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The silver lining to all the bad news around diversity in U.S. tech

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This week the World Economic Forum released its Global Gender Gap report, which shows that the global workplace gender gap has grown bigger over the past year.

Sheryl Sandberg writes “the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science is dropping,” and USA Today reported that in the U.S., female participation in the computing and tech workforce will shrink even further, from 24% to 22% over the next 10 years “unless we take action now,” adding that the “solution starts with education.”

It’s true, the tech workforce in the U.S. is predominantly white and Asian males, and this imbalance is mirrored in university computer science classrooms. The numbers have historically been the same in grades K-12.  Research by the College Board has shown that females who take computer science in high school are 6 times more likely to study it in university.

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But since 2013, the numbers in K-12 have begun changing

In the face of this bad news “unless we take action now,” I’d like to call attention to the hundreds of thousands of K-12 teachers who are taking action now. The world should celebrate these educators and extol the awesome results of their action. Since 2013, in a short span of three years, over 400,000 teachers in grades K-12 have begun teaching computer science in their classrooms, starting as early as Kindergarten.

The charts below show the diversity of the 13 million students learning to code on Code.org’s Code Studio, which has in 3 years become the most popular coding platform in grades K-12:

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While most of these students are learning the simplest introductory computer science concepts, even in Advanced Placement (AP) computer science, the diversity picture has begun improving over the past three years, after a decade of stagnation. Since 2013, participation by females and underrepresented minorities in AP Computer Science has grown faster than the average. Of course, the numbers are still grossly imbalanced  – 78% of the students are white or Asian, 77% are male. We have a long way to go and the problem is far from solved, but the year-over-year change is finally headed in the right direction:

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This isn’t just happening in one school or in one state, it’s happening nationally. In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson passed a bill to fund access to computer science in every school, and in just one year Arkansas reported a 300% increase of females studying computer science, and a 600% increase among African American females. When Oakland decided to offer computer science in every high school, enrollment increased by a factor of 14!  Changes like this have spread across the country, from Rhode Island to Utah, from Broward County to Spokane, and in the largest cities like NYC, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

The new AP Computer Science Principles

What brings me the most hope is this year’s launch of the new Computer Science Principles, a new Advanced Placement (AP) course developed in partnership with the College Board. This course introduces students to the foundational concepts of computer science, with a curriculum and learning progression that has been designed specifically to attract and engage students who are traditionally underrepresented in the computing field.

The 2016-17 school year marks the first time this course is being taught at a national scale across hundreds of classrooms, with a College Board AP exam to be administered in the spring. Although the enrollment figures are not yet available for Computer Science Principles classrooms, I fully expect that the diversity numbers paint a very different picture than what you see in the traditional tech industry, or in traditional AP computer science.

The solution isn’t only about education

Of course, this isn’t purely an education problem. Unconscious bias or downright discrimination greatly impacts the gender and racial imbalance in computing. A recent study shows that women are 11 times more likely to land a job interview in tech if their gender is masked during the hiring process.

And reports show that tech companies do a worse job retaining or promoting female engineers. These are very real problems, and the solution isn’t simply to wait for education to address the hiring pipeline. But it will also be mathematically impossible to address the workforce diversity gap without addressing the same gap in the education, and the results in K-12 are an encouraging step in the right direction.

Celebrating the result of amazing teachers

At a time when most of the news you see or read is bad news, the story of what’s happening in K-12 computer science offers a beacon of hope. These numbers suggest we may be able to reverse the gender gap and racial imbalance in the tech workforce and to provide a ladder of opportunity to the youth who need it the most.

This change has only been possible thanks to the tireless passion of America’s teachers and educators, who have decided that computer science is important enough that it should be integrated into the K-12 curriculum in their public school classrooms. This isn’t just an idea, it’s happening. These amazing teachers are currently teaching computer science to our children today, at a record scale never seen before in US history.

We owe a debt of gratitude to these teachers, for bringing the opportunity to learn computer science to so many millions of students, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background.

How you can help

The most impactful way you can help is to encourage a teacher to try offering computer science in the classroom.

If you want to go even further to help support this teacher-powered movement, you can volunteer to help in a classroom: sign up to help with an Hour of Code this December, or help a computer science teacher inspire students throughout the school year.

In light of all the bad news that is reported daily, the story of computer science in America’s classrooms provides a glimmer of hope. Working together, we can change anything. Help us spread the word.

Featured Image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)