How Introducing Coding at the K-12 Level can Help Bring About Equity

Posted by Larry Bernstein on July 13, 2020

While the United States has come a long way in terms of education, there are still gaps in equity. One way to level the playing field is to ensure all students have access to knowledge that will prepare them for meaningful and valued employment when they enter the workforce. With that in mind, every school district in the country should incorporate coding into its curriculum beginning in elementary school.

Consider this from EdSurge: “If coding is the language of tech, and tech is the future of work, then young people need to learn this language in order to succeed in their upcoming careers. In essence, coding is a ticket into the party—being able to tell the computer what to do is an entryway into our technological world and, therefore, a path to upward mobility.

However, according to the 2019 State of Computer Science Education, just 45% of high schools in the United States teach computer science (which includes coding).  And, the makeup of class participants is uneven: “Courses still lack girls and underrepresented minority students. Furthermore, students receiving free and reduced lunch and students from rural areas are less likely to attend a school that provides opportunities to learn this critical subject.

That’s no surprise, since there’s a shortage of women and minorities – specifically African Americans and those of Hispanic descent – in tech-related fields. Consider the numbers at some of the biggest tech firms (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft), per Wired magazine: The largest percentage of minority employees is at Apple, with just 14% (8% Hispanic, 6% African American). This paltry figure is in spite of these companies pledging to do more to advance diversity. At 20% of computer science professionals, women are also under-represented in the field.[4]

Start Educating Students about Coding at a Young Age – and Gain Multiple Benefits

Although there is no one way to grow the number of minorities working in computer science, introducing coding at the earliest levels of schooling would be beneficial. If schools wait until students are older it may be too late. An equitable learning environment should include coding.

Consider this from eSchool News: “Often, by the time students hit middle school, they have already decided whether they are “good” at science and math. To avoid losing these kids, we need to make sure we are exposing students to STEM lessons and career opportunities in elementary school.”

And, in an article from ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 6 reasons for coding in K-5 classrooms, John Pearce, a director of nonprofit involved with engaging students in coding, says, “If you start computer science in K-5, students don’t have set ideas about what they are or aren’t good at.” He adds, at that young age, “they are wonderfully able to grasp universal concepts in computer science. 

People may argue that coding has limited benefits and students need to be well rounded. Yet, students gain benefits that go beyond the skill itself.

According to Javier Aguilar, a technology applications/computer science teacher and robotics coach, “having a strong foundation of concepts of computer science in elementary school is very important for all students because it helps them to learn concepts like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and teamwork early on. These concepts could help students, not only in computer science, but in other core subjects like, reading, math and science.”

And the article from ISTE? The reasons it lists for introducing coding in elementary school include sparking interest, opening up a new domain of knowledge, leveraging the magical power of parents, providing momentum for CS curriculum, and helping students meet the ISTE Standards.

ISTE also notes that learning to code impacts equity by addressing the gender gap. Pearce finds when working with the youngest learners, there’s equal participation of boys and girls in computer science and coding. By 5th grade, boys participation is 80%.  “We have to inspire self-belief before kids become incorrectly persuaded of skills they think they don’t have,” says Pearce.

Kyle Walker, an elementary school digital teacher librarian in Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado, believes coding is especially helpful for minorities. “It offers one of the most accessible ways for people to break out of the cycle of poverty, which is one of the main things holding minorities back.

As noted above, even if students don’t use coding at their job, they will gain valuable skills from studying it. A Forbes article pointed to eight jobs that are easier to get if students can code: technical writer, instructional designer, user experience designer, product manager, growth hacker, customer support.

When an interest in coding is sparked by high school and students are already developing skills, particularly those who are underrepresented in the field are much more likely to pursue coding in college. According to Code.org, “among women, those who try AP Computer Science in high school are 10 times more likely to major in computer science. Black and Latino students who try AP Computer Science in high school are 7–8 times more likely to major in computer science.”

But again, coding education needs to start at the elementary school level. Aguilar has found that introducing the concepts “early on in elementary school has allowed more diverse students, including females, to be able to find a passion in these particular areas that are often considered choice’ electives in middle school and high school.”

Both Aguilar and Walker advocate making coding a core subject in elementary school.  At Walker’s Title I school, computer science is in its “embryonic” stage. The way to change that and make it part of the core curriculum is to tie computer science to testing. “If we want CS in elementary schools, then CS is going to have to be on the tests,” says Walker, since testing holds “sway over everything” in schools.

Walker says whatever it takes, it’s worth it: “… coding is a way to start building a bridge toward a brighter future for them [students], as a way to break the cycle of poverty and negativism.”

To fulfill education’s promise of equity, every student must have access to skills that will prepare them for the future. Teaching coding at the elementary school level will help create an equitable learning environment to enable students of all backgrounds to prosper.

Topics: equity, coding, k12 education