Sil­i­con Val­ley spurs cod­ing push in schools

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - NATASHA SINGER

At a White House gather­ing of tech titans last month, Tim Cook, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ap­ple, de­liv­ered a blunt mes­sage to Pres­i­dent Donald Trump on how pub­lic schools could bet­ter serve the na­tion’s needs. To help solve a “huge deficit in the skills that we need to­day,” Cook said, the gov­ern­ment should do its part to make sure students learn com­puter pro­gram­ming.

“Cod­ing,” Cook told the pres­i­dent, “should be a re­quire­ment in ev­ery pub­lic school.”

The Ap­ple chief’s ed­u­ca­tion man­date was just the latest tech com­pany push for cod­ing courses in schools. But even with­out Trump’s sup­port, Sil­i­con Val­ley is al­ready ad­vanc­ing that agenda — thanks largely to the mar­ket­ing prow­ess of Code.org, an in­dus­try-backed non­profit group.

Code.org was founded in 2012 by Hadi Par­tovi, an early in­vestor in Face­book and Airbnb, and his twin brother, Ali Par­tovi, him­self an early in­vestor in Zap­pos and Drop­box. The group first gained renown by us­ing a vi­ral video to stir up mass de­mand for cod­ing lessons. Now Code. org’s goal is to get ev­ery pub­lic school in the United States to teach com­puter sci­ence.

In the tech-driven world, Hadi Par­tovi ar­gues, com­puter sci­ence has be­come as es­sen­tial for students as read­ing, writ­ing and math. “En­cryp­tion is at least as foun­da­tional as pho­to­syn­the­sis,” he said.

Com­puter sci­ence is also es­sen­tial to U.S. tech com­pa­nies, which have be­come heav­ily re­liant on for­eign en­gi­neers. Trump’s ef­forts to limit im­mi­gra­tion make Code.org’s teach-Amer­i­cans-to-code agenda even more at­trac­tive to the in­dus­try.

In a few short years, Code. org has raised more than $60 mil­lion from Mi­crosoft, Face­book, Google and Sales­force, along with in­di­vid­ual tech ex­ec­u­tives and foun­da­tions. It has helped to per­suade two dozen states to change their ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies and laws, Par­tovi said, while cre­at­ing free in­tro­duc­tory cod­ing lessons, called Hour of Code, which more than 100 mil­lion students world­wide have tried.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchin­son has shep­herded into law a re­quire­ment that all high schools of­fer com­puter pro­gram­ming classes, and the governor’s of­fice spon­sors an an­nual cod­ing com­pe­ti­tion in which school teams com­pete

for schol­ar­ship money.

Along the way, Code.org has emerged as a new pro­to­type for Sil­i­con Val­ley ed­u­ca­tion re­form: a so­cial-me­dia-savvy en­tity that pushes for ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy changes, de­vel­ops cur­ric­ula, of­fers on­line cod­ing lessons and trains teach­ers — touch­ing nearly ev­ery facet of the ed­u­ca­tion sup­ply chain.

“They have got this mul­ti­pronged ap­proach,” said Amy Kle­ment, a part­ner at Omid­yar Net­work, a phil­an­thropic in­vest­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion started by the eBay founder Pierre Omid­yar and his wife, Pam, which has given $5.5 mil­lion to Code.org. “It’s unique and a model I would love to see repli­cated.”

But Code.org’s mul­ti­level in­flu­ence ma­chine also raises

the ques­tion of whether Sil­i­con Val­ley is sway­ing pub­lic schools to serve its own in­ter­ests — in this case, its need for soft­ware en­gi­neers — with lit­tle scru­tiny.

“If I were a state leg­is­la­tor, I would cer­tainly be won­der­ing about mo­tives,” said Sarah Reck­how, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of political sci­ence at Michi­gan State Univer­sity. “You want to see pub­lic in­vest­ment in a skill set that is the skill set you need for your busi­ness?”

