Expanding computer science in schools is a bipartisan opportunity

Expanding computer science in schools is a bipartisan opportunity
© Getty Images

A bipartisan idea is a rare creature in Washington these days, but there is one issue that brings the parties together: the need to expand computer science education in America’s schools. President Obama proposed spending an additional $4 billion, and President Trump released a more modest proposal. But despite these efforts, schools are still waiting for additional funding. That’s a shame because computer science skills hold the keys to economic opportunity for students. Just as important, the benefits don’t just accrue to students themselves. Rather, these are competencies that will be increasingly important to American competitiveness in the 21st century.

Our continued failure to fund broad access to computer science education is shortsighted and threatens to stymie our future prosperity. We live in a world defined by computer code and a job market that increasingly demands the ability to create it. Coding skills are a staple of half of all occupations in the top earning quartile, jobs with salaries of $75,000 and over. That means that computer science skills, which include coding, are increasingly a prerequisite for a chance at a middle class life in the 21st century. Yet, remarkably, only 40 percent of K-12 schools offer any classes that include coding.

Computer science skills extend beyond coding to a range of conceptual understandings and digital skills required to work with computers and the internet. A computer science class in middle or high school might teach students to write code, analyze data, design a web application, or manipulate a robot. It connects students to foundational concepts in technology and improves digital skills across a range of software. Moreover, computer science can instill a durable intellectual framework for analytical thinking that will help students acquire new skills as time passes and technology changes. Students who don’t have access to computer science will enter the workforce at a significant disadvantage.

According to code.org, there are more than 500,000 open computing jobs in the United States. Research from Burning Glass Technologies demonstrates that 2.6 million job postings over the last year call for some coding skills. These openings include 33,000 jobs in sales, 18,000 jobs for human resources specialists, 18,000 jobs for financial analysts, 17,000 jobs for marketing managers, and 11,000 for retail managers. Over the next seven years, the number of jobs requiring a computer science background will grow at twice the rate of jobs in other fields and will account for the largest proportion of new wages. Further, these jobs provide access to higher wages. Today, jobs requiring coding skills pay a $22,000 premium over those that do not.

The benefits are not just for high skilled workers. Computer science can offer a path to the middle class for those with post-secondary education. Over the past year, 380,000 jobs that required coding skills were open to people with only high school degree. Of all middle skill jobs, 80 percent are digitally intensive. These jobs are growing twice as fast and are twice as likely to pay a living wage as those that do not require digital skills. In fact, the share of middle skill jobs that do not require digital skills are limited to just a few fields like transportation and construction. But even in those fields, digital skills are a requirement to move up into management.

Despite the projected growth in demand for computing skills, the number of people entering the workforce from high school and college with a computer science background is low. In 2015, universities graduated approximately 60,000 students with computer science bachelor’s degrees. By comparison, 50 percent more students graduated with degrees in communications and nearly twice as many graduated with degrees in psychology. In high school, the picture is similar. Last year, 58,000 high school students took the AP computer science exam, while almost 10 times as many took the AP English Language exam and more than five times as many took the AP psychology exam.

Other countries are preparing their students for an economy in which computer science skills are vital. For example, Israel made computer science a high school graduation requirement in 1995. Since then, Israel’s technology sector has rapidly expanded. Israel’s economy second in the world for innovation, two spots ahead of the United States, as ranked in a World Economic Forum report in 2016.

Some states and school districts have moved aggressively to incorporate computer science into the classroom by setting goals and expanding computer science offerings in every public school. In recent years, seven states have adopted rigorous K-12 computer science standards. With the governor’s leadership, Rhode Island created CS4RI to institute computer science classes in all public high schools by the end of 2017. Last year, Virginia’s governor signed legislation to include computer science in every high school’s curriculum by 2018.

Computer science and coding are critical baseline skills for the 21st century. Demand for particular coding languages can shift quickly. In this context, early computer science education should be viewed not as providing specific job skills, but rather as preparing students to adjust to a rapidly evolving digital economy. As the future of work shifts with changes in technology, updating K-12 education to include computer science represents an important and bipartisan step to help future generations of workers succeed.

Alastair Fitzpayne is executive director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute. Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies. Austin Jaspers is a Fulbright Scholar.