Chicago Is Massively Expanding Access to Coding Classes in Public Schools. That’s a Good Thing, Right?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has come out for making computer-science classes a high-school graduation requirement.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Chicago Public Schools system did not have a banner 2015. There was the hunger strike to save yet another neighborhood school from closing, and the downgrading of the system’s credit rating to junk status, and of course the high-profile indictment of former CPS chief executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett for her role in a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme. The year closed out with 88 percent of the Chicago Teachers Union voting to authorize what may turn into another major teachers’ strike.

But over the weekend the Chicago Tribune published a refreshingly undepressing story about the country’s third-largest school district, which is making strides in K-12 computer-science education—and not just in the wealthier schools, but in historically underserved ones as well.

With the help of, a Silicon Valley–supported nonprofit “dedicated to expanding access to computer science, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color,” CPS is leading the nation in offering coding classes at more than 100 Chicago schools, with instruction starting as early as kindergarten. Embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has even endorsed making computer-science education a national graduation requirement, right up there with learning to read past a third-grade level and performing basic arithmetic.

There are obvious arguments to be made in favor of expanding student access to computer-programming classes. From the Tribune article:

Computer science is one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative sectors of the American economy, and qualified workers are so scarce that half a million jobs remain unfilled, according to the federal government. Yet most students still go through school without any exposure to the subject.

The story also cites a recent Google report that found massive deficits in computer-science education around the country, even as teachers, administrators, and most of all students and parents profess to value the subject.

Offering introductory programming classes to more students, as CPS intends to do, is an attempt to bridge a demographic gap where females and minorities have historically lagged. For example: While the number of students taking the Advanced Placement exam in computer science has doubled nationally since 2010, only 22 percent of those test-takers are girls. Minority students seem to be getting even less access, with Hispanic students representing only 9 percent of the AP test-takers and black students only 3 percent. (In the state of Montana, not a single female, black, or Hispanic student took the exam in 2014.) Still, even those sobering numbers represent progress, as the participation rate of these groups has increased by more than a third between 2013 and 2014, according to Education Week.

By contrast, the school featured in the Tribune story, Wells Community Academy High School, is, according to its CPS profile page, 51.6 percent black, 44.4 percent Hispanic, and 94.4 percent low income—so it’s not just the rich kids at Chicago magnet schools who are getting the opportunity to learn the basics of programming.

But there’s expanding access, and there’s imposing yet another possibly ill-thought-out mandate on kids, as Emanuel has proposed. Something’s always gotta give: Is coding more important than P.E., or geometry, or poetry? How easy will it be to train and hire enough qualified teachers? And, of course, how will kids find the time amid all the standardized tests? Perhaps some enterprising high-schooler can build an app for that.