We’ve seen the state of computer science education in America’s high schools, and it’s not pretty. New data from the U.S. Education Department confirm that few high schoolers are taking computer science in school. In fact, most don’t even have the opportunity.
We have long known that U.S. schools give computer science short shift, but the data showing the depth of the problem have long been a bit spotty. The 2015 Nation’s Report Card, which released its 12th-grade results on Wednesday, filled in some gaps. The news is unsettling.
Few students take programming
Only 22 percent of U.S. 12th-graders said they had ever taken a course in computer programming, and girls were significantly less likely than boys to say they had done so (18 percent vs. 27 percent). Those findings are disappointing, but not very surprising.
Girls have lost ground since 2013
The trend lines are surprising, however. Among boys, little changed from 2013 to 2015. Among girls, by contrast, course-taking dropped from 21 to 18 percent. That might not sound like a big difference, but it is statistically significant, and every percentage point counts when the numbers are so dismal.
Many high schools do not offer computer science
Many high schoolers couldn’t take programming in school if they wanted to. Access to courses in computing and technology is thin across the board:
Note that these percentages almost certainly overlap, because schools that offer AP computer science may also offer other computer science classes. Most likely, well under half of American 12th-graders attend schools that offer any kind of computer science.*
* Unfortunately, we cannot confirm that proposition through the Education Department’s handy-dandy NAEP Data Explorer, their portal to results from the Nation’s Report Card.
I am delighted to rediscover my inner policy wonk as a first-year member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). But the fun of digging into data does little to mitigate my dismay over today’s release of the 2015 Mathematics Results at Grade 12 from The Nation’s Report Card. Only a quarter of the representative nationwide sample of 12th graders who took the assessment last year scored at or above the Proficient level of skill. Only a quarter of our high school graduates demonstrated what is defined as “solid academic performance”? Yikes--that is very worrisome. Equally troubling is the realization that 12th-grade math scores have remained essentially unchanged for over a decade, while reading scores have decreased by five points since 1992, the earliest year with comparable 12th grade data.
Achievement gaps appear in these newest NAEP results just as they have for other grade levels and subjects. Forty-seven percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored proficient or above, compared with only 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students. Students from families with lower incomes persistently perform lower than those from families with higher income.
A quick look at results from the survey questions that accompany the 12th grade test reveals that a whopping 78 percent of 12th graders have never taken computer programming in high school. One bright spot given efforts to increase diversity in the tech workforce is that black students seem most likely among their peers to have taken computer programming, although this holds for only 29 percent of black 12th graders.
But there’s more troubling news. In 2013, NAGB began using NAEP to estimate the percentage of grade 12 students who possess the knowledge and skills to be prepared for first-year college coursework. In 2013, an estimated 39 percent were ready to succeed in credit-bearing coursework. In 2015, an estimated 37 percent were prepared for first-year college mathematics courses. It doesn’t say much for our education system when just over a third of our high school graduates are ready for post-secondary education, whether it is a certificate, a two-year institution or a 4-year college.
Change the Equation was launched in 2010 with the goal of helping ensure that all young people graduate from high school STEM literate. They don’t all have to become engineers or computer scientists or chemists, but they need STEM knowledge to pursue whatever career is most enticing. We know that nearly every career paying a living wage requires some post-secondary education. Seeing that the majority of our high school graduates are not prepared is more bad news. The business community often thinks about its progress in terms of quarterly reports. Does the education community think about progress in terms of quarter centuries? Yes, we have to take the long view when we try to improve something as complex as America’s education system, but at some point the nation’s patience will understandably run out.
Even when women earn higher level STEM degrees at a substantial rate, the job market does not always provide equal opportunities. Only half the percentage of female STEM PhD recipients ends up working as full professors in science.
Source: U.S. News & World Report, Gender and Kids Matter in STEM Academia-But Not Just for Women, March 2014. http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/03/07/gender-and-kids-matter-in-stem-academia-but-not-just-for-women
You know the vicious cycle all too well: Company X isn’t diverse because it can’t find employees who look like underrepresented Applicant X but Applicant X doesn’t want to work for Company X because it isn’t diverse. In response, STEM programs spring forth every day to nurture minority and female interest in STEM. Although many of these strong STEM education programs help, the roots of minority and gender inequality in STEM careers run deeper into the soil than any one of these efforts reach. This leave us wondering what kind of initiative might break the cycle.
A recent White House press release suggests working in reverse. What if Company X invested in diversifying STEM media and STEM toys to influence underrepresented Applicant X as a child and toddler? She grows up thinking STEM is for her, excels in her strong STEM education program, and applies to Company X. Company X hires Applicant X, increases its diversity, promotes this growing diversity, and recruits more underrepresented talent. The idea of using media to make social change isn’t a novel one. But it could prove a valuable trend in STEM that reaches more children than quality programs alone.
Where’s the proof this can work? Disney seems to have found a recipe for promoting STEM, promoting racial and gender diversity, and breaking profit records all at the same time through their latest cartoon. Celebrating its fourth year, the wildly lucrative “Doc McStuffins” television cartoon stars a fictional African American child whose mom is a doctor and dad stays at home. 6-year-old Dottie “Doc” McStuffins is also an aspiring doctor whose favorite pastimes include diagnosing and treating stuffed critters.
With 918,000 viewers ages 2 to 5 and upwards of $500 million in toy revenue, it’s hard to debate the impact of “Doc McStuffins”. Many believe she sparks young interest in STEM with little more than her entertaining presence. Although there’s no research—yet— on the science and math performance of “Doc” viewers, children from all different races, genders, and socioeconomic statuses excitedly dress up in lab coats and play doctor imitating their beloved television heroine.
Right now, the lack of women and minorities in STEM media mirrors the lack of women and minorities in STEM careers. A 2013 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media found that family films are four times more likely to portray a male character employed in the physical sciences than a female character. Primetime television is 2.6 times more likely to portray male physical scientists over female physical scientists. So if you consider that children 9 and under literally watch television like it’s their job (US kids consume an average of 35 hours of television in a week!), then it’s easy to see how messages about gender and race capabilities become implicit before a child even starts school! So why not have messaging that reflects the changes the STEM programs want to make?“Children’s play is serious business,” Dr. Margaret Spencer told the New York Times. “They are getting ideas about who they are from these objects. There are messages about one’s confidence, one’s sense of self in terms of what I look like and being powerful.”
“What we put on TV can change how kids see the world, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously,” said Gary Marsh to the New York Times. Marsh is the president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide. “By showcasing different role models and different kinds of families we can positively influence sociological dynamics for the next 20 years.”
Photos courtesy of The New York Times.
Developing confident math and science teachers has benefits! A study revealed that elementary school teachers don't always feel prepared to teach math and science. This results in daily instruction that unintentionally emphasizes language arts over math and science from Kindergarten to third grade.
Source: The National Academies Press, Science Teachers' Learning: Enhancing Opportunities, Creating Supportive Contexts, 2016. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/21836/science-teachers-learning-enhancing-opportunities-creating-supportive-contexts