Despite tech explosion, schools are not seeing a boon in available computer science, coding courses
California is home to Silicon Valley, a hub of technological innovation. The computer industry boasts hundreds of thousands of well-paying information technology jobs, with more on the way. IT departments are now a staple of corporate America.
Yet the large majority of California’s public high schools don’t offer dedicated computer science or computer programming courses, according to a Sacramento Bee review of teacher assignment data from the California Department of Education.
Information technology is one of the fastest-growing job sectors across California and the nation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be 500,000 new computer and IT jobs in the next 10 years.
The state EDD predicts more than 100,000 of those new jobs will be in California. Taking into account vacancies created by turnover, California likely will see about 200,000 IT jobs open up in the next 10 years. Most full-time computer jobs pay more than $90,000 a year, according to EDD figures.
And the ability to write computer code or query large databases is increasingly valuable at a litany of jobs not specifically tied to the IT sector. The employment website Indeed.com collects job postings from across the Internet. On Friday, it listed over 1,000 openings within 25 miles of Sacramento that mentioned programming or database analysis as desired core or secondary skills.
There is a stark disconnect between those numbers and the amount of computer science education offered in California public high schools. More California high school students take ceramics courses than take dedicated computer programming courses, according to state data. Far more students take art, band, chorus, psychology or French courses than courses devoted to computer science. Students are almost 20 times as likely to take Advanced Placement English language or literature as they are to take AP computer science.
All told, about 35,000 California public high school students were enrolled in courses dedicated to computer programming or computer science last school year, state figures show. Another 22,000 or so were enrolled in engineering or technology courses such as game design, robotic technologies or network engineering that likely involve learning code. There are roughly 2 million public high school students in California.
“Folks are kind of shocked that California is not one of the states that you talk about when you talk about good computer science policy,” said Amy Hirotaka, director of state government affairs for Code.org, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for computer science education. “We haven’t seen anything big come out of California in the way that we have other states.”
Several education experts said the numbers are not as bad as they seem, noting that computer science is sometimes integrated into math, engineering or science courses. Courses such as computer programming or AP computer science “tend to focus only on the kids in high school who want to major in computer science,” said Jean Cavanaugh, who teaches computer skills as part of the Career and Technical Education Department at Folsom High School. “Every child needs to learn computer science.”
Others say the limited offerings in dedicated computer science are symptomatic of a growing imbalance. “We are using tech more and more,” said Jeremy Keeshin, CEO for CodeHS, which trains teachers across the country. “The numbers don’t add up.”
Keeshin is among several experts who pointed to a basic challenge schools face in trying to expand the computer curriculum: a lack of qualified teachers.
Teaching positions in California tend to pay far less than what someone can make as a computer programmer or engineer. The median salary for a programmer in California is about $90,000. The median high school teacher’s salary is $70,000.
“The biggest challenge we are facing right now is having teachers prepared to teach computer science,” said Joe Stymeist, interim director of college and career readiness at Sacramento City Unified School District.
Prospective high school teachers generally obtain a single-subject credential in the discipline they plan to teach. But California does not offer computer science certification for teachers. Instead, teacher candidates interested in computer science usually get certified in math, business or industrial technology. Creating a new single-subject credential would require an act of the Legislature.
“While it has been discussed in the past, there are currently no bills I am aware of which would change this requirement,” said Joshua Speaks, legislative representative for the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Educators point to other barriers as well: During the last decade, the federal No Child Left Behind standards focused attention on core academic subjects such as math and English. Schools faced penalties if their students failed to perform well on tests that measured proficiency in those core subjects. Computer programming was not among the skill sets emphasized.
Similarly, computer programming is not among the core admission requirements at California’s public universities. The University of California publishes a list of “A-G” subject requirements for students who want to attend one of the system’s colleges. Those requirements include history, English, mathematics, laboratory science, foreign language, and visual and performing arts. Computer science courses are considered one of multiple “college-preparatory electives.”
UC President Janet Napolitano addressed the issue during a recent visit to The Sacramento Bee editorial board. UC has looked at the issue, she said, and concluded no changes were needed. She noted that a computer science course can be used to satisfy math entrance requirements if it has “enough math in it.”
“Some high schools, not enough, have the math in it, and it is counted as an A to G,” Napolitano said.
Most high school computer science courses don’t meet the math requirement, at least for now, according to a survey of eligible courses on the UC website. For instance, AP computer science does not meet the math requirement, nor do many Introduction to Computer Science courses, though they could be used to fulfill an elective requirement.
While computer science education is lacking at most public high schools, it’s not as rare as it once was. The number of California students taking AP computer science, for example, has more than doubled in the last decade, with enrollment going from about 3,000 to more than 7,000.
Many school districts partner with private industry to offer computer science education. In some Sacramento schools, for instance, a program called Project Lead the Way offers coding instruction to students preparing to be engineers.
Roughly 100,000 California high school students are enrolled in basic computer training courses, largely computer literacy, digital art or office technology courses, state figures show. A limited number of those courses may include coding; it is difficult to determine based on their course descriptions.
“A lot of computer science is being taught but not necessarily in a specific computer science course,” said Bob Bachmeier, a Project Lead the Way coordinator based in Sacramento. “There is computer science being taught in the elementary schools. They are literally doing robotics in the second grade.”
Several local districts point to courses that are heavy in computer science and coding. At the School of Engineering & Sciences in Sacramento City Unified, students can take courses in robotics. Rocklin High has scores of students taking computer-aided drafting courses. Folsom High has a course in game design. Davis High taught more than 50 students network engineering last year, state figures show.
Those courses, however, remain the exception rather than the rule. In the Sacramento region, about 2,100 high school students are enrolled in standalone computer science courses or standalone engineering or IT courses that emphasize coding.
That’s equivalent to roughly 2 percent of the region’s high school students.