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Want Computer Science? Call the School Board

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computer science education

A recent study on schools and computer science demonstrates the gap between what parents and students may want and what schools and school boards feel pressured to teach because of testing requirements.

Parents want computer science education

Two-thirds of students, educators and parents surveyed in a 2014 poll by Google and Gallup believe that opportunities to learn computer science are just as important as required courses such as math, science, history and English. But parents, in particular, were significantly more likely than administrators to believe computer science was more important than core subjects and electives such as art, music and foreign languages.

The survey included samples of 1,673 seventh- to 12th-grade students; 1,685 parents of seventh- to 12th-grade students; and 1,013 first- to 12th-grade teachers surveyed by telephone in 2014. Gallup also surveyed a sample of 9,693 K-12 principals and 1,865 school district superintendents in the United States online, according to the report.

About half of the students surveyed said their schools offered dedicated computer science classes or that computer skills were taught in other courses, although only half of those classes offered higher skills such as coding. Students also reported clubs or community programs teaching computer skills. But 25 percent of students reported having no access to computer science classes or clubs. And students without access were more likely to be low-income, black or Hispanic.

Good news and bad news

Principals and superintendents reported several barriers to offering more computer science classes but most frequently cited the pressure to offer classes that fit in with testing requirements. The second most common answer was lack of money to train or hire a dedicated computer science teacher, and the third was the need to offer other courses that were seen as necessary to get into college. Across the board – public or private schools – less than about 50 percent of principals believed their school boards or boards of trustees saw computer science as a priority.

There was some good news in the report, including a 26 percent increase between 2013 and 2014 in the number of students who took the AP computer science exam. However, the exam was offered at only 21 percent of the schools surveyed and the approximately 40,000 students who took the exam in 2014 were barely a quarter of the number that took that AP Chemistry exam that same year, according to the College Board, which administers the test.

Parents with incomes under $54,000 a year were more likely to say that students should be required to learn computer science (and their children were far less likely to be exposed to computer skills at home), according to the survey. But it’s clear from the study that parents of any income who want more of an emphasis on computer science need to be lobbying those who hold school purse strings.

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Susan Moeller-profile-picture

Susan Moeller is a former newspaper editor and reporter who has directed education coverage as well as written about schools and children. She lives on Cape Cod, has three children and is a veteran of the boarding school and college search process.