In 2002, ten African American and 39 Latino students enrolled and declared a Computer or Information Sciences major at all of the University of California schools. Six years later, eight African American and 25 Latino students graduated with that degree, according to UC’s office of the President. There is clearly an opportunity gap for students of color in computer science.
In Silicon Valley, across California, and around the nation, there is a vast shortage of computer programmers in the tech industry. Tech companies have had to rely on outsourcing their programming needs. Meanwhile, high schools in California and across the country are being chastised for not preparing students, particularly students of color, to be able to major in STEM fields in college – what the need for outsourcing is blamed on. What if a simple change by the UC system could help bridge this gap?
Recently, I took the introductory Rails for Zombies course for Ruby on Rails. Ruby, as it is known, is one of the newest and fastest growing programming languages on the web. I was a double major in college – biology and classical languages – and have always loved learning new languages. That’s all Ruby on Rails is, after all. There is unique vocabulary, confusing punctuation, and alien grammar. Ruby is replete with idioms, synonyms, and shortcuts that only those entrenched in the language understand. It is very much a foreign language.
The UC system should be innovative and grant high school students credit for learning a computer language as their “E” requirement of 2 years of a “Language Other Than English.” All California high school students, in order to be “UC eligible” (a standard supported by most educators in California), must complete a series of courses at their high school deemed the “A-G” requirements.
- A = 2 years of History/Social Science
- B = 4 years of English
- C = 3 years of college prep math (4 recommended)
- D = 2 years of lab science (3 recommended)
- E = 2 years of language other than English (3 recommended)
- F = 1 year of visual and performing arts
- G = 1 year of a college prep elective (computer science currently fits in here)
The UC approves high school courses to fit in each of the categories for individual high schools through a process that involves the submission of a detailed course syllabus by each school for each course. Statewide, only 35 percent of students complete a-g requirements upon graduation (by subgroup: Whites: 41 percent, Asians: 59 percent, Latinos: 26 percent, African Americans: 27 percent).
I see the potential of affluent districts rushing to implement a policy such as this while lower-income districts struggle to find the resources (human and technological). In order to ensure that this is fairly and equitably implemented and to monitor its impact, begin it as a pilot program in high schools with the lowest percentages of A-G eligibility. In this way it can tackle three issues together: (1) opportunity and achievement gap; (2) increasing need for computer programmers; (3) the lack of diversity in the tech industry.
Tech companies should then adopt districts and provide them with their slightly used computers expressly for the purpose of teaching computer science. They should also think about dedicating an employee to oversee the program and teach the courses. One teacher/tech employee can reach almost 200 students a year. If that’s not building a diverse pipeline in tech, I don’t know what is. Companies would probably need to release that employee only once or twice a week as online programming courses continue to pop up and the programmer could pop in to provide targeted guidance for the school and students and answer questions remotely. If I’m pushing 40 and can learn Ruby using an online course, I’m sure any 15-year-old can.
Computer Science provides students with marketable skills other languages do not while still providing the same cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language. Empowered with computer science skills, students will see a path forward in college and career in one of the highest paying and fasting growing job sectors.
Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute, a San Francisco-based non-profit that promotes innovative approaches to education and the workplace by removing barriers to full participation by underrepresented groups. He spent the three years before that as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He earned his EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.