New Data: Bridging the Computer Science Access Gap

What’s wrong with the following picture? Jobs in computing are widespread, they are multiplying far faster than in other fields, and they pay much more, yet only 22 percent of U.S. 12th-graders say they have ever taken a computer programming class. More than half couldn’t take such a class if they wanted to, because their high schools don’t offer any. Students of color, low-income students, and rural students fare worst of all.   

At a time when millions of Americans worry about wage stagnation, inequality, and dwindling opportunities, this situation is perverse. Change the Equation’s new analysis of recent federal data reveals the depth of the problem. Fortunately, some states and school districts are committing themselves to giving every high schooler access to computer science.

Computer science unlocks a bright future

People with knowledge and skill in computer science have good reason to hope for a bright future:

Computer science is a gateway to a prosperous future
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In fact, these sunny figures may actually understate the demand for computing talent.  Last year, a CTEq study found millions of Americans who maintain computer networks or use programming languages at work, even though their job titles aren’t even in STEM fields. As computing spreads across the economy, fully half of the computing workforce has been flying under the radar.

Computing jobs span the economy
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New data reveal yawning computer science access gaps in K-12

Well less than half the nation’s high school seniors attend schools that even offer any kind of computer science course. Fewer than one in four attends a school that offers AP Computer Science, the gold standard for computer science classes.

Few students attend schools that even offer computer science
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Low-income high schoolers have even worse prospects:

Low-income students have less access to computer science
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Black and American Indian students also have less access than their peers. In fact, the percentages of American Indian students with access to computer science are downright shocking:

Race determines access to computer science classes
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Students in rural areas face terrible odds as well:

Computer science classes are scarce in small-town and rural schools
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One common-sense solution: Require every school to teach computer science

If schools don’t offer computer science classes, we cannot very well expect students to take them. A growing number of school districts and states have  ambitious plans to remove the first hurdle  by making computer science classes available to every high schooler.

School districts such as San Francisco Unified, the Chicago Public Schools, and New York City Public Schools have openly committed to providing computer science classes in every school. The state of Arkansas has mandated computer science in every school as well, and their effort has begun to pay dividends, as the numbers of students taking computer science in the state have spiked

It is much too soon to declare victory for these efforts. Their success depends on the strength of computer science standards, the quality of new curricula, the ability to train teachers, and strategies for bringing broadband and teachers into rural areas. 

For a very helpful defense of computer science education in K-12, see Adams Nager and Robert Atkinson, The Case for Improving U.S. Computer Science Education