Diversifying tech starts with ensuring equitable computer science education
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We see the impact of technology in every aspect of our lives. The tech sector plays a major role in our nation’s economy, producing nearly one-quarter of the nation’s economic output and projects to add over 1 million job openings in the next decade. Tech giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook create products which have impacts across the globe, while creating jobs and wealth. And beyond these companies, sectors as diverse as defense, transportation, entertainment and agriculture are increasingly driven by technology and reliant on a tech-savvy workforce.

But, if you look inside these companies, on their engineering teams, in their boardrooms, and in the neighborhoods and communities in which their employees work and live, you will see an increasingly segregated picture. Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals are vastly underrepresented in tech fields, representing only 8 percent of the Silicon Valley tech workforce and 15 percent of the national computing workforce. Less than 30 percent are women, and less than 2 percent are women of color. There is little to no racial or gender diversity in the creation of new technologies, business ventures, or in investment, limiting our innovation potential.

These trends are similar at every stage of the computing pipeline, and nowhere is it more evident than in K-12 education, where far too few students are learning the computing knowledge and skills needed for participation in the future tech-driven workforce.

In California, the tech capital of the world, only 39 percent of its high schools offer computer science courses, and just 3 percent of California’s 1.9 million high school students took a computer science course in 2017. Computer science is often only offered in high-income areas with less diverse student populations. Students of color, rural students, and low-income students are much less likely to have access to these foundational courses or to be actively engaged in them. Despite significant efforts from national, state and local leaders, agencies, and organizations, these trends are similar across every state. By the end of high school, only a select few students have developed foundational computing skills and knowledge needed to pursue degrees and careers in computing-related fields.

As technology plays an increasingly larger role in our economy, two important trends are converging: The nation is becoming more diverse, while our needs for a skilled computing workforce continue to grow. The exclusion of women and underrepresented people of color limits the robustness of the national computing workforce, hampers future economic growth and competitiveness, impedes innovation, restricts access to high-opportunity jobs and exacerbates economic inequality.

We see this as a systemic challenge, one which is situated within a broader societal context of policies and practices which have disproportionately marginalized communities of color in access to quality education, employment, wealth, health, and well-being among communities of color. And therefore, there is no quick fix.

As a nation, if we want to maintain our role as a global leader in technology and innovation, we need a bold vision to develop and support a diverse and robust computing workforce. This begins with an investment to ensure all students have access to a rigorous K-12 computer science education as a critical foundation for participating in the workforce of the future. K-12 computer science education is only one stage of the computing pipeline; we need a coherent system to align K-12 and postsecondary education, multiple pathways to enter careers in tech, and to hold tech companies accountable for recruiting, hiring and retaining a diverse workforce. 

How do we get there? We can start by articulating the importance of computer science as a critical literacy required for all students and ensuring CS counts towards graduation and university admissions requirements. We must invest heavily in the preparation and professional development of teachers to teach culturally responsive curriculum and implement high quality computer science education across all schools, serving all students, with attention to the needs of under-resourced schools and communities. We must ensure that schools and communities have equitable financial resources and technology infrastructure, in hardware, software, and connectivity. We must address the implicit biases and structural barriers that prevent all students from participating and engaging in computer science coursework. And we’ve got to confront larger issues of educational inequality, from access to preschool to disparities in Advanced Placement coursework, that disproportionately affect low-income students of color. We must avoid one-off solutions, short-term exposure to activities, and easy policy wins instead of addressing the long-term strategies needed to improve access and equity in computer science education.

Our nation is facing a pivotal moment to examine and address historic inequities and create an equitable, inclusive and effective economic future for our nation. We need the contributions of all students, especially low-income students, students of color, and girls, in the technology sector and the broader technology-driven economy. Expanding participation in technology will benefit our nation’s ability to create new products and solutions, improve entrenched societal challenges, and address negative effects of technology--from algorithmic bias and privacy issues to income and wealth inequality. Our students deserve our investment. Let’s ensure all students are prepared to power our nation’s technology-driven future.

Allison Scott, Ph.D., is the Chief Research Officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Julie Flapan, Ed.D., is the Director of the Computer Science Equity Project at UCLA Center X, where she leads the Computer Science for California Initiative (CS for CA).