Lawmakers call for more computer science in California schools

March 18, 2014
Joe Sanbria (seated), 16, gets help from his classmates on the Python programming language at Foshay Technology Academy in Los Angeles. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Joe Sanbria (seated), 16, gets help from his classmates with the programming language Python at Foshay Technology Academy in Los Angeles. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

This story has been updated.

Half a dozen bills before the state Legislature address the growing concern that California students don’t have the computer science skills necessary to thrive in the modern workforce.

Educators and tech industry leaders would like high schools to teach students more than just how to use a computer – the goal now is for students to be able to program one. Computer science shouldn’t be a niche field for the highly educated any longer, advocates say.

“I’m not saying every child should become a programmer, but I do think it’s important for every child to have some basic level of skill in computer science,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto.

If all six bills become law, the California State Board of Education would be tasked with developing computer science standards for grades 1 to 12 and the state higher education systems would be asked to create guidelines for courses they’d be willing to accept for admission credit. (See the chart below for a list of the bills.)

One of the bills, introduced by Olsen and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, would allow school districts to offer students a third year of math credit for a computer science course, which is currently considered an elective.

High school students applying to California State University or University of California schools only need one elective credit to meet admission requirements. By allowing computer science to count as a math credit, more students might take the courses, Olsen said.

“Right now there is a disincentive for schools to offer computer science (courses) and a disincentive for students to take them,” Olsen said.

Currently, most high schools in the state don’t offer high-level computer science courses. Only a tiny fraction of California’s 1.9 million high school students take an AP computer science exam. Last year, 4,964 exams were administered in the state, according to the College Board.* The new laws could significantly boost the number of courses offered.

Foshay Technology Academy, a public high school in central Los Angeles, is ahead of the game. The school requires students to take three years of computer science, which includes computer programming.

“When we first started in 10th grade, we started making our own websites (using) HTML,” a Web-based programming language, said Darryl Beason, a junior at the school. “It really captured me. It’s like another way to express yourself.”

Beason, 16, has become one of the fastest coders in his class, according to his teacher, Leslie Aaronson. She tells Darryl and all her students that if they pursue a computer science career, they can make good money. Entry-level computer programmers can earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year in California, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Darryl Beason, 16, standing, helps two classmates with a computer program to warn drivers that they’re speeding. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Some of Aaronson’s students have absorbed this message and set their sights on a computer science or engineering degree. Ana Hernandez, 16, plans to study civil engineering. She says learning the logic behind the language of coding makes her confident she can take on the kinds of complex problems she anticipates she’ll encounter as an engineer. Not all of Aaronson’s students are so focused. And many, like Darryl, who wants to be a singer, have no interest in a tech career.

But whatever fields they pursue, Aaronson believes her students are learning useful skills. Though most full-time programming jobs require a bachelor’s degree, basic freelance programming work can pay $30 an hour, Aaronson said.

Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, cautioned that even with better course offerings, most high school students won’t graduate with enough knowledge to launch right into a full-time computer science career.

“We have a mythology of kids coming out of high school and starting a company like Microsoft out of their garage,” Stephenson said. “The chance of that happening is slim to none. Pretty much, you need a bachelor’s degree.”

However, for students who enter college with a solid grounding in programming, the job opportunities upon graduation should be plentiful, Stephenson said. Industry leaders expect to add 1.4 million new jobs by 2020, according to the nonprofit, which advocates for more computer programming classes in schools.

The types of jobs that require a computer science background are multiplying too, Stephenson said. Jobs in the traditional sciences, like biology, now include computer modeling and data analysis, she said. And jobs in new tech fields, like Internet commerce, are becoming more plentiful every year.

“And then there’s the jobs we haven’t even imagined yet,” Stephenson said.

Ana Hernandez, 16, codes a “loop” during her computer programming class at Foshay Technology Academy in Los Angeles. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

As Stephenson’s organization has campaigned to increase computer science offerings, she said there has been some pushback from administrators worried about how they’ll fit new courses into an already crowded curriculum. There has been much less opposition, especially in recent years, to the idea that children need to learn the basics of computer science, she said.

Even if a student never programs a single computer outside of class, computer science is a worthwhile academic pursuit, said Shuchi Grover, a doctoral candidate in the learning sciences and technology design program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Grover compared the analytical thinking skills students develop while learning programming to what they might learn while doing an experiment in science class.

“Not everybody goes on to become a scientist, yet science is seen as needed to understand how the world works,” Grover said. “But so much of the world is digital now.”

Even if the bills currently before the Legislature pass this spring – the Assembly bills are expected to be heard by the education committee in early April – California would have a long way to go before schools across the state were equipped to offer new courses. Credentialed teachers with up-to-date knowledge of programming are hard to find and some schools do not have the necessary equipment to teach a relevant programming course, said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills.

Hagman introduced two of the six computer science bills – one to create standards for grades 7 to 12 and another to allow high school students to earn community college credit – after hearing from tech industry leaders that they were having trouble finding qualified applicants.

“I believe it’s a nonpartisan issue,” Hagman said. “I think it’s about getting students prepared to become employed when (they) get out of high school or college.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of AP exams, which is 4,964, administered in 2013 in California high schools. The state has more than 1.9 million high school students.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education and STEM. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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