The Kids Aren’t Alright: A Look at How K-12 Schools Are Failing to Teach Programming

The jobs of tomorrow will require computer skills and, to a growing extent, the ability to code. What happens if a generation of kids is left behind?

girls who code
Photo courtesy of Girls Who Code

The US education system is failing young coders—and that will create real problems for the future. Anthony Malakian looks at what the financial services industry can do to attract the next generation of coders and ensure that youngsters with the talent and an inclination to learn programming are identified and retained.

Ginny Baro was born and raised in the Dominican Republic before moving to New Jersey when she was 14 years old. At the time, her English was broken, but she already had a natural love of science. She considered going to college to study medicine, but as a senior in high school, she decided to trade in the stethoscope for a keyboard, and enrolled in Rutgers University’s computer science program.

As Baro recalls, on day one of the program’s computer science 101 class, there were some 100 people in the lecture hall. By the end of the semester, about half remained. Four years later, at graduation, only about 20 in the sea of Rutgers graduates were computer science majors. And of those 20, only a handful were women. “Every lecture that I went to, it was me and maybe another woman, and everyone else was a guy; it was very intimidating,” she says.

Baro struggled at first, because the only computer science class she took in high school was an introductory elective in her senior year—she loved it, but it only taught her so much. She was an A student in high school, but dropped to a C as a freshman in college, before rebounding to a B and then an A by graduation. While she persevered, she was helped along by both male and female tutors and mentors. But she always felt that she was playing a game of catch-up with her more experienced classmates.

Failing System

Baro isn’t the only one who has experienced the education system’s inability to prepare kids for a future in programming. For the January issue of Waters, I spoke with Seth Thomson, CIO at DRW Trading, a sophisticated trading shop in Chicago that has been deploying cutting-edge tools to help it expand into new and diverse asset classes. The conversation largely centered on his career and how DRW approaches innovation. Toward the end of the interview, though, we switched to a more complicated subject: teaching kids how to code at a young age.

It’s a topic that’s near and dear to his heart, in part because he has children of his own, but also because he feels that schools—and society, as a whole—are largely failing at this endeavor.

“Something I feel passionate about is that I don’t feel we’re doing a great job as a country preparing the next generation,” he says. “A lot of computer education that can be taught at an early age is not being taught at an early age. We know that this is where the jobs are going to be in the future, so I’m eager to get people moving and learning quickly.”

Consider this: According to Code.org, which aims to get children interested in coding, fewer than half of public schools in the US teach computer programming. Meanwhile, the average lifetime earnings of a high school graduate are $580,000; the lifetime earnings of a college graduate are $1.19 million; and the lifetime earnings of a computer science major are $1.67 million. That gap will only widen as machines become increasingly ubiquitous in the workforce. Yet, curiously, only 12 states have created K-12 computer science standards, and in only 34 states—plus Washington, DC—can computer science count towards high school graduation math or science requirements, though that number is up from only 12 states in 2013.

There have been improvements, but it’s been slow. According to industry newsletter EdScoop, in 2017, only five states—Ohio, Virginia, Utah, Wisconsin and Idaho—made major gains toward making computer science a curriculum requirement at K-12 schools. Ohio governor John Kasich, for example, signed a bill that will hopefully expose more children to computer science classes, but left it to the school districts to decide whether to offer the subject.

While only a dozen states have created advisory standards—with Ohio becoming the 12th—in November, Virginia became the first state to actually require computer science education in its high schools, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The vote, though, was met with some trepidation, as Anne Holton, a member of Virginia’s Board of Education, told the Times-Dispatch that the standards “seem ambitious to me. These are not meant as aspirational standards, they are meant as a mandate that our teachers need to be able to teach. …We’re clearly leading the nation and that puts an extra burden on us to get it right.”

A Lucky Discovery

Lauren Gibbs—a product of Virginia’s education system—says that she fell into programming somewhat accidentally. Prior to college, she had never been exposed to coding. Upon arriving at James Madison University’s campus in 2011, she wanted to go into advertising, a subject that you have to apply to major in, and she was rejected as a freshman.

So, instead, she decided to spend that first year biding her time before she could reapply, and stumbled into some computer science classes in her spare time. She found that she really enjoyed them. As a result, she ended up earning degrees in both subjects, with bachelors of science in computer science and in media arts and design.

Still, it left a sour taste that she hadn’t been exposed to programming at an earlier age.

“I fell into programming accidentally. I’m glad that it happened, but this was never introduced to me as a child and I wish it was,” says Gibbs, who graduated from James Madison in 2015 and has since worked as a software engineer at charting specialist ChartIQ. “I’ve seen how intelligent and well-rounded developers are if they grow up doing this stuff and it’s not very fair that I didn’t get that chance.”

Gibbs has since looked to give back, and began teaching kids how to code at James Madison. She hopes to take that experience and open a nonprofit or business sometime in the next decade.

Dan Schleifer, cofounder and chief executive of ChartIQ, saw a talented programmer in Gibbs and someone who would fit in well with the vendor’s culture. He says that in his two decades working in the software industry, though, he’s worked with maybe a dozen female software developers, and even fewer black and Hispanic developers: “They’re exceedingly rare,” he says.

As the head of a company, he understands the value of diversity—it’s just good for business.

“It’s not an altruistic thing where we want diversity in our software developers; rather, Lauren thinks of different solutions to different problems,” he says. “Men and women with different backgrounds and who solve problems differently—and coding is effectively just problem solving—are beneficial to us.”

