We’ve stepped into a brave new world in which cars drive themselves, Pokémon are real, and you can order everything from a Pub Sub to a helicopter on your phone. As we venture further into the future, human progress – and our kids’ ability to move out of the house and get a job – will increasingly depend on how well our schools teach students to understand computer science.
The future is bright for Florida’s tech geeks. There are more than 22,000 open computing jobs in the state, and they pay an average of $77,468 annually. That’s nearly double the state’s $42,860 average salary. But Florida still hasn’t figured out how to train enough students to fill those high-paying jobs. Only 2,114 computer science students graduated in the entire state in 2014.
“It’s only going to get worse as the number of computer science jobs continues to grow and the number of students in these fields does not,” said Gary Chartrand, chairman of the Florida Board of Education. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we won’t even come close to solving the problem.”
Florida took its first feeble steps toward a solution this spring when the state legislature approved a computer science curriculum. The reps and senators, however, didn’t get around to passing any laws to require schools actually teach computer science, nor did they approve funding to train (or hire) qualified teachers.
“The bureaucrats all congratulated themselves for adopting a curriculum, but it doesn’t really mean anything,” said John Padget, a Florida State University professor and a member of the state board of education. “School systems can just ignore it entirely.”
There's a light to lead the way, though. Chartrand says Broward County Public Schools lead Florida in teaching computer science. Superintendent Robert Runcie says the rest of the state (including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach schools) could learn a thing or two from Broward’s approach.
“You can either teach computer science as just another subject area,” Runcie said, “or you can take our perspective where we treat it as a fundamental skill, like literacy, and integrate it into everything we do.”
Broward starts its students on computer science early. A second grader, for example, might learn about algorithms by writing out step-by-step instructions for getting from her seat to the classroom door. Before they ever learn to code or touch a keyboard, Runcie wants students to think like programmers in the real world.
Statewide, only 18 percent of high schools teach AP computer science. But in Broward, every one of the 32 public high schools offers the course, and teachers in 34 of the district’s 40 middle schools and 110 of 139 elementary schools are required to teach all students a few hours of computer science each year.
Through a partnership with Code.org and a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Runcie said, the county has sent teachers from different subject areas to summer professional development classes at Nova Southeastern University to learn how to weave computer science into their curriculum. But he says that once the grant money runs out, the county will have to pull that money out of its own $5 billion budget.
In the meantime, the Florida legislature will meet again next spring. John Padget, the Board of Education member, says he’s optimistic that the state will pass laws and provide funding to jumpstart computer science education.
“It’s got to happen because you can’t do hardly anything without computer science,” he said. “Name me one job besides picking up garbage where you can make money without a laptop going forward.”
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