Of the more than 42, 000 public and private high schools in the United States, only 2, 100 high schools offered the Advanced Placement test in computer science last year, down 25 percent over the past five years, according to a recent report by Microsoft.
In schools where computer science is offered, it often does not count toward graduation. Only nine states—Georgia, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Virginia—allow computer science courses to satisfy core math or science requirements, according to the report.
The other 41 states do not consider computer science as a math or a science, Brad Smith, executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft, noted during a panel discussion last week at the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit think tank.
"It will get you just as close to graduation as it will if you take woodworking, " Smith said. "I love wood, but it is not the future of our economy."
With an estimated 120, 000 new jobs requiring a bachelor's degree in computer science expected in the next year alone, and nearly 3.7 million jobs in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—currently sitting unfilled, computer science is the future, he argued.
"If you think for a moment about some of the people who have remade our world, people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg … What did they all have in common?" Smith asked. "They each learned computer science before they graduated from high school. They were the fortunate few."
Before students can gain access to these courses, schools need teachers qualified to teach them. And districts with dwindling budgets and restrictive pay structures are competing with the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for talent, Michael McShane, an education policy researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said at the panel.
Businesses can increase pay and incentives for STEM graduates based on demand, but school districts are required to pay teachers the same whether they have a degree in English or engineering, even if there is a greater demand for the latter, McShane added.
"One of the fundamental things we need to do is rethink the way that we recruit, retain, and compensate teachers to be able to deal with this changing labor market, " he said.
While they may compete for STEM talent, school districts and businesses can work together to develop the necessary skills in both teachers and students.
For its part, the Microsoft Technology Education and Literacy in School program trains tech professionals to work as part-time computer science teachers in high schools. The company also plans to invest $500 million over the next three years to expand STEM education broadly—and computer science education more specifically.