Programming: A Mark of Inequality?

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Demand for programmers in varying sectors and positions are growing, and this trend does not appear to be slowing down. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, which cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth forsoftware developers and computer systems analysts will jump 22.8% and 24.5% between 2012 and 2022, respectively. But who will fill these positions? Considering the current conditions of our K-12 system, what type of students are expected to benefit from a technologically-driven economy? Who will be left behind?

On June 16, 2014, TIME’s writer, Tim Bajarin, published an on-line piece (“Why Basic Coding Should be a Mandatory Class in Junior High“) on the importance of incorporating basic coding in the K-12 curriculum. He argues that more and more, technology in all of its forms, has become a formidable and growing presence in our daily lives–transforming (and in some cases, improving) the way we live and shaping the future employment opportunities for our children. Bajarin suggests that if schools do not incorporate basic programming into the core curriculum, thereby providing students with a fundamental platform to build on and advance their understanding of technology, they risk graduating students with insufficient skills. In other words, learning to program and understanding its value to our lives is crucial to taking advantage of, or benefitting from, an economy that will, sooner enough, judge you on your ease and ability to operate in a work environment that is heavily managed by (constantly) new devices and software. Put simply, a child’s opportunities will be increasingly dependent on her degree of technological literacy.

As someone who spent the majority of his childhood in the Silicon ValIey, and witnessed the awesome social and economic growth of my local economy, I wholeheartedly agree with Bajarin. Students, today, should be exposed to the basics of programming early on so that they, at the very least, remain relevant and prepared to benefit from the opportunities of tomorrow. However, as a first-generation college student, raised by a single-mother, I also witnessed a quite disturbing pattern of growing inequality. Silicon Valley’s corporate elite and the minions that followed in their footsteps were primarily White and male.

According to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, Blacks make up 6% of all computer scientists, Hispanics/Latinos at 5% and Native Americans at less than 0.1%, whereas Whites make 68% of this population. These data mirror the persistent academic underachievement of minorities in our school system. We also cannot ignore the paltry presence of women in the sciences. Although college enrollment and degree attainment have increased for women across higher education, they only make up thirty one percent of total computer scientists in the country. Given that “21% of those who took the AP computer science exam in 2011 were female and only 29 of the test takers nationwide that year were black–less than 1% of the total,” according to Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke, increased female and racial minority representation in the workforce in the near future seems highly unlikely. With such glaring disparities in occupational achievement by race and gender, the potential to succeed in this new economy represents a marker of grave inequality.

Ensuring that all students have the chance to benefit from a technologically-driven economy, we must push for greater technological literacy–especially in the form of basic programming–and remember that such effort must take in account those very students who are less likely to be enrolled in schools that have the infrastructure to incorporate new curriculum and hire the qualified teachers to implement it. In order to do so, we must also be wary of the demands of the for-profit sector of the economy for these professionals that will likely constrain all but the most affluent schools in the nation. But if we are to prepare all students for a fast paced world, one that is imbued with boundless and unpredictable innovation, we must consider how we are to provide them with the knowledge and tools to hold on.

For less advantageous students, exposure to basic programming early on in their education can matter a great deal more for them and their families’ future. Without it, we risk leaving behind a generation of students susceptible to an economy that will leave no room for them or their dreams.

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at Penn’s CMSIs. 

This article was jointly published with the Huffington Post on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014. 

One thought on “Programming: A Mark of Inequality?

  1. Pingback: Diversifying our STEM Workforce | MSIs UnPlugged

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