The Urgent Need to Expand Access to Computer Science Education
- By Kim Spangenberg
The release of generative AI tools like ChatGPT and Bard has shined a light on the impacts of technology in education and in society. Technology is a fundamental part of our lives and continues to evolve at lightning speed.
Jobs in computer science fields are expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in computer science and information technology fields is projected to grow much faster than the average growth rate for all jobs through 2032 — with more than 377,000 job openings each year, on average. As more processes become automated, more decisions rely on data analysis, and as advancements such as artificial intelligence transform key operations, the need for skilled employees in fields such as computer programming, information research, systems analysis and design, database management, cybersecurity, and IT support will continue to expand.
How do we help our students be prepared to enter this dynamic world? Knowledge of computer science prepares students for essential jobs that pay well and are in high demand and ensures students are informed citizens in our digital world. Yet unfortunately only 53% of U.S. high schools currently offer computer science courses for students.
What is the current state of computer science education and what are the biggest challenges that exist?
The benefits of integrating computer science into K–12 education have been shared for the last decade. Initiatives like CSforALL and CSforEd, and organizations like Code.org and the Computer Science Teachers Association and have done expansive work to bring computer science education to more students across the country. This work has made a significant impact on teacher recruitment and professional development and as well as curriculum availability.
Even with the positive changes made over the last decade, making computer science available to all students has proven difficult. Currently, only 29 states have adopted policies to provide access to computer science education for all high school students. Only 13 of those states have committed to computer science education for all K–12 students. Computer science continues to be a minor portion of the curriculum, typically offered to a small subset of students. Underserved students, including those who live in high-poverty neighborhoods or rural areas, remain the least likely to have access to computer science courses.
Several barriers stand in the way of providing computer science education to all students, including access to technology, high quality curriculum, building the teacher pool and finding time in the school day. In the past few years, progress has been made in providing equitable access to technology and WiFi. There are a wider range of curricular options with friendly platforms available to teachers now as well. It's important for work to continue in these areas, but there is encouraging progress to report.
Teacher recruitment and schedule conflicts remain significant challenges. Recruiting and hiring educators with the skills needed to teach computer science is still a significant challenge, especially at the high school level. Allocating time in the school day for computer science also remains a significant challenge, especially when considering required time on learning for core subjects and graduation requirements. Students have limited capacity to choose multiple electives and may have limited options, because there is only one computer science educator at the school. These barriers have slowed progress, preventing some states from establishing policy and forcing school districts to think outside the box to integrate computer science successfully into their programs.
How can we break these barriers and provide more opportunities in computer science to students?
CSforALL, an initiative launched by President Obama in 2016, gathers a wide variety of stakeholders to solve these challenges — including school systems, nonprofit organizations, private sector companies, and families. VHS Learning, a nonprofit provider of high-quality online instruction for almost 30 years, is proud to have been part of this initiative since its inception. For the past seven years, we have committed to developing curricula and partnering with schools to serve students who would otherwise not have access to computer science courses. We've partnered with organizations including the National Math and Science Initiative and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to expand access to computer science to underserved students and to help build capacity for computer science education in districts that currently do not offer it.
School districts can use our courses and instructors to quickly expand their programs of study by offering computer science courses they cannot provide. Our computer science courses are taught by experienced and certified high school teachers who are trained in online teaching best practices. Students are also supported by local site coordinators who are available to monitor progress and help them stay on track with their learning.
My organization is committed to expanding access to computer science education, and we are proud of our strong student outcomes. We offer both AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles. AP results for both courses are very strong, consistently above both the Massachusetts and global averages. In 2023, over 85% of all our students who took the AP Computer Science Principles exam passed with a score of 3 or better and 82% of all the VHS Learning students who took the AP Computer Science A exam passed with a score of 3 or better. Along with the opportunity to earn college credit, in many states and districts these courses earn students a math credit towards high school graduation requirements.
In developing our computer science catalog, we have thoughtfully included semester-length, elective courses for high school students of all levels. We've developed courses that allow students to explore interests in the computer science field, including Cybersecurity and Video Game Design. We also offer courses that introduce students to programming in different languages, including Mobile App Development, Python Programming and Java Programming. All of these courses integrate platforms that allow students to acquire programming skills and write their own programs that solve problems or challenges.
New courses added to our catalog this year include a Principles of Computer Science, a course with a strong focus on computational thinking and problem-solving skills, Data Science, a course that explores the intersection of mathematics, computing and data analysis, and Discrete Math, a multi-disciplinary course in discrete math that includes python programming applications. The Math for Computer Science course could meet math or science credit requirements, depending on local school expectations. Last, but not least, we are excited to launch the first course of the CompTIA Core Skills Pathway, called IT Fundamentals, this year. In this career and technical education pathway, high school students can take industry level CompTIA certification exams that will help prepare them for a career in IT.
As we continue to see new problems and challenges arise, technology will be at the forefront of solving these problems. Today's students are going to be tasked with solving large, complex problems, and the computational thinking and problem-solving skills that are the foundation of computer science education will be integral to these efforts. As technology continues to advance, those entering the workforce will have to continue to evolve and innovate using these key skills.
Regardless of the careers that students choose, technology will be involved. It's our responsibility as educators to ensure that computer science is an integral part of their education. Partnering with a provider of high-quality supplementary online instruction is one important strategy for schools and districts to achieve that goal.