Improving access to computer science can help students catch up after the pandemic

Courtesy: CSforCA

After several years of learning on Zoom, watching how-to videos on YouTube about anything and everything, and “talking” via Snapchat, it’s tempting to think that students are already prepared for our technological future. But technological innovations such as artificial intelligence and ChatGPT are wreaking havoc on our education system.

With education headlines dominated by calls to “catch up” from the pandemic and build a more equitable school system, it’s understandable why we’d want every dollar of educational investment in reading, math and other basic skills. But California faces a more fundamental problem: Because we have not yet achieved equitable access to high-quality education across the curriculum, we must invest in our future without exacerbating existing inequities.

As educators and policymakers consider ways to raise student achievement, it is important to ensure equity in expanding teaching and learning opportunities. In our increasingly digital world, computer science is a necessary building block that enables students to develop essential skills that apply through subject matter, from computational thinking and interdisciplinary problem solving to collaboration and digital citizenship. Importantly, computer science also plays a unique role in supporting student learning and engagement when integrated into more traditional subjects such as math, science, arts and humanities – in large part because technology is the currency of learning among our youth and is critical to success in college, career, and life.

The pandemic caused an almost overnight transformation of our education system and the rapid spread of distance learning. Consequently, students are more online than ever. It is critical to help young people understand and demystify computing, and to consider its ethics and impacts—such as biased algorithms that lead to unfair policies and practices, the entry of AI into classrooms and workplaces, and the impact of social media on self-image and mental health. Like math and reading, computer science education is fundamental to developing well-informed, well-equipped citizens in today’s world.

What’s more, computer science helps students prepare for college and opens the door to some of the highest paying and fastest growing careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in computer and information technology occupations will increase 13% from 2020 to 2030 — equivalent to about 667,600 new jobs — which is faster than the average for all professions. And the median annual salary for computer and information technology occupations was $91,250 in May 2020, higher than the median annual salary for all occupations of $41,950. California is a leader in the technology revolution, leading the nation in technology employment (1.88 million technology workers) and technology sector economic impact ($520 billion), and home to 5 of the world’s top ten most profitable technology companies.

Failure to provide our students with the opportunity to study computer science will only widen existing disparities in student success and representation in top-tier industries.

Despite the importance of equitable access to computer science education, only 39% of California high schools offer computer science courses and only 5% of students are actually enrolled in them. (The latest publicly available data from the California Department of Education is from 2018-19.)

Offering everything California students who have a computer science education – especially girls, low-income students and students of color – will open the door to economic opportunity and high-paying jobs from finance to agriculture, health care or entertainment. It will also ensure that California has the skilled and diverse technology workforce needed to maintain competitiveness and drive innovation in our state.

The California Legislature is considering two important computer science bills: Assembly Bill 1054 (Berman), a bill that would require all public high schools to offer at least one computer science course; and House Bill 1251 (Rivas), which would expand the pool of teachers to teach it. These policies will be an integral part of strengthening student achievement with relevant future preparation, preparing our students for their technological future. That means investing in computer science education and ensuring that all students—including low-income students and students of color—have access to this essential knowledge for their future.

Making computer science accessible to all high schools will help our students catch up as they move forward: computer science education can help us do both.

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Julie Flapan is director of the Computer Science Equity Project at UCLA Center X, School of Education and Information Studies, and co-director of the CSforCA coalition, where she works to expand teaching and learning opportunities for girls, students of color, and low-income students.

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