DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about what some are calling a national crisis in education. At a time when many potential employers demand advanced computer skills, very few American public schools are teaching the basics of computer science. Some nonprofit and for-profit companies are trying to change that, but among the many challenges they face is confusion over what computer science actually means. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The education technology sector in America is an $8 billion a year industry and growing, so it's little wonder Tesla driving venture capitalists recently filled a Silicon Valley hotel for a morning of funding pitches. On display, 13 ed tech start-ups working with an incubator called Imagine K-12.
GRECHEN HUEBNER: As soon as you can start learning, you should, because the earlier you start learning something, the better you'll be at it later in life.
WESTERVELT: Grechen Huebner is co-founder of the startup Kodable. She's working two computer screens set up on a hotel lobby table. Kodable aims to teach kids five years and younger the fundamentals of programming through a game where you guide a Pac-Man-like fuzz ball.
HUEBNER: Kids have to drag and drop symbols to get their fuzzy character to go through a maze, so they learn about conditions, loops and functions, and even debugging.
WESTERVELT: So should kids who've barely shed their pull-up diapers really learn to code? Huebner thinks it's vital.
HUEBNER: We have kids as young as two using it. So five is just kind of the sweet spot.
WESTERVELT: So my daughter's behind. She's four and she hasn't started coding.
HUEBNER: She needs to learn. You're failing as a parent.
WESTERVELT: Bad parent.
HUEBNER: Bad parent.
WESTERVELT: Even if kids aren't offered computer science gaming in pre-K, there is growing consensus students should get exposed to the basic concepts early. Kodable and other startups hope to make a profit filling an enormous void in American public education. Very few K through 12 schools offer classes in computer science and those that do often make them non-credit electives that don't count toward graduation requirements.
Hadi Partovi is the founder of the nonprofit Code.org.
HADI PARTOVI: Ninety percent of schools just don't even teach it. So if you're a parent and your school doesn't even offer this class, your kids aren't going to have the preparation that they need for 21st century. Just like we teach how electricity works, they should also know how the Internet works and how apps work.
WESTERVELT: Through his group's initiative, Hour of Code, Partovi is working to get kids, parents and especially schools more interested in computer science curriculum.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes. I made it past.
WESTERVELT: Third graders at a school in Baltimore recently took part in a game-based Hour of Code to start to try to learn the very basics of coding, even though they don't realize it.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The baseball and the hat, so you're moving three blocks and then you press start.
WESTERVELT: Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in the next decade there will be about a million more U.S. jobs in the tech sector than computer science graduates to fill them. Partovi says this isn't about esoteric knowledge for computer geeks or filling jobs at Google.
Most computer science jobs are not with big high tech companies. It's about training a globally competitive workforce, he says, and keeping most every sector of the U.S. economy thriving.
PARTOVI: Our future lawyers and doctors and politicians and businessmen, the folks in the other jobs, need to have a little bit of a background about how the world around them works. It's all around us, and every industry gets impacted by it.
WESTERVELT: According to a study by the largest U.S. computing society, only 14 states have adopted secondary school standards for computer science. At the same time, there's been a sharp decline in the last five years in the number of introductory and advanced placement computer science classes offered in U.S. secondary schools.
Ironically, that decline comes just as states tout improvements to STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math curricula. And several groups and corporations have voiced deep concern that the new Common Core state standards promote no significant computer science content in either math or science.
There are some bright spots: New York, Chicago, L.A. and Broward County, Florida have all recently boosted their commitments to expanding computer science offerings. But there's a long way to go, says Chris Stephenson. The director of the Computer Science Teachers Association says a big problem is profound confusion about just what computer science is. Too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science, the principles and practices of computing and coding.
CHRIS STEPHENSON: I've had administrators actually say to me in all good intention, I know kids are learning computer science in my schools because there are computers in the schools. And that is just not true. I think that they just don't understand that, you know, having access to a computer isn't the same as learning computer science any more than, you know, having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry.
WESTERVELT: The guesstimate is that only five to 10 percent of schools teach computer science, and that's based largely on data on students who take the Advanced Placement or AP test in computer science annually. The real percentage may be lower. Nobody tracks the figures nationally. Some sobering stats from last year's AP data: In Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming, no girls took the exam. In 11 states, no black students took it. In eight states, no Hispanics took it.
In 17 states, fewer than 100 students took the computer science exam. Chris Stephenson.
STEPHENSON: It's crazy small. I mean it would be absurd if it weren't so scary; that's how terrifying it is.
WESTERVELT: So never mind the hardware-based digital divide; there's a growing digital information divide. Computer science education, it seems, is now privileged knowledge accessible mostly by affluent kids.
STEPHENSON: The people that, you know, are most likely to succeed have access to it and other kids do not, and we really need to look at those facts and figures and be horrified by them.
WESTERVELT: Stephenson says the Hour of Code, which has reached millions of students around the world, is a terrific start. But until more schools offer computer science, and for credit, she says, the knowledge gap will only widen. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.