In President Obama’s final budget released last month, he asked for $4 billion over 3 years to develop the next generation of computer science and technology professionals. The President’s Computer Science for All plan aims to equip students with the skills needed to compete in the global economy by allocating $100 million for a competitive grant program that would expand computer science classes in school districts across the country. This expansion would be specifically targeted to girls and minority students, who until now have had less access to computer science classes and the leg up they provide in the job market. In the words of the President, “In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘R’s’. ”
The need for computer science continues to increase. Over 600,000 tech jobs were available last year throughout the country, and a projected 51 percent of all STEM jobs will be in computer science (CS)-related fields by 2018. As computer science continues to expand, two-thirds of tech jobs are based in non-tech fields such as transportation, healthcare, education and financial services. Currently, the federal government needs an additional 10,000 IT and cybersecurity professionals, and the private sector needs many more.
Computer science doesn’t count towards graduation, leaves out girls and minorities
Currently, only 25 percent of K-12 schools offer computer science according to the White House, and only 28 states allow these courses to count toward graduation. In 2015, less than 15 percent of high schools offered AP computer science, and the demographics of the students were not representative of the student population consisting of just 22 percent girls and 13 percent black or latino. In other developed countries such as England, computer science is offered from the ages of 5 to 16. If we want to compete globally, we need to offer our students the same opportunities.
That’s why the Computer Science for All plan is the largest federal effort to expand this learning opportunity and has asked tech companies and philanthropists to support the initiative. This administration will allocate $135 million in existing funds (mostly from the National Science Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service) to help train teachers and develop lesson plans for the next 5 years . The budget has already factored in $5 billion in savings over the next 10 years that the Federal Communications Commission can generate from charging spectrum license user fees and auctioning satellite services.
Computer science teaches students to solve problems
Computer science is not only an increasingly important skill, it also gives students the opportunity to work hands-on, in real-world interactions with math, science and engineering, making consumers into producers of the digital economy, according to the White House. Lisa Singh, an associate professor of Georgetown University, argues that working with computers helps students develop “algorithmic thinking”, the opportunity to break down problems into a series of steps using theoretical knowledge. She believes that both the theoretical knowledge and the ability to code are essential “because if you don’t understand that, the fact that you can code something up, it doesn’t have the same meaning to you. You’re not thinking about that problem the same way.”
The President’s proposal requires action from Congress
Whether Congress decides to fund the expansion of computer science in our schools remains to be seen.
This is particularly true this year, given that the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees, Senator Michael B. Enzi and Representative Tom Price, respectively, have yet to invite Shaun Donovan, the director of the Office of Management and Budget to testify on the President’s final budget plan . As Republicans continue to try to develop a budget this year, while others are seeking lower spending levels to attempt to reduce the deficit, the less likely any of the President’s plans will be considered.
What we do know is that more than 9 out 10 surveyed want their children’s school to teach computer science. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed in December 2015 gives states and districts the opportunity to offer computer science. States such as Delaware, Hawaii and over 30 school districts have already committed to expanding computer science. In the past 3 years, 17 states have allowed for computer science to count toward graduation, and more states are also working on expanding the computer science curriculum into elementary and middle schools.
The Computer Science for All plan builds on the President’s previous commitments to expand STEM opportunities through the White House Science Fair and the Educate to Innovate initiative. These efforts have helped a total of 50,000 new STEM teachers get training, leading to $1 billion in private sector investment for STEM education and expanded opportunities for underrepresented students in STEM . The President’s TechHire and ConnectED initiatives have resulted in over 500 employers partnering in 35 cities, states and rural areas to expand access to tech jobs, causing the digital divide to be cut in half since 2013. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the National Math and Science Initiative, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Education are working together to train teachers and develop lesson plans.
As a country, we are struggling to provide all students with the skills they need to compete in the global economy. While Obama is the first President to write a line of code, if Congress does not fund his proposal, many students will not have the opportunity to develop the skills for today’s technologically advanced job market.
Image source: AP/Jacquelyn Martin.