Taking a second look at the learn-to-code craze

Over the past five years, the idea that computer programming – or “coding” – is the key to the future for both children and adults alike has become received wisdom in the United States. The aim of making computer science a “new basic” skill for all Americans has driven the formation of dozens of nonprofit organizations, coding schools and policy programs.

As the third annual Computer Science Education Week begins, it is worth taking a closer look at this recent coding craze. The Obama administration’s “Computer Science For All” initiative and the Trump administration’s new effort are both based on the idea that computer programming is not only a fun and exciting activity, but a necessary skill for the jobs of the future.

However, the American history of these education initiatives shows that their primary beneficiaries aren’t necessarily students or workers, but rather the influential tech companies that promote the programs in the first place. The current campaign to teach American kids to code may be the latest example of tech companies using concerns about education to achieve their own goals. This raises some important questions about who stands to gain the most from the recent computer science push.

Old rhetoric about a ‘new economy’

One of the earliest corporate efforts to get computers into schools was Apple’s “Kids Can’t Wait” program in 1982. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs personally lobbied Congress to pass the Computer Equipment Contribution Act, which would have allowed companies that donated computers to schools, libraries and museums to deduct the equipment’s value from their corporate income tax bills. While his efforts in Washington failed, he succeeded in his home state of California, where companies could claim a tax credit for 25 percent of the value of computer donations.

The bill was clearly a corporate tax break, but it was framed in terms of educational gaps: According to a California legislative analysis, the bill’s supporters felt that “computer literacy for children is becoming a necessity in today’s world” and that the bill would help in “placing needed ‘hardware’ in schools unable to afford computers in any other way.”

Kids Can’t Wait took advantage of Reagan-era concerns that Americans were “falling behind” global competitors in the “new economy.” In 1983, a U.S. Department of Education report titled “A Nation at Risk” warned that the country’s “once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” The report’s authors blamed the American education system for turning out graduates who were underprepared for a fast-changing, technology-infused workplace.

Federal officials, including then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, launched an effort to get classrooms online in 1995. AP Photo/Dennis Cook
Over the past 30 years, the same rhetoric has appeared again and again. In 1998, Bill Clinton proclaimed that “access to new technology means … access to the new economy.” In 2016, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith described the Obama administration’s coding initiative as an “ambitious, all-hands-on-deck effort to get every student in America an early start with the skills they’ll need to be part of the new economy.”

While technology is often framed as the solution for success in a globalized labor market, the evidence is less clear. In his 2003 book “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom,” education researcher Larry Cuban warned that technology on its own would not solve “education’s age-old problems,” such as inequitable funding, inadequate facilities and overworked teachers.

Cuban found that some educational technology initiatives from the 1990s did help students get access to computers and learn basic skills. But that didn’t necessarily translate into higher-wage jobs when those students entered the workforce. However, the equipment and software needed to teach them brought large windfalls for tech companies – in 1995 the industry was worth US$4 billion.

Under pressure

If computers in schools didn’t work as promised two decades ago, then what’s behind the current coding push? Cuban points out that few school boards and administrators can resist pressure from business leaders, public officials and parents. Organizations like the CS For All Consortium, for example, have a large membership of education companies who are taking advantage of funding from state legislatures.