The real story behind The Hour of Code. Turns out it's not just a big PR stunt

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 24, 2014

From The News Desk

When The Hour of Code campaign launched this year, the amount of money it raised made me nauseous. Tens of millions. For a big publicity stunt.

The organization behind it,, was pushing every school to devote an hour to teach students about programming during National Computer Science Education Week. It was a simple awareness campaign.

I didn't believe the amount of money raised at first and checked back with the campaign to see whether it had been reported wrong. I couldn't fathom where all that cash could possibly be going, even with the beautifully produced, star-studded commercials about the program, complete with Shakira, Ashton Kutcher, and Barack Obama. was hellbent on getting programming classes into every school in America. Such a massive endeavor can't be executed with one publicity stunt (Britain, floundering with its "Year of Code" initiative, is learning that the hard way).

Making programming classes available in every school takes lobbying efforts. Political legislation. District approval. Teacher training. Blind perseverance that each tiny step counts for something in the fragmented world of American public education.

Turns out, that's exactly what the masterminds behind The Hour of Code campaign were working on. They just weren't talking about that part.

"Of the money we raised less than ten percent was spent on The Hour of Code, which was our marketing launch," Partovi says. "It's not the main thing we do."

Partovi reached out to me last week, after he read my post on how the Brits were owning Americans in computer science education. The UK recently made it mandatory for all schools to teach coding, starting September 2014. It's likely to be a shitshow of a launch since districts only have seven months to pull off training teachers to code. But at least the country is trying.

In the US, by comparison, 90 percent of schools don't even offer programming, let alone mandate it as part of the curriculum. "I'm envious that as a country, England can make a top down call," Partovi says. "Frankly there's not a single state in this country that has taken the same level of initiative to say, 'This is so important we have to make it part of the system.'"

The Hour of Code team is trying to change that by slowly chipping away at educational institutions. They're hitting the problem from two angles. On the one hand, they're lobbying state legislatures and education boards to allow coding to count for some of students' math or science requirements for graduation. "It's a simpler ask," Partovi admits.

They've had success in five states -- Washington, Wisconsin, Alabama, Maryland, Tennessee -- with ten more "on deck." (You'll notice California isn't part of that list. Neither is New York. For shame.)

At the same time, they're trying to accomplish the much more challenging job of getting coding classes taught in schools that don't have them. That's a problem with a piecemeal solution, going from district to district, striking up local partnerships with tech organizations that can train teachers, convincing school boards to allocate teacher resources to coding.

They've managed to accomplish it in NYC and Chicago, Charles County Maryland, and Broward County Florida. "It's not an easy change," Partovi says. "With each district giving us tens of teachers to learn a year's worth of programming instruction."

The way it will work is the teachers who volunteer to learn coding will continue to teach their regular classes (math, science, English, etc) but one section a day they will devote to teaching programming.

As you might imagine, it's slow going to onboard school districts. Can you guess the city that's in the lead on implementing coding in schools? Here's a depressing hint: It's not San Francisco.

"Chicago has set up a five year plan for making computer science required for every student," Partovi says. "Chicago is most initiative taking city in the country. It's doing what England is doing, but making a five year roll out plan gives the chance to iron out the kinks."

The rest of the nation is lagging far behind, including the Bay Area. Of course, if has its long, arduous, lobbying way that will all change.

[image via thinkstock]