The tech sector is not happy with Washington’s K-12 education system. The Washington Technology Industry Association routinely reminds people the tech-worker shortfall is about 3,000 jobs per year, and industry groups and companies alike blame the education system for not pumping out enough computer-science talent.
Gov. Jay Inslee took an important step toward fixing that Wednesday when he signed House Bill 1813. The bill — which received just four “nay” votes in the House and none in the Senate — will establish computer science standards in K-12 schools and establish a training program for high school teachers, with elementary school training to follow.
“Seventy percent of job growth is in computer science, yet only ten percent of our high schools offer computer science classes,” Rep. Chad Magendanz, the Issaquah Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “We talk a lot about the skills gap, but this is the most significant thing we can do to increase the opportunity for our children, our next generation, our future workforce, to take advantage of these high-wage, most promising jobs.”
Fulfilling the bill’s objectives would be a significant step forward for tech education, but consider it the very first step in establishing a CS system in public education.
“I strongly believe that it’s imperative that a future state of our education program is to ensure that computer science is integrated K through 12. Ensuring it at the high school level is a first step, but it’s also kind of a Band-Aid on a larger problem,” said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the WTIA. “There’s a huge drop-off in interest in computer science after elementary school through the middle school years, particularly among girls and underrepresented minorities.”
This is where normalizing computer science in public education could have the greatest effect. Exposure to computer science at an early age largely takes place among wealthy families, and only select schools have computer science incorporated into their curricula. If every public school in the state had a C.S. component in its curriculum, far more students would be introduced to the field and consider it for a career path.
Just creating a siloed computer science class in every school won’t do the trick, though, according to Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi. Just as computer science is infiltrating every industry, Partovi feels coding should become part of every class. “Writing isn’t limited to English class,” he said. “Computer science is a field, but it’s also a tool that touches every other field.”
Achieving that kind of educational breadth leads to the linchpin of the push for expanded CS education: teacher training. Partovi’s organization works with schools to develop CS curricula and trains teachers on the basics of coding education.
Partovi stressed that it can’t just be science or engineering teachers learning computer science; physical education, English, and history teachers also need to be trained. “Getting it embedded into the rest of the curriculum is not at all easy, and to do that you’d not only need to change all curriculum, you’d need every teacher to learn this as well,” Partovi said.
This idea for computer-science ubiquity in education is market-driven. “There isn’t a pipeline problem only in the tech industry; it’s in every industry. Two-thirds of software jobs are outside of tech companies,” Partovi said.
Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, said computer science literacy is becoming increasingly important for those entering the job market. “Computational thinking is an essential capability for just about everyone in the 21st century world,” Lazowska wrote in an email. “Every field is becoming an information field.”
The private sector’s embrace of technology comes at a time when public schools are dropping C.S. classes. According to a report from the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer Science Teachers Association, the number of K-12 introductory computer science classes dropped 17 percent from 2005 to 2009, and the number of advanced placement courses fell 35 percent.
“The country graduates fewer computer scientists now than it did 10 years ago,” Partovi said. “Computer science is the fastest growing field in the country, and possibly in the history of the country. Tech people have broadly recognized the importance (of computer science) for our children’s future, and not just for the ones who want to become software engineers, but for all those who want to be well-versed in how the world around them works.”
H.B. 1813 will kickstart that process, but there’s plenty of work to be done, not the least of which is the legislature passing a budget that includes funding for the measure. But even after the system is funded and implemented, it will take a while for all Washington students to attain computer science competency.
“I don’t think that will happen for 10 or 20 years, when today’s students graduate and become teachers,” Partovi said.