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Principals at Poor Schools Grossly Underestimate the Demand for Computer Science

Google commissioned Gallup to find out what parents, students, and school officials thought about computer science education.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that computer science related occupations will grow 18 percent by 2020, creating over 1 million job openings. It's a field with good average pay, a healthy demand, and maybe most importantly, satisfying intellectual challenges. The outlook for the future of the field is bright—but that future won't be evenly distributed.

The number of women enrolled in computer science degree programs has declined by more than half since the 1980s, and the outlook for other underrepresented minorities like blacks and Hispanics is not much better. There are a lot of complicated factors that make up this disparity, and Google teamed up with analytics experts Gallup to try and find out more.

Late last year, Google commissioned Gallup to conduct a nationwide study to determine the barriers towards getting more minority students interested in computer science before college. The two published the first part of their research last week in a study called Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in U.S. K-12 Education. The study is an exhaustive look at the opinions of more than 15,000 students, parents, school principals, and school administrators across the country.

Maybe the most telling result from the study is the fact that there's a disconnect between how important students and their parents find computer science education, and how important school administrators think parents find it.

Only 7 percent of principals and 6 percent of school superintendents think that demand is high from parents in their school districts for computer science education classes. Meanwhile, when parents are directly asked, a majority of them would actually prefer that computer science education be required. In fact, that belief gets stronger in lower income households.

Lower income households are more likely to think a CS education is important. Photo via Gallup

Poorer parents and minority parents especially want their children to be taught computer science skills as part of a well-rounded education. If the majority of them had their way, that education would be mandatory. So why do school administrators underestimate demand?

Part of it might be a convenient excuse to grapple with a larger problem they can't seem to solve. Many schools, especially schools with larger percentages of black and Hispanic students, just don't have the resources to offer better computer science education even if they wanted to. Both observations from students and explanations from principals bear this out.

Black, Hispanic, and poor students are less likely to have access to a formal CS education, and most principals don't have a teacher on hand who could teach it even if an opportunity opened up. Image: Gallup

The poorer you are, the less likely you are to be at a school where you'll be given the opportunity to learn these skills. According to school officials, that's a resource issue. Even though computer science education is on the rise, as the study notes, there is still a larger question of access. Educators qualified to teach the subject matter are still too rare at the high school and middle school levels. In fact, some estimates put the number of teachers qualified to teach computer science in New York City public schools— a school system for a city of over 8 million people—at less than 100, many of whom are math or physics teachers who've developed programming skills on the side.

That rarity jibes with my own experience. I attended the Bronx High School of Science, a specialized high school in New York City with an entrance exam requirement, where 100 percent of students in the last four years have graduated and gone on to four year universities.

When asked why they don't offer computer science, most school principals and superintendents cited a focus on testing

While I attended, we were offered computer science elective courses that were taught by a math teacher who happened to know Java. I'd been dicking around on the internet from the days where you could crash your friends' AIM chat clients with malicious hyperlinks, but that was my first introduction to formal programming logic and algorithmic problem solving. I was so fascinated that I went on to study computer science in college, but I understand how rare my experience is for students who look like me. I was one of less than 20 black kids in my graduating class in a school of over 2,000.

If companies like Google want to fix the diversity gaps in their own ranks, the solution has to start with education. The earlier kids have access to computer science education, the earlier you attract those with a passion for the field. Which is why the most damning finding in the report might be this: "School principals and superintendents are most likely to select a focus on testing as 'the main reason' when given a list of potential reasons why their school does not offer computer science." Administrators have a mandate from their superiors to focus on traditional subjects that are going to be the focus of standardized tests. That mandate seems to hurt the kids who can least afford it, the most.