When we think of the heights of education in America, it’s likely we don’t think of Arkansas. The state has famously struggled to rehabilitate its education system, which ranks 45th in the nation. Arkansas also ranks 48th in graduation rate: Only 39 percent of Arkansans who start college will finish, well below the national average of 57 percent. Rates of attendance for pre-kindergarten are actually falling in Arkansas, putting them well behind the national trend for universal pre-K.
Thus, it comes as more than a shock that Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was the first governor in the U.S. to mandate that all Arkansas schools make computer science and coding classes available to all students. By signing it into law, Hutchinson hopes the initiative will help his state “become a national leader in computer-science education, and we’ll be preparing a workforce that’s sure to attract businesses and jobs to our state.” Citing the growth of computer science across all sectors of the economy, he warned, “If [Arkansas] can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.” The law also sets aside funding for teacher training in computer science, with Hutchinson citing that only 20 teachers are currently able to teach coding.
While Hutchinson has the right idea, simply offering computer science classes should one day be viewed like “simply offering” a literacy program. Studies consistently show the continued growth of computer science in every career field; thus, learning how to work with and make the software that will replace thousands—if not millions—of jobs should be a mandatory skill for graduation from every public high school. Such a goal requires a massive overhaul with few resources available to do so, but it must happen if the students of today hope to be the workers, makers, and managers of tomorrow.
Simply offering computer science classes should one day be viewed like “simply offering” a literacy program.
This law certainly puts Arkansas ahead of other states in preparing the next generation for the job market of the future, but that isn’t saying very much. National computer science initiatives have picked up steam but mostly remain attached to private nonprofit services like Code.org and CODE2040, the latter having seen a massive investment from Google. Despite a lot of talk from politicians at the local and national level, only 5 percent of public schools in the U.S. actually offer an AP Computer Science course. Of those students enrolled a computer science class, 81 percent were male and 92 percent were white, further deepening tech’s already entrenched diversity problem.
These numbers are particularly depressing when measured against the growing demands of the American workplace. A report from the Department of Labor found the technology sector will create 1.8 million jobs by 2020, but only 29 percent of them will be able to be filled. Silicon Valley’s biggest firms are in a constant battle for what little engineering talent is available, offering lavish working conditions and massive salaries in a bidding war for prospective employees.
And you can draw a straight line from a lack of computer science in schools to this labor shortage. A study from the College Board found kids who took an AP Computer Science course in high school were eight times more likely to major in computer science. In a survey of its employees, Google found 95 percent of its engineers were exposed to computer science before college. It’s one of the reasons Google, in particular, has been investing in community coding classes: It’s running out of people to hire.
It’s one of the reasons Google has been investing in community coding classes: It’s running out of people to hire.
What is a talent war in Silicon Valley today could one day become our nation’s unemployment crisis. A report from Oxford University has found that nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced by automated systems within the next two decades. The jobs most at risk for automation range from skilled labor positions (like loan officer or paralegal) to low-skill jobs (like taxi drivers and fast food cooks). In fact, self-driving cars alone stand to replace 10 million jobs in just the next ten years, prompting the Wall Street Journal to run the provocative headline “Daddy, What Was A Truck Driver?”
Arming future generations with the skills necessary to compete in such a tenuous labor market is of paramount importance to our economy as a whole, and its prioritization by policymakers needs to start reflecting this urgency. Only 14 states have any computer science standards, and many simply define “computer science” as learning how to type and use social media. As Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi told Wired, “Learning to use Facebook is far less educational than learning to make the next Facebook.”
This might be a bigger point about mandatory computer science than the likely employment crisis a lack of education could create. Software is running the world and our students are being left out. The news is constantly filled with the futuristic technologies coming out of companies like Google, Apple, and Tesla. It’s easy to imagine the future of autonomous cars, immersive virtual reality, holograms, and even true artificial intelligence, but those technologies will require a properly trained workforce in order to have their fullest potential realized. So do our kids.
Photo via barsen/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)