How to leverage $200 million toward computer science—and rethink school as we know it


Sep 26, 2017

Computer science strikes again. In one of its less controversial moves of the week, the Trump administration announced an initiative to expand students’ access to STEM and computer science.

The actual dollar amount dedicated to the initiative is small change compared to the $4 billion Obama tried (in vain) to allocate to computer science late it his second term. Trump’s more modest proposal essentially leverages $200 million dollars in grants at the Department of Education focused on STEM and computer science programs. (Some in the field are noting the irony that Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 eliminated a much larger pot of money dedicated to support and academic enrichment grants). It’s rumored that companies like Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Salesforce are also chipping in an additional $300 million over five years to support the effort.

In reality, the funding itself may pale in comparison to the potential message that an effort like this could send when it comes to innovation in K-12 schools.

Trump and DeVos have been relatively quiet about trying to spur education innovation from D.C. But with a little creativity, initiatives like this offer an inroad to a much bigger rethinking of school as we know it. How might we spend these dollars wisely? Here’s what I recommended in 2016 when Obama tried to fund more computer science and what I’d still recommend today, with even fewer dollars on the table:

Were these dollars spent across traditional education categories, we’d likely see most dollars go to computer labs, coding curriculum, and recruiting and training more computer science teachers (which we currently sorely lack). Although these investments might be good for students in the short term, we would miss an opportunity to use computer science as a starting point to rethink a new model for managing human capital in education and expanding students’ networks in new ways.

Specifically, computer science is a subject in which industry professionals possess a huge reservoir of up-to-date know-how from which K–12 classrooms could benefit. This does not mean developers and software engineers should all become classroom teachers. But rather than investing solely in training new teachers or buying new curriculum, we should unlock the existing computer science talent awash in our tech industry by investing in building channels that bring outside experts into classrooms to supplement what teachers are doing.

As I’ve written about before, there is currently a dearth of “slots” for outside experts to actively participate in schools. This phenomenon is a less talked about byproduct of our “factory model” of school, but one that places false constraints on the range of adult supports and expertise that students can access inside their classrooms. We treat school as an incubator to prepare students—largely in isolation—for the real world. It’s also proven difficult to square initiatives to grow students’ relationships with outside working professionals with the incredible pressure that K–12 schools face to deliver standards-aligned content on a rigid schedule. Even parents who are more than willing to give their time and expertise may find it hard to squeeze into the tightly-bounded curriculum in schools.

Although we’d need a broader philosophical shift to break open the entire system to welcome “outsiders,” computer science education could lead the way. Schools could do this by leveraging technology-enabled models for engaging experts in the project of educating our students.

One such model is using video technology to port experts into classrooms to provide lessons, guidance, or career advice. Skype in the Classroom, for example, (owned by Microsoft) can bring computer science experts into classrooms over Skype’s video technology, many of whom hail from Microsoft itself. In a 2014 interview, Sandy Gady, a design and engineering teacher in Highline Public Schools, a district located outside Seattle, told me about using the program to introduce her students to experts and career paths that they otherwise might not be exposed to. Gady brought in experts, primarily from Microsoft, over video to discuss their career paths, explain concepts of coding, and even help coach the school’s robotics team.

For Gady, this also meant new paradigms for her own teaching. She didn’t have the time to keep up with the rapid changes in technology, like 3-D printing and Google Glass. “I can’t possibly learn CAD, apps, all that stuff,” Gady explained. But with a resource like Skype in the Classroom, Gady said, “I don’t have to be an expert any more.” Notably, tools like these do not replace educators. Teachers may continue delivering content and creating assignments, but can also begin to curate new relationships and experiences for their students with professionals who have cutting edge industry expertise. More broadly, these models can also help  students forge new networks, teaching them how to seek out their own answers and inspiration from adults beyond the classroom. Using video technology to bring outside experts into the classroom can also solve for the chronic challenges that most volunteer mentoring programs face. “Most people don’t want to come into a middle school classroom and talk to us. Even with Microsoft and Amazon in our backyard, they don’t have time to come here,” Gady explained.

Trump’s grant program could be spread thin through a few efforts to train teachers or implement coding classes in schools. We might get a few wins, but by and large, it would likely prove a costly endeavor. Instead, using smart technology and new classroom models, experts who can only spare an hour or two a week could become deeply involved in bringing computer science to students across the country–and, in the process, reshaping the structure of school as we know it.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.