Equity and access in computer science education in the age of AI

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OPINION – With rapid advances in artificial intelligence and an increasingly digital workplace, California’s students are often lacking the skills needed to thrive in a new era of technological advancement. As they enter the workforce, not enough of them are being equipped with the tools they need to secure well-paying 21st century jobs.

The research shows that the skills gap for California graduates begins in the K-12 system, where the majority of California students have no access to computer science education. In fact, California ranks 40th in the nation in the percentage of high schools offering computer science classes—sandwiched between New Mexico and Delaware. This skills gap is causing real-life challenges for our businesses who must spend their time and resources looking for talent outside of California. For example, in 2022, California averaged 76,446 open computing jobs each month with an average salary of $115,754, but the state’s universities only graduated 9,339 computer science majors in total in 2020.

It’s clear we need to take action now to equip all California students with the knowledge and experience to compete in the workforce of the future – and to continue to strengthen the vibrancy of our innovation ecosystem.

The good news is that there are two commonsense pieces of legislation in Sacramento that tackle this challenge directly, and would help build upon prior efforts to address the computer science education and skills gap.

The first, Assembly Bill 1054 (Berman) requires all public high schools to provide at least one computer science course by 2027, and focuses on increasing the number of women, students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students enrolled in these courses. To increase transparency, it also requires school districts to report offerings and enrollment data to the California Department of Education.

The second, Assembly Bill 1251 (Rivas, Luz) requires the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to convene a workgroup to explore amending the credentialing requirements necessary to teach computer science, and to recommend strategies to increase the computer science teacher workforce.

It’s clear we need to take action now to equip all California students with the knowledge and experience to compete in the workforce of the future – and to continue to strengthen the vibrancy of our innovation ecosystem.

Both bills were advanced by the Assembly and have been referred to Senate policy committees for consideration. We urge the Senate to approve these two bills and send them to the Governor for his signature this fall.

Over the past seven years, the State Legislature has taken important steps to expand computer science education – including Assemblymember Susan Bonilla and then-Governor Jerry Brown advancing Assembly Bill 2329, which set in motion the Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan. In addition, the state budget has also allocated funding through the Educator Workforce Investment Grant and computer science teacher supplementary authorizations, preparing teachers to provide rigorous and relevant curricula.

Yet, with only 40% of California high schools offering even one computer science course, basic access remains the key unaddressed challenge. Just as concerning, communities already underrepresented in the tech sector have even less access. Only one third of California schools serving high proportions of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Pacific Islander pupils offer computer science courses, compared to more than half of schools serving a greater proportion of White and Asian pupils. And low-income schools are four times less likely to offer AP computer science courses than high-income schools.

The immediate downstream effects of these inequities in access are predictable, but nevertheless striking, as Black, Latinx, and Native American/Alaskan Native students comprise 60% of California’s high school population but just 16% of AP computer science test-takers.

Working in tandem, Assembly Bill 1054 and Assembly Bill 1251 provide a viable solution to help address these inequities.

Every student, regardless of zip code or background, deserves a high-quality education that teaches problem solving and critical thinking—foundational skills taught in every computer science course, and necessary to compete in the modern hiring environment. By promoting equitable computer science education, California can broaden the path to well-paying jobs, and create a more diverse and inclusive workforce that reflects our communities.

Robyn Hines is Sr. Director, State Government Affairs, Microsoft. David Palter is Sr. Director, Higher Education and Workforce Development, Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG)

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