In a June 1998 commencement speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, President Bill Clinton called for computer literacy to be a high school graduation requirement and declared that training should begin in middle school to ensure students had early exposure to invaluable tech job skills. Clinton made a powerful case that mandatory computer training was not only crucial to the American economy but a potent tool to address inequality by giving impoverished minority children a path to lucrative and satisfying careers and lives.

Clinton’s proposal won cheers from high-tech firms in Silicon Valley, in Boston’s Route 128 tech corridor and from the Microsoft tech hub in Seattle. It got little if any reaction from most corners of the education community.

Nineteen years later, this astounding lethargy continues. As of September, according to the Education Commission of the States, computer science could be used to fulfill mathematics, science or foreign language graduation requirements in 20 states, but only Virginia has decided to make computer science a graduation requirement. Given that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecast a shortage of 1 million computer science graduates by 2024 — and given that a comprehensive 2016 survey showed college graduates majoring in computer science had the highest starting salaries — this amounts to institutional malfeasance on a staggering scale.

Which bring us to a commentary last week on the EdSource website by State Board of Education Member Trish Williams about California’s slow-motion efforts to increase access to computer science. “Over the past few years a consensus has been building that today’s students need coursework that will enable them to understand how the digital world they live in was made, how it works, and the new issues it raises,” Williams writes. Over the past few years?

She writes that because of measures approved as part of the state budget, the State Board of Education this week will consider the appointment of 21 people to the new California Computer Science Standards Advisory Committee to develop “substantive but flexible guidance” for computer science courses and that a new “computer science strategic implementation advisory panel” will begin work by next March 1, with a deadline of delivering its report by Jan. 15, 2019.

Williams depicts these long-overdue developments as important changes. But Californians shouldn’t be remotely satisfied with these baby steps. Increasing student access to computer science courses would have been a good idea 30 years ago. But in 2017 — with job success more dependent on elite skills than ever, with income inequality growing and with minority pay still lagging — requiring all students to have computer science training before leaving high school isn’t just a good idea, it’s crucial.

The sluggishness of large institutions is a fact of life. Yet it is incomprehensible that in the state that is the technology capital of the world, governors, superintendents of public instruction and lawmakers have been so slow to grasp what was obvious to Bill Clinton in 1998. That’s especially so given that no issue is more central to California’s future — and the nation’s — than having an education system that sets up its graduates for success in life.

It is far past time for state leaders to develop a sense of urgency about the need to revamp high school graduation requirements that have long been out of sync with the needs of the modern world.

 

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