The US has an education problem, but is Big Tech really the answer?

It may have taken congressional hearings, but America is starting to wake up to the negative effects the unexamined use of technology has on our society — particularly our young people.

From the Facebook Papers to the ongoing Elizabeth Holmes trial, we’re facing a clear reminder that in the tech industry, there is a pervasive preference for slick marketing over real results. But then why, when it comes to solving big issues, from healthcare to education, are we still so willing to trust Big Tech?

Having moved from corporate America to the tech industry to my current role leading advocacy efforts supporting racial justice in the education space, I’ve seen firsthand the harm in prioritizing flashy promises over real, measured impact and neglecting to engage existing expertise.

I also know all too well that we need to reimagine our education system — particularly in the STEM fields — to effectively prepare our next generation for the world they will inherit. But I’m not sold on the seemingly given fact that the tech industry should be the ones leading this effort. Supporting it? Yes.

With the seemingly exponential demand for individuals who can fill skilled tech jobs, major tech companies have a natural talent-building agenda to increase tech education. This has resulted in high-profile efforts to get coding and computer science education to K-12 students — from Tim Cook pressuring the White House to make coding mandatory for school curricula to early investors in Facebook and Dropbox founding to get computer science into public schools. In the past 10 years, over 100 million students around the world have participated in the Hour of Code and about 70% of parents now say it’s important for their children to study computer science.

But we need to be careful not to treat a powerful vision as an accomplishment in itself, such as rewarding Elizabeth Holmes with significant investment dollars as she donned a Steve Jobs turtleneck and accepted accolades for promises yet to be kept.

Right now we have some of the world’s most brilliant tech minds backing “innovative” efforts to boost access to tech education. And yet the populations that stand the most to benefit from new pathways to opportunity are still being left behind. Since 2009, the percentage of women computer science (CS) undergraduates in the U.S. declined from 20.7% to 18.7% and African-American CS undergraduates dropped by 3%.

Short-term educational interventions — the orgs creating free online coding modules, mentorship event series or global hackathons — have been very successful in accumulating private-sector attention and donor investments with eye-catching branding.

But when I was a young student passionate about STEM, while I’m sure I would have enjoyed these engagements immensely, momentary resources did not sustain my journey from initial interest to a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at one of the top institutions in the country.

To accomplish that feat, I needed relatable and accessible educators and professionals who radiated a belief in my potential. It was having a community of peers who could reassure me during challenging periods and validate my frustration when facing constant othering in predominantly white spaces. And then, at minimum, I needed access to a continued and rigorous STEM education and the technical resources to complete assignments.

For communities of color, breaks in the tech pipeline aren’t restricted to access to laptops or the availability of AP computer science courses. With gaps appearing from secondary education to college admissions to hiring practices in tech’s top companies, disjointed interventions are just Band-Aids, even when applied at scale.

If the current scrutiny facing social media giants tells us anything, it’s that tech doesn’t erase cultural differences or societal problems: It amplifies them. For the tech industry to make a meaningful investment in improving our education system, it needs to heed this lesson and seek to understand not just what’s missing, but how to meaningfully support the existing work underway.

At SMASH, a STEM justice education nonprofit founded in Oakland to close the opportunity gap in tech, 79% of our scholars graduate the program to complete a bachelor’s degree in STEM. Our national average for the same demographic is 39%.

Scholars start with SMASH Academy as they begin their high school academic career. This is our flagship program that provides a multiyear, immersive and culturally relevant STEM education year-round and hires predominantly instructors of color who are trained to offer both technical and career mentorship — with a focused lens on student voice and choice. These scholars move in cohorts through the pipeline of programs. High school seniors are paired with a college admissions coach and attend essay and financial aid workshops. Once their college admission is locked, students are then placed into paid internships and start building workplace experience with company partners like Raytheon.

Long-term educational interventions like this are more costly, time-consuming, complex to implement and, ultimately, most effective at actually changing student outcomes.

The good news is that countless community-based organizations across the country have already laid the groundwork to complement the long-term investment and holistic approach that our organization takes.

As long-standing racial and socioeconomic divides in STEM education widen, donors now have a critical role to play. The necessary knowledge and talent are in place to effectuate the change we all know our nation’s future depends on, but we need to redirect available resources to ensure they’re able to deliver the full weight of the results they’re capable of. When determining investments, define and stress test the impact metrics of potential recipients.

What does success look like? How will this program’s benefits be relevant in the next six months versus the next four years? Does this initiative substantively address obstacles inhibiting students of color?

The Tim Cooks and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have a role to play in all this — but their biggest impact might actually happen outside of a high school computer lab. If these companies are serious about closing achievement gaps in public education, we need to prioritize tech equity policies and educational programming that offer tangible results and do more than simply create a good narrative.

This not only means sectorwide advocacy but funding education policies and partnering with existing community-based interventions that ensure the over 20 million Black and Latinx students in K-12 public schools are taught culturally relevant computing education and are prepared to materially contribute to a strong, diverse and socially conscious tech workforce.

The future of STEM education won’t become more equitable by placing the newest technologies in every student’s hand or creating a free coding course but by seeing the solutions already before us and acting accordingly. Tech companies driven to help in the education space shouldn’t fall back on bad Silicon Valley habits.

For our youth, we can’t afford to spend time on solutions that sound good on paper but don’t drive real impact. Big Tech leaders, this is not a call out, but a calling in. Let’s talk.