Code.org keeps up its Sisyphean struggle to bring coding to American schools
Big news on the coding education front today. Non-profit Code.org, which is backed by tens of millions of dollars from tech heavyweights like Reid Hoffman and John Doerr, is introducing programming classes to 30 K-12 districts across the United States. These include three of the top ten biggest districts in the country, as well as districts for urban locales like New York City, Chicago, and Denver.
America is inching ever closer to its British brethren, who are rolling out mandatory coding classes for all UK primary schools starting in September.
The new initiative is a massive undertaking for Code.org and it’s where a big chunk of its tens of millions raised will go. It’s costing the non-profit $1 million to train 600 teachers how to teach programming. Code.org is flying out consultants to schools to hold workshops on the pedagogy of teaching coding, and it’s paying local software engineers to help teach code before and after the fact. Furthermore, Code.org is paying the teachers who sign up their full 9-5 salary to spend their summer months learning how to code and developing curriculum to teach it to students in the fall.
“This is the biggest thing we plan to do because the biggest problem in computer science is there aren’t enough teachers,” Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org, says. “The cheapest way to fix this problem is to teach existing teachers how to do this.”
Of course, Code.org certainly runs the risk of dispensing loads of cash training teachers how to code, only to have them jump ship to a better-paying software engineering job. “Don’t say that!” Partovi says, dismayed but laughing. He argued that Code.org isn’t teaching enough code for teachers to jump into a job. They’re learning only enough to teach a high school class. “Of course, there will be some that say, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is much more interesting than teaching,’” Partovi admits. Code.org is gambling that won’t be the case with too many educators, however.
As Pando had written before, although Code.org is known more for its huge Hour of Code PR stunt, which saw the likes of President Obama and Shakira professing the power of code on a video, and got more than 33 million students to spend an hour learning what coding is. But Code.org’s real mission stretches far beyond its PR stunt: It wants to get programming classes into all K-12 schools across the nation. It’s no small task. The non-profit is tackling the issue from several angles, including changing educational laws, allowing code to count for math and science requirements, and the more piecemeal approach of helping districts implement coding classes.
Code.org is up against huge barriers. The educational system in America is very fragmented across districts and states, and budget cuts mean there’s barely enough teachers let alone extra money for coding classes.
In other countries it’s a different story. Again, the UK was able to one-up America by introducing coding classes to all schools in the nation by (if all goes well) next September. Michael Gove, the country’s Secretary of State for Education, said, “[T]here was no alternative to making this work if we didn’t want the Googles and Microsofts of tomorrow to be created elsewhere.”
The British push to implement code might be a total disaster because there’s not much time to train teachers or create systems for the new curriculum. That said, at least the government's heart is in the right place. “I’m envious that as a country, England can make a top-down call,” Partovi says.
In contrast, Code.org has had to move at the pace of a snail in America, district by district, bit by bit, to train teachers in coding. It had successfully rolled out to only four districts before now.
The announcement of its expansion is key — jumping from four to thirty in the matter of a couple months is big news. It’s a litmus test for whether Code.org can execute on its vision and prove that teachers can be trained to teach code to students, that students are interested in learning it, and that the skills can improve students’ math and science scores.
“We hope that in one to two years we can prove that we’re moving the needle and it’s costing as little as we think it is,” Partovi says. “I’m pretty sure our system is not overly expensive. In a year we’ll have good data on whether it’s working.”