Computer science: A branding issue affecting low-income students

The Local Control Funding Formula, passed in 2013, provides extra money to California school districts and also requires that they listen to parents, teachers, and community members as they decide how to spend it. This story is the fifth in a series where Alhambra Source Reporter Corps participants explore how they would spend the funding. If you would like to learn more, there will be an Alhambra Unified School District board meeting on June 17.

Kristine Hoang

If you were surfing the Internet in 2004, you wouldn’t have known that the sophisticated music-hosting website and graphic-design service blog you stumbled upon was being run by a 12-year-old hobbyist. That 12-year-old was me. After school, I’d prioritize building websites over doing my reading comprehension questions that were due the next day.

After being inspired by hobbyist-created music websites, I began teaching myself the coding languages HTML and CSS. Even then, I had no idea what “computer science” was. Because my middle school and high school in La Puente never offered a computer science course, I was left to my own assumptions. Technology was only something I saw as a hobby, and I didn’t realize I could make a well-paying career out of it.

But months after graduating from college in 2012, I learned about computer science through codecademy.com, an interactive website that gives free coding lessons. After dabbling in my first few Javascript and PHP lessons, I was hooked. The thought of creating something with code — the thought of innovating — excited me. Why was I was never aware of the benefits of knowing what programming was — until then?

Through the Educate to Innovate initiative, the Obama administration has argued that investments in science, technology, engineering, and math are essential to keeping the country internationally competitive. But the initiative has focused on getting more technology into schools — and has not included teaching kids what could help them compete internationally: coding skills. 

The minority of students who are being taught to code tend to live in wealthier areas. “Computer science has become privileged knowledge,” said Chris Stephenson, the executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, a professional network. School districts in well-off cities like like South Pasadena and Arcadia — where in 2011 the median household incomes ranged from $71,751 to $78,899 — offer basic computer programming courses as well as AP Computer Science. In contrast, Alhambra Unified School District in Alhambra — where the median income is $53,233 — only offers one programming class called Math Programming, and only at one of its high schools.

Brian Au, a senior at Alhambra High School, recognizes that many of his classmates understand the importance of knowing how to code, but that doesn’t seem to be a priority for the adults in the school district. “I think the district is promoting the use of computers,” Brian said, “but I don’t think computer science itself is being promoted.”

The heart of the problem: computer science is still too often confused with computer literacy. Computer literacy refers to word processing and use of the Internet; computer science refers to the study of algorithmic processes, hardware and software designs, and ways to impact society with technological innovation, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A general computer science curriculum largely consists of critical thinking, problem solving, and logic — the skills that American students will need in order to compete for the best jobs, whether or not they go into tech. People with coding skills are now being hired into journalism, entertainment, and healthcare, too. 

Still, there is resistance. Paul Fung, the district librarian for Bellflower Unified School District, believes that computer science should be an afterschool elective instead. “I don’t believe in teaching technical skills because those skills change,” he said. “But a general education that includes philosophy and literature would teach students how to become a person, and then the technical skills can come later.

The trouble with that view is that computer programming is now part of general literacy — the language you must master to understand the different technologies that run the world.

Failing to teach computer science to minority or low-income students in places like Alhambra and my hometown of La Puente may keep them behind wealthier students who’ve had the opportunity to learn it much earlier on.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary of a software developer, with only a bachelor’s degree in 2012, was $93,350 per year. Additionally, the BLS projects that the job market for software developers will grow by 22 percent in 10 years, which is much faster than the average.

How, in this new world, can our government and our schools deny any student computer science?

This story was produced by USC Annenberg's Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. The local news site Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

3 thoughts on “Computer science: A branding issue affecting low-income students”

  1. Thanks for a very good article.

    I have been programming since the late 1970’s. Yes, that’s right! In my first programming class we used punch cards. So each punch card had one line of code on it.

    I write C# .net programs now, but it really doesn’t matter what programming language you use or when. There are certain concepts and habits that form when you learn programming and they translate over the decades regardless.

    For someone to say “I don’t believe in teaching technical skills because those skills change”, is truly a person that does not understand what they are talking about.

  2. What a thoughtful and informative story by the author, but as usual, less affluent students will continue lacking basic education to prepare them for the business world while the more affluent students will continue receiving better education.Meanwhile our “educators” go on with business as usual.

  3. Computer scientist

    ‘Paul Fung, the district librarian for Bellflower Unified School District, believes that computer science should be an afterschool elective instead. “I don’t believe in teaching technical skills because those skills change,” he said. ‘ Unfortunately, this is a misconception. Computer science is more than programming skill; it teaches you how to reason, organize, etc. Does reasoning skill change? Skills to reason, be attentive (to programming language grammar, for example), be critically think, etc should not be taught??? I am sure Bellflower schools teach math. Wait, doesn’t math involve technical skills too? The way to solve a calculus problem now definitely is different from the way how it is solved 100 years ago. It is very unfortunate that a school librarian is so misinformed.

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