Parental Burden

The problem comes down to this: As constructed today, public schools are not—both from a technological and personnel perspective—ready to teach coding en-masse, even in school districts flush with funding, but especially in poorer urban and rural areas. “The children of inner cities are the ones who get the shortest end of the stick,” Baro says. “They don’t have the resources in their schools or in their homes. They’re not getting the exposure and learning the basics so that they could even dream that they could potentially have a career in any of these STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields.”

This leaves parents with the burden of ensuring their kids learn such a valuable skill. Thomson’s 12-year-old son, Aidan, has been coding for several years now. He is starting to work with C# using the Unity game engine for videogame design. Aidan attends classes at the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. Thomson has enrolled his son in online programs and homeschools him (so to speak) on self-discipline techniques. On top of all of that, Aidan does a half-hour of coding every morning and is working toward building a math app to be released this year.

Thomson also has an eight-year-old daughter, Isabelle. He works with her using Scratch, an online tutorial run through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Additionally, he’s looking to bring a Girls Who Code program to his hometown of Evanston, Illinois, and has ideas about how the private sector and government can team up to address this issue, but even he doesn’t have all the answers.

“There’s an idealistic part of me that thinks we could just do this through government funding, but there’s a larger part of me that thinks that private organizations will be very important in this,” Thomson says. “Maybe that means private organizations and the government should collaborate more closely with local institutions to identify needs and develop programming”

Hey, Teachers, (Don’t) Leave Those Kids Alone

Baro was one of the lucky ones. Through a program called Inroads, which targets women and people of color to help them land internships at large companies, she found a part-time job at Prudential while still in college. Upon graduation, the insurance giant hired her as a full-time programmer. She stayed there for seven years before moving on to work at Alliance Capital Management as a senior software engineer in 1998. In March 2000, she moved to asset manager Lord Abbett, where she remained for 16 years. She has since moved on to found and run an organization called Fearless Women @Work, named for the eponymous book she penned, which highlights strategies for women to succeed in the workplace.

When Baro moved from the Dominican Republic to Jersey City, she lived in a poor neighborhood, but her father was extremely supportive of her becoming a programmer, despite the fact that he didn’t know how to code. It’s no secret that public schools across the US are underfunded when it comes to technology and attracting and retaining talented teachers. Baro believes that programs like Girls Who Code, Scratch, Code.org and Youth Digital are key, because they understand the importance of both getting kids to have fun while coding, but also they help to get the kids’ parents involved, too. “There are a lot of parents who are not comfortable with coding, as well,” Baro says. “So how do we get them active when they’re not comfortable?”

Lisa O’Brien, executive director at the Scratch Foundation, notes, though, that while it’s important to have parental interaction, a program like Scratch is still more about building a community of children, where it’s the kids teaching other kids.

“It was always a consideration to have adult interaction, so whether its parents or adults in an after-school setting,” O’Brien says. “Originally, Scratch launched in these ‘clubhouses’ in an after-school environment. The adults would help kids to troubleshoot, facilitate and create projects. That aspect is something the developers have considered, but ultimately Scratch was really developed for kids as a way for them to explore and help each other—that’s why the online community exists. A lot of kids create online tutorials for each other. So it’s very much a kid-to-kid community.”

Tough to Find

Frankly, even in a nation of over 320 million people, it’s still hard to find qualified and energetic educators to teach the basics of English, math, science and history. Finding qualified teachers with a background in programming who are willing to work on a public school teacher’s salary is exponentially more challenging.

Additionally, as Thomson notes, kids learn in different ways—Aidan is much more regimented, while Isabelle is more creative. They’re both learning to code, but they need to learn in different ways. You could argue that if Common Core State Standards are failing in the realms of English, the arts and science, it’s doomed for something like coding. There aren’t any easy answers, but jobs are increasingly more dependent on computers and once those jobs are gone, they ain’t comin’ back.

ChartIQ’s Schleifer—and this is a sentiment expressed, to some degree, by others—says that the government (both state and federal) will have to start to address this problem with greater force and focus.

“Hiring a teacher that’s a great programmer, you have to compete with developer salaries and not what public school teachers are making. I think it’s incredible that companies and people like Lauren feel passionately about this and will take time out of their schedules to help, but that’s a stop-gap for the more systemic issue,” he says. “Unfortunately the areas where people like Lauren are going to live and have a good job as a developer are going to be concentrated in urban areas where there are tech companies. So the programmers that can go teach are not in rural areas and in inner cities, and as a result, those kids are not going to get exposed to coding because there aren’t programmers nearby.”

It’s here, though, that Gibbs has some faith that the developer community can pick up the slack if the government can just get the ball rolling.

“Government intervention could kick this off and I think that’d be appropriate,” she says. “But one thing that I love so much about the developer community is that we all love to teach in one way or another—that’s why the open-source community has lasted as long as it has. Developers love to contribute to things; it’s just what we do. If [politicians and government agencies] could somehow give this an initial push and then back off, I really think that developers would run with it and we would make it an open-source community of its own.”

Frustratingly Slow

There’s no one answer that will solve this growing crisis. It will require both local governments and federal agencies to update laws pertaining to K–12 education. It will likely require federal funding. It will require private citizens and non-profits to lend a helping hand. And it will require larger businesses to get involved, such as DRW’s DRW College Prep charter school, located in Chicago’s West Side, one of the city’s most impoverished areas, and which teaches kids about robotics enrichment and coding.

The fact is that the jobs of the not-to-distant future will require not just “computer skills,” but programming skills, too. But that does start at a basic level—expose children to computers at an early age and also to people who can both teach computer skills and who can be enthusiastic and articulate about the need for these skills. “We’re not there,” Thomson says. “It’s a source of frustration and I want to see more kids get into this.”

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