Par­tovi, 44, said he sim­ply wanted to give students the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop the same skills that helped him and his back­ers suc­ceed. He im­mi­grated as a child to the United States from Iran with his fam­ily, went on to study com­puter sci­ence at Har­vard, and later sold a voice-recog­ni­tion startup he had co-founded to Mi­crosoft for a re­ported $800 mil­lion.

“That dream is much less

ac­ces­si­ble if you are in one of Amer­ica’s schools where they don’t even tell you you could go into that field,” Par­tovi said.

Even so, he ac­knowl­edged some in­dus­try self-in­ter­est. “If you are run­ning a tech com­pany,” he said, “it’s ex­tremely hard to hire and re­tain en­gi­neers.”

‘DIS­RUPT­ING ED­U­CA­TION’

Code.org is now one of the largest providers of free on­line cod­ing lessons and com­puter sci­ence cur­ric­ula. It has also pro­vided train­ing work­shops to more than 57,000 teach­ers, Par­tovi said.

The rise of Code.org co­in­cides with a larger tech-in­dus­try push to re­make U.S. pri­mary and sec­ondary schools with com­put­ers and learn­ing apps, a mar­ket es­ti­mated to reach $21 bil­lion by 2020.

Be­fore Code.org emerged, the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion,

in­dus­try, and ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts worked for years to de­velop and spread com­puter sci­ence in­struc­tion in schools. In 2009, for in­stance, an en­gi­neer at Mi­crosoft started a pro­gram called TEALS (for Tech­nol­ogy Ed­u­ca­tion and Lit­er­acy in Schools) that places tech com­pany volunteers in schools to help teach the sub­ject.

Then Par­tovi came along with the idea of us­ing a vi­ral video to spark mass de­mand for the courses.

He be­gan by per­suad­ing Bill Gates, the co-founder of Mi­crosoft, and Mark Zucker­berg, the Face­book chief ex­ec­u­tive, to ap­pear in a short film pro­mot­ing cod­ing to students. In its first week on YouTube, the video, ti­tled “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” racked up roughly 9 mil­lion views. Within two weeks, Par­tovi said, about 20,000 teach­ers con­tacted him.

Par­tovi com­pared Code.org’s ap­proach to those of star­tups like Airbnb and Uber. “Airbnb is dis­rupt­ing the travel space, but they don’t own the ho­tels,” he said, adding: “We are in a sim­i­lar model, dis­rupt­ing ed­u­ca­tion. But we are not run­ning the school and we don’t hire the teach­ers.”

MI­CROSOFT LINK

Par­tovi’s elite con­nec­tions didn’t hurt.

One day in early 2013, he bumped into his neigh­bor, Brad­ford L. Smith, then a se­nior Mi­crosoft ex­ec­u­tive, in a drive­way out­side their homes in Belle­vue, Wash. Smith had re­cently pub­lished a Mi­crosoft re­port call­ing for a fed­eral plan to bet­ter pre­pare students for ca­reers in com­puter sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing.

Par­tovi, for his part, was hop­ing to go vi­ral with a mes­sage that cod­ing could im­prove

students’ job prospects. Teach­ing skills that may lead to higher-pay­ing jobs “seems like the kind of idea that ev­ery­one in the coun­try can get be­hind,” he said.

Par­tovi promptly in­vited Smith over to pre­view his celebrity-coders video.

Mi­crosoft soon be­came Code.org’s largest donor. Smith, now the pres­i­dent of Mi­crosoft, com­pared their ef­forts to an ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tive in the late 1950s. Back then, the Soviet Union had just won the space race by launch­ing Sputnik, and the United States, in an ef­fort to catch up, passed a law to fi­nance physics and other sci­ence courses.

“We think com­puter sci­ence is to the 21st cen­tury what physics was to the 20th cen­tury,” Smith said.

AP/ALEX BRAN­DON

Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook speaks with Pres­i­dent Donald Trump at an Amer­i­can Tech­nol­ogy Coun­cil ses­sion in the State Din­ning Room of the White House in June.

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