an awkward middle ground that has kept it an "elective" at the high school level in most states.
The issue, which has become the focus of national advocacy efforts, is about more than just about graduation requirements. That computer sciences is an elective means that perversely, despite the national "skill gap," it’s often among the courses removed from the curriculum when schools face budget cuts. In California, fewer than 200 high schools offer AP Computer Science out of more than 1,300 schools, says UC Irvine informatics professor and computer science education advocate Debra Richardson.
It’s also an equality issue. Besides the privilege of having it at their school, students who take computer science also often have what's called "preparatory privilege," says Julie Flapan, the executive director of Alliance for California Computer Education for Students and Schools, or ACCESS. It may be that they have savvier, English-speaking parents, or come from upper-class districts with better career guidance. Often, it may be that they are male and white, because these demographics describe the role models and norms today. One study by the Computer Science Teachers Association found that the most important factor in whether young women and students of color choose to take computer science is if it counts towards a high school graduation requirement.
Organizations around the country, from the national coalition Code.org to state-focused groups like ACCESS are now aiming to change this with a mix of lobbying, organizing, and public-awareness raising, like the Hour of Code effort. ACCESS is first focusing its work on getting the University of California and California State University systems to count computer science towards one of the core admissions requirements for high school graduates applying to enroll (see their online petition here). Today, about 15 states have acted to include computer science classes as an option among their core high school graduation requirements, but most have made this change within the last two years. Most recently, the Chicago public school system added computer science to its core high school curriculum.
Not everyone believes that computer science should count, however. Raising the number of courses required to graduate high school can reduce graduation rates, which some education advocates oppose. Yet simply adding computer science as an additional option to fulfill existing requirements might mean students take one fewer traditional classes, such as physics or calculus—a fact that’s difficult for some science and math teachers to swallow (though Flapan says the math community is more open). States like Washington have gone with this latter approach, however: "There’s a way of easing into this. It’s not taking anything away. It’s just saying that if a student does take it, it should count for something. Computer science is a rigorous course," says Richardson.
There are also efforts to teach high-level computer science in ways that appeal to a broader audience. The current Advanced Placement Computer Science course is really a skill-based programming course, but right now a new AP course—Computer Science Principles—is being piloted that would take a much broader approach. Students would survey topics in the fields, from human computer interaction and algorithms to software engineering and big data. The first AP exam for this course is planned for 2016.
"The goal is to get kids excited about computer science and how much it can actually change the world," says Richardson, who has chaired Computer Science Education week and a number of other initiatives.
"There are a lot of people who may look at math, for example, and say, why am I doing this? What’s the purpose? The same feeling can come from a straight coding course. Whereas if you really understand the big picture of computer science, there’s much broader appeal."