The Kids Are Not Alright Why Johnny can’t compute

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, September 15, 1999

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1999/09/15/schoolreform.dtl

The school reform movement is badly in need of reform.

Right now, our nation’s most prominent school reformers are almost totally ignoring one item that could go a long way toward improving our failing public schools: increasing the quantity and quality of computer programming instruction.

To say we have a crisis in this area is to grossly understate the problem. Nearly every high-tech CEO I meet tells me the kids coming out of even our best public schools don’t have the skills needed to land a good job. On the verge of the 21st century, most employers are lucky if they can find high school graduates with a competitive 19th century skill set.

Years ago, someone with a good high school education had a running shot at earning a living. Today, a high school diploma means practically nothing. Often, it’s little more than a ticket to the streets.

Blaming those who run our schools is the easy way out. Politicians from both political parties frequently play that card, perhaps because public opinion polls say education-reform is now one of the hottest political issues. The problem is, most of the would-be school reformers who are trying to ride the issue into public office, or use it to keep the job they already have, don’t seem to have a clue about what our schools really need.

If you listen to kids, though, they’ll tell you the real problem is they are not being taught what they need to learn to get ahead.

They know they’re being cheated, particularly in the area of computer programming. They know that in the next century, computer programming skills will be as important as writing and math were in this century.

The world has changed far too much since most teachers went to college for us to think that what they learned then is all our kids need to know now. If we don’t teach the teachers more current computer skills, we’ll continue to be saddled with a public school system where the blind lead the blind. If that’s the case, it won’t matter whether students wear uniforms or pray themselves silly.

Even seemingly more important reforms, such as smaller classes or increased teacher salaries, won’t make much of a difference either. Unless we change things real quick, when it comes to modern computer sciences, the only thing most public school teachers will be able to offer their students is their own ignorance.

Right now, despite the growing importance of computers, most public school teachers couldn’t program a computer if their lives depended on it. That’s why we need an immediate, crash program to retrain our current generation of public school teachers in the art and science of computer programming. Nothing else could do as much to close the growing gap between our public schools, on the one hand, and our economy and society on the other.

To be sure, the paucity of computer programming classes in public schools doesn’t completely, all by itself, explain growing levels of youthful alienation.

But one thing is clear: If we don’t give kids the tools they need to find their place in our fast-changing world, they will eventually start looking for other, easier-to-find tools that can help them destroy that world, or just as troubling, simply obliterate themselves.

In a telling index of how bad things are, it’s often far easier today for most kids, particularly those in urban settings, to find someone who can sell them a gun and teach them how to use it than it is for them to get help learning how to program a computer. That’s a recipe for an increasingly sick society.

So, how much progress are public schools making in this regard?

Unfortunately, at least as far as I can see, no one in authority really seems to care. It’s almost impossible, for example, to even find current data about the number of public school teachers who are qualified to teach computer programming, let alone information about which approaches work best.

We need to turn this situation around. We should be tracking which public schools do and do not offer different kinds of computer programming classes. We need to find out which approaches work best and replicate them.

We should also send teachers back to school more frequently so they can acquire the skills today’s students need to learn. That might mean, for example, allowing teachers to take six months or a year off from teaching every few years to refresh their skills. Or paying them to use their summer vacations for similar purposes.

We also need new mechanisms to get high-tech businesses more deeply involved in our public schools. Some high-tech businesses are already doing this. But they might do more if we had a better system for rewarding businesses that bring knowledge of cutting-edge skills into our public schools.

We could let an employee teach computer programming classes in a public school four days a month, for example, in exchange for tax breaks that more than make up whatever the company might lose in the process. We also need more student computer programming contests, and other academic exercises, to give students an incentive to learn and reasons to dream.

Today’s computer programming instruction deficit is analogous to the literacy deficit that existed early in this century. One hundred years ago, large numbers of people didn’t need to know how to read and write in order to survive. All they needed to know was their trade. A blacksmith, for example, mostly had to know how to shoe a horse.

Over time, though, society’s growing dependence on the written word put illiterate workers at a substantial disadvantage. The ability to read and write moved from being a skill needed in only a few professions to one required by nearly all.

The same thing is happening today with computer programming. It’s not just for computer programmers anymore. Virtually every profession is being touched by developments in computer sciences. It doesn’t matter if your kid wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a businessperson.

In the future, the best jobs in nearly every sector will go to those who know how to use today’s ultimate tool, the computer, most effectively. It’s the difference between teaching kids how to be consumers and helping them become producers.

Today’s public school students will turn our schools around themselves if and when they get a more meaningful education. They want, and need, to learn how to create new computer games and programs, not just use them.

But to make that happen we need to convince those leading the school reform movement to abandon their current obsession with marginal issues such as mandatory uniforms or prayer in the public schools. Instead, we need to marshal the resources it will take to create more relevant classes, particularly computer programming courses.

Otherwise, if we continue to leave the kids behind, some of them will no doubt find some rather unpleasant ways to thank us for that favor.

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