Md. needs coding classes starting in kindergarten

Today in Maryland public schools, we require students to take courses in a foreign language — Spanish, French, German — because learning a language enriches their lives and helps them interact in a more interconnected world. That’s a wonderful thing. But unfortunately, we’re doing a terrible job teaching our children the language that’s now driving the economy: computer code.

Our entire lives revolve around computers, and so does our economy. Over 500,000 American computer science jobs went unfilled last year — including more than 20,000 jobs right here in Maryland. But too many of our politicians in Maryland haven’t gotten the message. (Or the tweet or the Facebook post or whatever.)

Consider this: In Maryland today, only 40 percent of public schools even offer computer science courses. Or, put another way, the majority of Maryland students don’t even have the opportunity to learn computer code even if they have an interest in it. That’s stunning. And when you look at Gov. Larry Hogan’s $6.3 billion budget for Maryland education, there are exactly zero dollars in dedicated funding to computer science. Last year, 29 governors signed a public letter calling for expanding computer science education. Notably, Maryland’s governor was not among them. The state has no uniform curriculum standards for computer science and no strategic plan in place to better prepare our children for the realities of this economy. That must change. As a former teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools and senior advisor for innovation in the Obama administration, I have a unique understanding for what we must to do better-prepare our kids for the changing economy. That’s why I’m proposing that we require that all Maryland schools offer computer science and coding classes by 2022.

In order to achieve that reality, we need to invest in teachers. I believe Maryland has the best teachers in America (although admittedly I’m biased, as my wife is a Maryland public school teacher), but we need to better fund their preparation, training and professional development programs. That’s the only way we’ll build the pipeline we need of teachers who can instruct computer science courses.We can pay for this by creating a private-public consortium of technology companies, universities and government agencies, in which private investment drives teacher training programs. It’s clear that the private sector has a vested interest in creating a workforce that has up-to-date computer skills.

We also must convene a team of leaders in education, technology and government to establish statewide curriculum standards for computer science course work, to ensure that teachers have high-quality materials and a clear framework for instruction. Other states, like Virginia, have established these standards, while Maryland has not. There’s another reality we must acknowledge and address: The Internet economy has created trillions of dollars of wealth and millions of jobs, but women, African Americans and Latinos — together comprising 66 percent of America — account for shockingly few of those jobs and are the beneficiaries of very little of that wealth. Only about 25 percent of professional computing jobs are held by women. African American and Latino professionals make up only 5 percent of the technical workforce at the nation’s top technology companies. Requiring computer science and coding classes in all of our schools will help create more opportunity, but beyond that, we should create a special initiative to develop programs and civic partnerships to address gender, racial and ethnic diversity in computer science education. Most of us (adults) didn’t learn computer science or coding in schools — and many of us probably wish we had. But for today’s students, it needs to be a “must.” We need to make computer science education a top priority in Maryland.

Alec Ross (alecross.com) is a technology entrepreneur, former Obama administration official, author and Democrat running for governor in Maryland.

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