Closing The Computer Science Gap, From Classroom To Career

Editor’s note: Muhammed Chaudhry is the CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.

My twins will turn four in 2015, and they know more about computers now than I did when I took over as president and CEO of Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) in 2003. And it’s a good thing because currently there are more than 75,000 open jobs in computing in California and only 4,324 computer science graduates to fill them.

In fact, the business and industry research group The Conference Board reports that the demand for computing professionals is four times higher than the demand for all other occupations. Companies across virtually every profession — from business and banking to medicine and law — are hungry for computer-savvy workers.

That necessity is the mother of innovation is Silicon Valley’s undying mantra. With such an insurmountable need to train California’s students in computer science for the state and nation’s growing need, why are California schools still stuck in 2003? For example, 56 percent of California high schools don’t offer computer science courses at all. Only 13 percent of high schools offer advanced placement (AP) courses in computing. Schools that teach computer science offer such a hodgepodge of courses that it’s hard to fit them into any particular department — with most labeled as electives.

Likewise, we’re experiencing a growing job-to-student ratio gap in STEM. Currently, only 2 percent of students taking science or math AP exams ever take the computer science A exam, even though computing jobs account for 60 percent of all science- and math-related jobs. In practical terms, this means that by 2020 our nation will have more than 1 million unfilled programming jobs because there will be only 400,000 computer science graduates available.

Additionally, girls and minority students represent a shrinking number of these already abysmal numbers. All of these statistics are especially perplexing because no educator or tech industry leader will dispute that computer proficiency is an irreplaceable need for our children’s education and future.

Further complicating this issue is that most California teachers have little or no training to teach computer science. This fundamentally requires developing new teacher-training guidelines and investing money and time to teach them.

California legislators haven’t contributed any material progress on the issue. Various bills “encourage” school districts to offer more courses and to count them toward high school graduation and college admission, but they are not required to do so. This disincentivizes students from taking computer science courses in the first place.

One fact is obvious: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the need for computer science in California classrooms. This raises the question, where is the innovation to make it happen?

Recently, SVEF convened an inaugural meeting of business and education leaders from across California to discuss new policies and standards for increasing computer science courses and access to all students. What emerged were the innovative, forward-thinking solutions necessary to close the computer science gap through which our students are currently falling.

To begin with, we all agreed that learning introductory concepts of computing, including programming, should start at pre-school age. There is no shortage of free games to teach kids how the Internet and apps work, so the level of additional time and money to execute on this task is negligible.

Next, every California high school must establish computer science courses as part of its core curriculum and not as an optional elective. This means that we must collaborate to establish clearly defined computer science standards that address both fundamental computing concepts and computer programming. This also means counting computer science courses towards high school and college credit.

Third, California’s legislature must allocate state funding for teacher professional development in computer science education. Every dollar invested in one teacher represents a stronger computer science foundation for an additional 20 to 30 students.

Finally, we must focus on underrepresented students — girls and minority children — who have appallingly low enrollment in computer science courses.

The task of increasing computer science education is long and the challenges are real. Finding solutions will take continued support from the education and business communities, parents and the public to provide all California students with the best technology training for the future.

My twins and student everywhere deserve nothing less.