Google and other technology companies have long stressed the importance of computer science education in schools, particularly for girls and minority students, who are often not exposed to computer science or discouraged from pursuing it. But the company wanted to find out more information about what was happening on the ground in schools as a baseline for building future programs.
"There was not really any national study that provided comprehensive data from critical stakeholders," Hai Hong, Google's manager for its K-12 education program said. "We're firm believers that any programs should start with data, and we needed data on what the landscape looks like."
Technology barriers are often pointed to as an obstacle for computer science education, but the study found that wasn't the case for most schools. In most cases, students have access to computers at school and at home; nearly all have mobile devices that could be used to teach programming.
Instead, principals and superintendents pointed to a far more valuable resource: time. Administrators said they must focus classroom work on teaching students to pass standardized tests.
It's what could be called the "dark side of testing," said Gallup's Brandon Busteed, executive director of the firm's Education Workforce Development program. Schools are under so much pressure to focus on the traditional fundamentals that they simply don't have time for other programs, he said.
"It was the number one problem that principals gave," Busteed said. "They're overwhelmed by what they need to be tested on" and lack the resources to teach subjects outside of the core.
Overall, roughly 60 percent of students in grades 7-12 said that their schools offer dedicated computer science classes; 52 percent say computer science is taught as part of other classes. But those numbers change when broken down by race and income.
Across the board, for example, black students have less exposure to computer science education. Only 48 percent of students who come from households that make less than $54,000 per year said they have dedicated computer science classes. And while 51 percent of students from households making more than $105,000 per year said they are aware of extracurricular computer science classes, just one-third of low-income students said the same.
Yet parents from the lowest-income bracket were the most supportive of teaching computer science in schools: 76 percent of parents from poorer households said computer science should be required, as compared to 60 percent from other income brackets.
Even when computer science is on the curriculum, three of four principals told researchers that their classes did not involve and programming or coding; computer graphics was the most-taught element of computer science on the lesson plan. School administrators said that a lack of training was another major barrier to giving students a well-rounded computer science education, either because they didn't have qualified instructors, or the money to train them.
Hong, of Google, said that there are several ways that teachers and students can get the computer science education they need without expensive training or tools. For example, he pointed to Google's own CSFirst program, which provides open curricula that a person of any skill level could teach. He also called on the technology industry to do speak up and help get this subject in schools.
"It's critical that industry and educators do a better job of telling what can be done," he said, by going into schools and also by showing that there's a place for professionals of all backgrounds in the computer science world. "The industry must provide role models, in addition to educators," he said.
Meanwhile, Busteed said, parents, students and teachers shouldn't be afraid to make their voices heard.
"School boards, politicians and superintendents need to hear this data more than anybody," he said. "It’s the voice of their constituents saying we want this. Right now, the leaders at the top do not have the message."