Computer science education just got a major boost with a new national initiative and a proposed $4.1 billion in federal budget funding for 2016.
President Barack Obama announced the Computer Science for All Initiative on Saturday, Jan. 30, to accelerate the expansion of computer science education in K-12 schools. The White House brought together a broad coalition of federal agencies and technology industry leaders that plans to contribute to this initiative.
Computer science has received broad support from federal policymakers across the aisle, most recently with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The act added computer science to the definition of core academic subjects and allowed computer science educators to access professional development programs.
But in his 2016 State of the Union address, Obama made it clear that the work to expand computer science education isn't done.
"The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress by providing pre-K for all and offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one. We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids."
As part of the initiative, Obama's fiscal 2016 budget includes $4 billion in mandatory funding over three years for the U.S. Department of Education, which will award funding to states in rounds through an application process. States would be judged on the quality of their applications and their plans to improve computer science education. Since this proposal is in the beginning stages, it's not clear what kind of requirements would be tied to the application process.
This investment in hands-on computer science education for everyone is important to equip children for a future that includes computational thinking and coding skills, said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.
"In our new economy, computer science is not an optional skill," Smith shared in a press conference. "It's a core skill."
To invest in this core skill, Obama also included $100 million in discretionary funding for the U.S. Education Department that school districts would compete for in a similar fashion to the department's other grant programs. They would be able to use the money over five years to train teachers, build regional collaboration teams and expand computer science to elementary and middle school students, among other things.
If the $100 million is approved, it will help address a major challenge that states have been dealing with. Oftentimes, state legislatures will pass bills to expand computer science education, but won't give school districts extra money to do the work. So districts are left with an unfunded mandate, which makes it difficult to implement when they have other funded initiatives to tackle.
In yet another challenge, 27 states already allow computer science classes to count toward high school graduation requirements, according to the nonprofit Code.org. The problem is that they can't find enough qualified teachers to work with students.
Several federal agencies have pledged some of their existing funds to help train teachers as part of this initiative. The National Science Foundation committed to spending $120 million over the next five years, and that money includes $5 million to pilot different professional development approaches in schools. The Corporation for National and Community Service will also put $17 million toward teacher training in computer science over the next three years.
This initiative represents yet another step in a nationwide collaboration to expand computer science education with the help of federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, technology companies, states and school districts.
As Acting Secretary of Education John King put it, "If we all do our part, we can create a movement that not only gets our students ready for the future, but gives them a voice in shaping their future."