For Students, The Future Is Now

It’s often hard to predict the future. But in our nation’s schools, the future is now.

The 2014-15 school year was the first during which students of color outnumbered white students in America’s public schools. This demographic shift has significant implications for our education system and the future of our country. It also should be of vital importance to the companies that make up the nation’s technology sector.

“If they don’t invest in developing pools of talent that are diverse, they won’t be able to survive,” says former Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department Education Jim Shelton in the video above.

Earlier this year, the advocacy group Change the Equation released a powerful brief that makes a compelling case on why we should be concerned about the lack of diverse backgrounds in STEM fields. The report argues that as the technology workforce is approaching retirement, the future of the country’s leadership in technology and innovation “will increasingly depend on young women and people of color.”

That’s why, as part of our Generation Beta series on the critical issues in education, our current focus has been to illustrate how students from underserved backgrounds are exposed to technology careers through the support of technology employers. Programs like CodeNow that provide free, out-of-school technology training to underserved students recognize the importance of shifting our perceptions of where our future talent will come from beyond traditional middle-class backgrounds.

It’s not the first time a skill once thought to be only needed by an elite slice of the population has become important for everyone to learn. Y Combinator partner Justin Kan likens programming to writing. “One hundred years ago, it wasn’t clear that writing was something everyone should do,” he says. Like writing a century ago, coding is now rapidly becoming something that nonprogrammers in a wide range of fields should be able to at least understand—if not do a little of themselves.

We’ve discussed ways that schools are integrating technology learning into other subjects to ensure that all students, not just the ones contemplating tech-focused careers, get exposure to STEM skills like critical thinking and problem solving. Many of the schools that have earned AdvancED STEM Certification are making exemplary efforts to ensure that students of diverse backgrounds and those from low-income families are supported and retained in STEM programs.

However, we still have a long way to go. As recently as 2013, only 20 percent of software developers were female, according to CodeNow. Just 5 percent were Latino and less than 4 percent were African American. When only 5 percent of all U.S. high schools offer AP computer science classes, it’s clear that employers have a huge role to play in developing their future workforces.

“Technology changes at a pace that makes it very difficult for standardized academic settings to stay up to date,” Shelton explains.

That’s why out-of-school and afterschool programs represent a largely untapped opportunity that could benefit from the real-world opportunities that technology companies can provide—especially when it comes to reaching underserved youth, minorities and girls. According to Change the Equation, results from a 2014 survey suggest there are 10 million children of color who would participate in these kinds of enrichment opportunities if they were available.

Tech companies from Oracle to Zynga—and the programmers and engineers that work for them—are already devoting time, space and resources to efforts like CodeNow. “Whatever the world turns out to be, I want to make sure that everyone has a fair chance at success,” explains programmer Aston Motes.

Technology itself can provide that fair chance. Through the evolution of massive online open courses (MOOCs) and similar courseware, more young people than ever will have access to hands-on training in technology, regardless of their background or zip code. Even though these kinds of technologies have yet to transform the traditional education system, “it’s not just an opportunity, it’s an inevitability,” says Geoff Ralston, founder of the Imagine K12 accelerator.

From building an app that measures and quantifies active student engagement to developing a research-based framework and criteria  to certify STEM educational programs, AdvancED is an employer that is invested in supporting technology and the 21st century skills that it promotes for all learners. Therefore, we’re practicing what we preach: a crucial part of our growth in recent years has involved diversifying our own workforce by bringing in talent from new places.

Despite all of our collective challenges in the broader educational community, we’re optimistic. Softech VC partner Charles Hudson argues that “there’s never been a better time for young people to get into technology.”

“If I were a young person today, the most exciting thing is that the rate of change is accelerating… which means things that were established and seemed dominant five years ago will crumble and be replaced by new things,” says Hudson.