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Just 25 Percent of U.S. High Schools Offer Computer Science Classes

A new study says the nation's schools have not focused enough on teaching computer science, with just one in four high schools offering such classes.

Even amid new pushes for STEM education and a shortage of educators who can teach classes in science, technology, engineering and math, most U.S. schools need more rigorous computer science courses to keep up with the emerging economy, the report found.

"Despite the growing use of computers and software in every facet of our economy, not until recently has computer science education begun to gain traction in American school systems," noted authors Adams Nager and Robert D. Atkinson in a study released last week on behalf of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

"The current focus on improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the U.S. school system has disregarded differences within STEM fields," they added. "Indeed, the most important STEM field for a modern economy is not only one that is not represented by its own initial in ‘STEM’ but also the field with the fewest number of high school students taking its classes and by far has the most room for improvement — computer science."

The researchers found that just 25 percent of all high schools offer computer sciences classes, with only 18 percent offering Advanced Placement credit in that study area. For those schools that do teach computer science, the researchers said, the focus today remains on coding and using a computer more than the deeper principles of computer science itself.

The study found disparity in where such classes were offered. It noted that computer science coursework often is concentrated in affluent schools, with the potential to widen the achievement gap in an era where more jobs require such advanced computer knowledge.

In addition, girls comprised just 22 percent of all students taking the computer science Advanced Placement test. That marked "the largest gender disparity of any AP exam," the researchers said. They added in their report: "Less than 10 percent of students who take the AP computer science exam are Hispanic, and less than 4 percent are black."

In the nation's third-largest school district, Chicago, the school board in February voted unanimously to make computer science courses a graduation requirement. The plan begins this fall for the graduating class of 2020. District officials are working with code.org to create a new computer science curriculum and to help teachers there get prepared.

“Making sure that our students are exposed to STEM and computer science opportunities early on is critical in building a pipeline to both college and career,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement announcing the new program. “Requiring computer science as a core requirement will ensure that our graduates are proficient in the language of the 21st century so that they can compete for the jobs of the future.”

The U.S.'s standing globally in preparing enough workers to fill tech-centric jobs has raised concerns. Other studies reported by the ITIF have shown, for example, that China outpaces the U.S. 40 percent to 24 percent in the number of women in the STEM workforce. 

The White House and the U.S. Department of Education have focused on increasing awareness and funds for more STEM teachers and classes. The education department's Civil Rights office notes that just 50 percent of all U.S. high schools offer calculus and just 63 percent offer physics.

The ITIF researchers, in their report, said that interest in computer science education in schools has waxed and waned in the U.S., including dipping most recently in 2003 when the tech bubble burst. They note that not only do a limited number of high schools offer these classes, but access to computer science education also remains limited at universities where expansion of such programs is expensive and competition for them is tight.

"To maintain the field’s current momentum, the perception of computer science needs to shift from its being considered a fringe, elective offering or a skills-based course designed to teach basic computer literacy or coding alone," they said. "Instead, it is time for computer science to be seen as a core science on par with more traditional high school offerings such as biology, chemistry and physics, which have been the focus since the 1890s. Furthermore, universities should capitalize on the growing interest in computer science and expand their offerings to accommodate the growing demand for courses in the field."

In addition to curriculum reforms, they called on all states to allow computer science classes to count as fulfilling a math or science requirement, as well as the growth of more "STEM-intensive" high schools around the country.