11/21/14 -- Chicago, IL, U.S.A -- Ariel Elementary Community Academy teacher Rodney Weems assists eighth grade student Robert Brown, 13, during Coding Class, which combines mathematics and computer programing, during class on Friday, Nov. 21. Chicago has made concerted efforts to get computer science classes into every public school. - (Alyssa Schukar/for the Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Reading, writing, ’rithmetic, computer science.

In the 21st century, these are the core competencies required for educational and, eventually, professional advancement. But in the war over standardized testing and other curricular concerns, the country has largely abdicated its responsibilities to teach children even the basics of technological literacy.

Enter Chicago Public Schools.

America’s third-largest school district typically finds itself in the national media for stories about violence, school closures and other unflattering subjects. It has received less attention for an ambitious and innovative experiment launched this year: democratizing the teaching of computer science to children, a subject usually relegated to upper-income, male, white autodidacts.

New computer science classes rolled out across Chicago’s K-12 system this fall, and within a few years the city plans to make its school district the first major one in the country to designate computer science as a requirement for graduation. Other big districts — including New York and Los Angeles — are watching carefully to see whether the model can be replicated.

The biggest obstacle is that so few teachers are able to teach the coursework. Americans with even basic training in programming and computer science have outside employment options far more lucrative than teaching, and union contracts generally prohibit districts from paying teachers more for highly coveted specialized skills.

To scale up quickly, Chicago partnered with Code.org, a nonprofit funded by tech companies such as Google and Facebook. Code.org trains teachers in dozens of school districts around the country, paying all associated costs, including teacher stipends. Cameron Wilson, the organization’s chief operating officer, estimates that such costs run about $10,000 per high school teacher, less for elementary and middle school teachers. Over the summer, Code.org paid to train 202 Chicago teachers in the 46 schools participating in the first phase of the district’s Computer Science for All initiative.

Chicago’s biggest success story so far appears to be Ariel Elementary Community Academy, a school on the South Side where 98 percent of the kids are black and almost all qualify for subsidized lunches. At Ariel, computer science lessons begin in kindergarten, where the kids already refer to themselves as “professional coders.”

When I visited last week, 5- and 6-year-olds were eagerly learning about “algorithms” by coming up with directions to guide Angry Birds characters through a maze in search of evil pigs. If that sounds like a silly video game, perhaps it is, but it’s also training in the step-by-step process that characterizes computational thinking.

In a fourth-grade classroom, children played a similar version of the game, this time using repeated “loops” to complete the maze more quickly. They also practiced “unplugged” versions of the lessons, illustrating “loops” by teaching each other repeated dance moves and making paper airplanes.

In an eighth-grade classroom, coding was integrated into a math lesson, in which students wrote a simple program that solved arithmetic problems. That same lesson plan also taught them to write code that draws colorful stars and circles and other shapes. By the end of the year the students will be designing their own video games.

Unlike many “computer” courses around the country, the goal here is to help kids become creators — not just consumers — of technology. Sure, they won’t all end up as prize-winning software engineers (although stories of lavish free meals at Google did pique the interest of one salivating eighth-grade class). But having basic computational literacy can improve their job prospects in everything from health care to manufacturing to finance. Indeed, one of the three girls who escorted me around Ariel, 10-year-old Cheyenne Bolin, says she loves building robots but dreams of applying her tech skills to become a fashion designer. Thirteen-year-old Gabrielle Perry, a school star who learned Java and Python through a summer program, fancies working in psychology.

Decades ago educators and policymakers mobilized around the space race, revamping curricula to try to equip not just our best and brightest and richest but all the rest, too, to compete with the world in math and science. So far there has been little such movement on the computer science front, even as employers emphasize the importance of having these skills and policymakers recognize how inequitably they are distributed throughout the populace.

Maybe Chicago’s approach will work, and maybe it won’t. But until more districts get the courage, flexibility and, most important, resources to find ways to inject computer science into classrooms, our country will be systematically failing the next generation of students and workers.