Why are so many kids still not receiving computer science education?

It is no secret, at We Live Security we strongly believe in the importance of education. We don’t just “live” security; we “live” educating people about security. Naturally, any time we hear about gains in this particular arena, it is an exciting thing. The city of Chicago, Illinois recently announced a change to the curriculum for schools in their district that would introduce children as young as primary school to computer science concepts. It would also allow students to count computer science as a core subject that fulfills graduation requirements, rather than simply be an elective.

This sounds like a big step in the right direction, preparing students to deal with an important aspect of twenty-first century life. But what does the boost for computer science, often affectionately abbreviated to comp-sci, mean in the grand scheme of things?

Why does K-12 comp-sci matter?

For those of us who have been out of high school for more than a few years, this announcement from Chicago might come as a surprise. Aren’t all kids getting computer science classes already? You would think so, with so many of us adults already using computers in our jobs, regardless of our job title. And how many more of us are required to have some level of proficiency with technology, no matter what field we work in? Yet, schools are just now starting to introduce computer related curricula?

The percentage of people needing to use computers proficiently seems to be rapidly approaching 100%, at least for skilled jobs in the US. And in terms of job security and satisfaction, technical jobs have much to offer. In lists of the best, the most lucrative and most in-demand jobs, those positions utilizing computer experts are always in the top five. The demand for people who know how to program or maintain computers and networks–especially those who know how to do these things securely–vastly outpaces the supply. (See the We Live Security story on Huge shortage of cyber-defenders.)

Given that there is a massive need for people to take jobs that require computer skills, one might think that getting kids interested in computers would be considered something of the utmost importance. But apparently this is not yet the case. As far as we can tell, in most states in the US, if computer science is offered at all, it is considered an elective subject, which means it does not count towards a student’s graduation requirements. Many students do not have room in their schedule to include electives, and indeed they have to go out of their way to get exposure to those subjects not considered part of their core curriculum.

While Chicago is to be lauded for its recent changes, it is still just one of only a handful of locales in the US that allows computer science to be counted towards high school graduation requirements. With the changes proposed in Chicago, students at all levels of the primary and secondary systems will have more access to computer-related classes. At the elementary and middle school level, students will have access to a computer science “pathway”, which will allow them to get an additional focus on that subject. At the high school level, there will be an “Exploring Computer Science” class at each school, and certain schools will also offer an Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Class, in addition to the ability to use computer science classes towards graduation.

What is happening elsewhere?

Let me preface the following information with a bit of a caveat: I was educated in the US and can only profess a thorough understanding of this one system. As I was reading the information on the state of computer science in the American education system, I naturally wondered how this compared with that of other countries. From what I was able to glean from a search on graduation requirements elsewhere in the world, it seems as though the US is quite a bit behind other countries. But it is also apparent that direct comparisons are difficult at best.

Every country seems to have a slightly different focus in their educational system, and this is apparent not only by viewing what is considered a “core subject”, but by looking at what elective classes are actually chosen by students. There are a few subjects that are internationally considered required subjects: Reading, Math, and Science. (N.B. In this context Science includes only traditional sciences, not computer science). Beyond this, each country adds other subjects that they consider to be exceptionally important.

To get an idea of the differences in culture, let’s look at a couple of very dissimilar examples, both of which are considered very successful in terms of their test results for those universal “core subjects”. In Finland, which is generally the country in Europe whose scores in Reading, Math and Science are consistently highest, there is less focus on taking standardized tests or doing hours’ worth of homework. Students are strongly encouraged to take multiple languages aside from their native one, and being strong in natural languages seems to be a primary focus for their educational system.

In Korea, another very highly-rated country, things are very different. Students typically go to school for incredibly long hours and have homework on top of that. The curriculum is not so strongly focused on any one area of education, though students are expected to learn both Korean and English. In both Korean and Finland, like in the US, computer science is considered an elective. But in practice, Korean students get much more exposure to computer-related topics, in part because those long days give them more time to get exposure to a wider variety of subjects.

Another important difference in the culture of schools in Finland as opposed to Korea is that there is much more focus on digital literacy and ethics in the latter, and by 2015 all textbooks in Korea are expected to be digital. This is a long way from either country considering computer science a required science subject, but it does at least expose Korean students to computers as a powerful tool, and they are indeed taught about using that tool ethically.

But digital literacy is not the same as understanding how computers actually work. There is a range of different types of classes covering computer related subjects that begins at “digital literacy”, includes “information and communication technology” and ends with true “computer science”. Most countries do not cover computer science in this latter sense, but cover something much more simplistic. A class or standardized test in “computer science” in many countries may cover no more than basic Java programming or familiarity with office productivity suites. For those of us in a computer-related field, this definition is laughably inadequate. This paper written by Simon Peyton Jones from Microsoft Research, in conjunction with several international educators, offers a very thorough breakdown of what computer science actually entails in various countries.

The current situation can be, frankly, a little depressing. Very few places offer in-depth computer education to students before college, those that do may employ teachers that arguably have less experience in the subject than the average student. As a result the classes have little utility and are often declining in popularity. But fortunately, there are things that you and I can do to help this situation, to ensure that our future coworkers are better prepared.

What can we do about it?

The things that you and I can do about the current state of computer related education can be broken down into two areas: Encouraging change in policy, and helping expose students to computers and code. Here are a few suggestions for how you can get involved:

There are also plenty of organizations on a local level that offer mentorship opportunities, which are a great way to expose kids to careers in Science and Technology (especially those of us in less obvious or traditional areas of computer-related employment). For instance:

Kids are now growing up in a world where computers are a part of almost every home, which means many of them are accessing the Internet without a good understanding of how it works, or how to use it safely. By educating them early and often on how best to use these powerful tools, we will not only help protect them from potential harm, but give them the promise of lucrative and meaningful employment when they reach adulthood.

Do you know of schools that are doing a good job when it comes to computer science, ethical computing, and computer security? We would love to hear some good news. Leave a comment and let us know.
 

Author Lysa Myers, ESET

  • IT Guy

    I never expected public schools to teach CS as a core: after all how many teachers & school admins learned it when they were in school?

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