And what is the point of investing tons of money into CS education? Does it really pay off?
GUEST COLUMN | by Alex Yelenevych
Nobody can doubt the fact that IT specialists make a country more competitive in the global arena and, eventually, bring it enormous profits. For example, according to Statista[i], in the IT services segment only, the U.S. is expected to be a leader in 2023 with a revenue of $440.20B. It looks like the IT industry should be a priority for the U.S. Yet, CS education in high schools, colleges, and universities doesn’t reflect it. How come?
‘It looks like the IT industry should be a priority for the U.S. Yet, CS education in high schools, colleges, and universities doesn’t reflect it.’
(Not) So Speedy Growth
Only 53% of U.S. high schools offer a CS course to their students, says the report “2022 State of Computer Science Education: Understanding Our National Imperative”[ii]. It’s not many, but it’s significantly bigger than it was several years ago (35% in 2018). Unfortunately, the rapid growth was seriously affected by the pandemic. Hence, the number of schools offering a CS course grew only by 2% over the last year.
Another big problem is access to CS education, which is still very uneven across the country. For instance, Hispanic students are 1.5 times less likely than their White and Asian peers to take a CS course even if their high school offers it.
In different states, the number of schools with CS courses varies greatly. For example, in Arkansas, Maryland, and South Carolina, it’s over 90%, but in Kansas and Louisiana, this number is less than 35%.
Is CS Education Worth Efforts?
A skeptic might ask, what is the point of investing tons of money into CS education? Does it really pay off? In fact, it does, and multiple studies prove it.
Google and Gallup survey discovered[iii] that CS education helped students prepare for seizing future opportunities. 86% of rural and small-town students believed they were somewhat or very likely to have a job where CS was needed. Also, 24% of them were very interested in learning CS, and 58% were somewhat interested in this discipline.
According to another Google and Gallup report[iv], parents and K-12 educators also highly value CS education. Most parents in every demographic say that computer science is important to learn (78% of Black parents and guardians, 68% of white, and 67% of Hispanic). 66% of teachers, 75% of superintendents, and 73% of principals agree with parents and believe that offering CS courses is just as crucial to a student’s future as core subjects like English, math, history, and science.
Today, 27 states have decided to require schools to offer a CS course. But only five states make such a course obligatory for students to graduate. At the same time, this requirement seems to have a massive impact on young people. For instance, after implementing this policy in South Carolina, graduation rates increased in general and for every racial and ethnic group.
How so? A part of the answer may be a set of new skills students gain while learning CS. Computer science enhances their analytical and critical thinking, ability to solve problems and make decisions. As a result, students start learning more efficiently. For instance, on average, those who took AP Computer Science scored 17.1 points higher in Mathematics on the March SAT[v].
And last but not least, learning CS helps young people get better jobs in the future. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, the number of computer and information technology jobs will increase by 15% between 2021 and 2031[vi]. And in the EU, the trend is similar: between 2007 and 2017, the number of information and communications technology specialists grew by 36.1%[vii].
The growth in IT jobs is faster than the average for all occupations, the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics claims. And the annual wage in this industry is the largest. For example, in May 2021, it was $97,430, while the median annual wage for all occupations was $45,760.
To sum up, investing in CS education today may benefit young people, schools, and the country in general.
So—What’s Standing In The Way?
Now, CS education suffers from several shortages. First, there’s a shortage of qualified CS teachers and tutors. According to the survey[viii] performed by Kapor Center, only around 30% of CS teachers have a Computer and Technical Sciences degree, and 6% graduated with a minor in CS. 53% of respondents have over 11 years of classroom experience, but only 16% obtain such a vast experience in CS teaching.
The IT world is changing extremely fast, so even if teachers have a CS degree, they still have to continue developing their skills. Otherwise, their knowledge will become obsolete. Yes, only 61% of respondents participate in a professional learning community, and 28% – in ongoing coaching. Moreover, 27% of teachers confessed they felt limited by their own expertise and considered low-cost CS professional development and collaboration opportunities much needed.
‘The IT world is changing extremely fast, so even if teachers have a CS degree, they still have to continue developing their skills.’
Also, an additional danger is hiding here. While 30% of respondents with short teaching experience said they would like more opportunities to learn programming languages, 91% of “veterans” were confident about their mastery. This overconfidence may become an obstacle to their further professional development.
The second massive shortage is material resources. According to the survey, 35% of teachers don’t have enough supplies, equipment, and space. 22% of respondents said they lacked hardware and software. This problem affects almost two times more teachers in lower-income (compared to higher-income) and elementary schools (compared to middle and high schools). Also, teachers in more racially diverse schools over twice more often reported difficulties accessing hardware and software resources.
Also, there’s a lack of student engagement. 21% of teachers called it a challenge, especially in low-income schools. Moreover, only 57% of teachers believed they could engage students who weren’t interested in CS.
Why may students lack interest in computer science in the age of IT dominance? One possible explanation is they miss self-confidence and don’t believe in their future in this field. To overcome this barrier, students need teachers’ help.
Of course, there are more issues with CS education than I’ve mentioned above. For example, the need to prioritize cause students to choose other lessons over CS. Young people can take a limited number of classes, so they must make decisions and often select simpler subjects.
Ultimately, the picture is quite clear. Today, CS education in schools is far from perfect.
And What’s Next?
I believe that problems with CS education are fixable, although some of them are a piece of work. A part of the solution may be increasing the number of schools offering CS courses. To do so, we need clear policies, standards, and funding. But that’s not all. There’s a huge need for learning opportunities for CS teachers (current and potential) and a new incentive system. After all, a school can’t provide students with a CS class if it doesn’t have anyone to teach. Schools must motivate teachers to grow professionally and stay in the educational field. The powerful tools they may use are coaching and mentoring.
To solve the accessibility and engagement issues, educators may need to start offering CS courses early, in elementary or middle schools. The sooner kids get acquainted with computer science, the easier it is for them to believe they can become IT professionals in the future.
‘The sooner kids get acquainted with computer science, the easier it is for them to believe they can become IT professionals in the future.’
Also, to increase students’ interest in CS, schools need to show them the connection between their participation in these classes now and their future careers. And this connection should really exist, e.g., CS should credit for high school graduation and satisfy admission requirements at universities.
Finally, I think one of the essential things in “healing” CS education is joining forces with the government, local authorities, school staff, and parents. As usually happens with complex systems, when all the parties work together, synergy appears.