WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called for an expansion of computer science and math programs, while also highlighting his administration’s successes in education during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“In the coming years, we should build on that progress,” Obama said, “by providing pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one — and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.”
Obama’s comments followed last month’s passage of Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan reform of the No Child Left Behind law. The new primary and secondary education law, which Obama called “an important start,” offers states more flexibility to determine school accountability and assessments, and gives more money to state-sponsored STEM programs.
“STEM education is critically important to cultivating a 21st-century workforce,” said Lauren Aronson, spokeswoman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Aronson emphasized how reforms in the new law will allow states and school districts to recruit, retain, and support STEM teachers.
Rumors of Obama announcing an expansion of STEM initiatives swirled in Washington after his administration said in December it planned to announce “a broad set of new commitments” to computer science education in early 2016. The word came during Computer Science Education Week, which Obama instituted during his first term.
In the visitor’s gallery Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama’s guests included a college student studying software engineering technology and also Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. In September, Microsoft announced a $75 million initiative to expand computer science education. The company will distribute the money to nonprofits around the world over the next three years.
“STEM is a theme still relatively new in the context of education, but it’s much more widely understood now,” said James Brown, executive director of STEM Education Coalition, an organization that promotes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs. “It’s become a mentality where we really want our schools to have strong STEM programs because that is part of the key to economic success today.”
In 26 states plus the District of Columbia, computer science now counts towards a high school graduation math or science requirement. That’s up from only 12 states in 2013, according to Code.org, a non-profit that promotes access to computer science education.
“The average American thinks about education policy as it pertains to getting jobs,” Brown said. “So the administration is really trying to show how increased STEM education is tied to economic opportunities for a wide amount of people.”
STEM advocates agree that Obama’s comments mark a shift in education policy, with computer science gaining a place in school curriculum nationwide.
“There’s still a lot of hurdles to come with teacher trainings and too many tests for students to take, but the idea of introducing an entirely new subject into school curriculum is a huge deal,” said Adam Enbar, co-founder of Flatiron School, which trains people of all ages in web and mobile development.
The Flatiron School also works with TechHire, a White House initiative aimed at getting more Americans trained at universities and community colleges for technology jobs. The initiative also considers more nontraditional training programs such as online training and “coding boot camps.”
“The same way you need to know how to read and write, people are going to need to have basic technical skills to survive in the modern economy,” Enbar said. “And it’s remarkable to see that it has already reached this point of acceptance by the president of the United States.”