CRACKING CODES

Education in America is on the cusp of a dramatic change. Will the country let it happen?

Kids these days: Are they ready for the next generation of jobs? Whether there’s truly a shortage of engineers and scientists in the global workforce, either now or in the near future, is actually still a matter of debate.

In the US, that speculation is certainly being treated seriously.

Pressure has been mounting for some years now to bolster the country’s educational standards in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and the White House is now attempting to answer the call with a $4 billion proposal to bring computer science to K-12 students all over the country. Unveiled Feb. 9 as part of the Obama administration’s 2017 education budget, the program is hugely ambitious—if perhaps also a little questionable in its efficacy: As critics have pointed out, $4 billion is chump change next to the country’s overall half-trillion-dollar education budget, and the plan hinges on “continued investments” from states and districts.

More pointedly, there are few hopes that this budget, the last to be submitted by US president Barack Obama, will be embraced by the Republican-controlled Congress. But to the extent the document represents the sitting president’s vision for the nation’s educational system, it highlights an intriguing shift in American attitudes toward teaching and learning.

“We have to make sure all our kids are equipped for the jobs of the future—which means not just being able to work with computers, but developing the analytical and coding skills to power our innovation economy,” Obama said in a Jan. 30 address explaining his Computer Science for All initiative.

What the administration suggests raises an important question about the intrinsic purpose of education. Might it be reoriented, even at the elementary-school level, as more than an important intellectual pursuit—but also a tool for economic gain?

A soaring goal of—what, exactly?

There’s no shortage of research on the need for STEM workers in the US. Standouts include a Brookings report in 2014 that found STEM job vacancies take twice as long as other positions to fill, and a 2012 National Science Foundation study noting that the country’s science and engineering workforce, between 1950 and 2009, has grown 15 times faster than the country’s population. Obama’s proposal is quite obviously an attempt to address these gaps.

Implementation, unlike the idea, definitely wouldn’t be straightforward. Schools and districts would have to rework their basic curriculums, schedules, and hiring processes; though several Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook have pledged some form of support to these changes, the grunt work is due to occur at the local level. Just training teachers in computer science is a giant endeavor on its own.

The country will essentially “have to start from scratch—start with teachers the way we would start with children,” Barbara Stengel, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, tells Quartz.

But the practical barriers to putting computer science education in America’s schools may be dwarfed by the philosophical obstacles.

Students set up their donated laptop computers on the first day of school at Joplin High School in Joplin, Missouri August 17, 2011. Residents are still recovering and rebuilding from a devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin, in late May, killing nearly 160 people and destroying more than 8,000 homes and other structures. Nearly three months after the deadly tornado, the school year started on time Wednesday, including a brand new high school built in a mall. The computers were purchased with a $500,000 gift from the embassy of the United Arab Emirates to spend on laptops. REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT EDUCATION) - RTR2Q16N
(Reuters/Eric Thayer)

In need of payoff: education as a value-add to society

Some say the Obama initiative poses computer science education as far too career-centric a pursuit. And then there’s the criticism that the overall push in the US to get people learning how to code is a bit reductive. People in either camp might argue that learning to code is best undertaken as a creative venture—learning for learning’s sake, not for employment’s sake.

On the other hand, perhaps a jobs-oriented approach to coding education is what’s necessary in the US. The tech world is particularly keen on this view: Plenty of prominent tech leaders have tacked their names and company brands onto projects like Code.org, a nonprofit that encourages coding education, or have spoken out about the importance of coding skills in the future workforce. Meanwhile, coding bootcamps—intensive, non-degree-granting sessions that offer a crash course in programming—are getting so popular that some applicants are paying thousands of dollars for prep programs in an attempt to boost their chances of acceptance.

Creativity and enjoyment may be end goals here. But so is career advancement. Learning to code is a time investment, and the payoff is clear: better jobs, bigger paychecks, nicer lives.

 “Knowledge is not the commodity—the commodity is being able to take these various parents of a problem and put together in a new creative way.” Perhaps, some tech leaders suggest, that attitude should be brought directly into America’s schools.

“The framework that has existed in schools is not a very sustainable framework,” Aza Steel, CEO of education software company GoGuardian, tells Quartz. He believes, as do many of his peers, that students should simply be taught that which helps them better contribute to society later on.

“The types of learning that schools were set up for isn’t going to continue to prepare students for the world they’re entering. Knowledge is not the commodity—the commodity is being able to take these various parts of a problem and put them together in a new creative way,” Steel says.

To an extent, the Obama administration’s proposal reflects this sentiment. The White House isn’t outright suggesting that it’s more important for elementary schoolers to pick up keyboards than novels—but there is a degree of practicality being emphasized here that marks an inflection point for federal education policy.

The message is clear: The US government wants to secure its own economic future, and it’s working toward that goal from the ground up. What remains to be seen is not just how well the plan might work, but whether the rest of the country takes to it.

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