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Questions Linger Over Companies' $300 Million Computer Science Pledge

It's been a busy few weeks for computer science education. 

Earlier this month, tech company CEOs joined Ivanka Trump in Detroit to announce $300 million in private-sector pledges of funding for computer science education meant to close the gap in STEM skills and prepare students for a changing economy. The Internet Association announced the commitment the day after President Trump presented a memorandum calling on the Department of Education to prioritize funding for STEM and computer science education.

The memo instructs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to direct competitive grant money to STEM focused programs, with the goal of $200 million a year for five years.

A  number of prominent companies in tech and other industries said they will make contributions over the next five years, though some offered few specifics on on the nature of those gifts: 

  • Amazon: $50 million, no further details.
  • Facebook: $50 million, no further details. 
  • Google: $50 million, part of which will be given to organizations through Google.org grants, according to a spokesperson. Typically these grants go to local and national non-profits.
  • Microsoft: $50 million, including to the company's YouthSpark partners, TEALS, and Code.org.
  • Salesforce: $50 million, in partnerships with schools and organizations and one million volunteer hours; Salesforce.org, the company's philanthropic arm, will offer every eligible public K-12 school in the nation ten free Salesforce software subscriptions and an additional $1 million to Code.org.
  • Lockheed Martin: $25 million, to Code Quest, Girls Who Code, and Project Lead the Way, according to a spokesperson.
  • Accenture: more than $10 million, no further details.
  • General Motors: $10 million, including to Code.Org, Girls Who Code, Digital Promise, FIRST Robotics, and the Society of Automotive Engineers, said a spokesperson.
  • Pluralsight: $10 million through Pluralsight One, a social-impact initiative in development.
  • Quicken Loans: financial resources for computer science education for 15,000 Detroit Public Schools students.
  • Additional private individuals and foundations, unnamed: $3 million to nonprofits focused on computer science education.

Inuit and the Internet Association are also providing unspecified contributions.

Code.org president Alice Steinglass said she hopes that the private-sector funding will be prioritized toward increasing diversity and achievement for underrepresented minorities and training computer science teachers, two areas she identified as important challenges in the field.

"If you look at the students who are taking the AP computer science exam in high school today, women and black and Latinx students are highly underrepresented," she said, in an interview. "We would love to see the opportunity being made available for those students."

These companies make strong partners in preparing students for future careers, whether students end up in tech fields or not, said Deborah Seehorn, interim executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, in an interview.

"It's not just the Googles, and the Facebooks, and the IBMs, and the Microsofts," she said. "Every company will benefit from a computer-science-trained individual."

But since the original announcement, details about the $300 million corporate commitment have been scarce.

"Everybody's interested in when we can get this money, and that guidance has not been distributed yet," said Seehorn.

At this point, only three of the participating companies have made publicly available statements detailing how their gifts will be allocated.

Doug Levin, the founder and CEO of consulting firm EdTech Strategies, said that the lack of information raises concerns about effective implementation.

Levin was executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association during the rollout of ConnectED, the Obama administration's initiative to bring high-speed broadband internet and educational technology to schools. ConnectED also featured significant corporate partnerships from companies that included Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon.

In contrast to private-sector ConnectED partnerships—some of which were made by the same companies now pledging commitments—most of these funding promises were not accompanied by information about what the money will be used for and how students will be able to access it, said Levin.

"There was plenty of time for each of these companies to have laid out in some detail what it is that they are proposing," he said, in an interview.

Nonprofits Will Guide Funding

Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, said it's encouraging that many of the companies pledging the $300 million have historically made computer science and technology education a priority. But when it comes to how to access the funding, he said, "I'm not sure exactly sure who's driving the bus and how to get on the bus."

"One of the things that we felt was done right under ConnectED was that there was an ongoing conversation and dialogue, certainly with the White House, but also with the education community, about progress that was being made, and what was being committed, and what was accomplished," said Krueger. He hopes that a similar dialogue will come with this new set of corporate funding commitments.

Code.org has instructed nonprofits interested in the private funding to independently reach out to companies' individual philanthropic departments. Because the funding commitments aren't a collective grant, said Steinglass, the companies will all be making individual decisions about how and when to allocate funds. The group's CEO, Hadi Partovi, participated in the announcement in Detroit.

Of the companies who have released details about where the money will go, most have identified nonprofits and other organizations. Code.org has stated that the corporate contributions will be new commitments of money and won't include software licenses.

Funding nonprofits can be a powerful solution, especially when it comes to teacher professional development, said Seehorn. While some states have growing computer science pathways, teachers in other areas may rely on out-of-school training.

"I don't think one silver bullet is going to do it all," she said.

Krueger echoed that assessment. "Clearly, school systems need to bake [computer science] into their curriculum and they need support for that." But the swell of momentum behind coding has fostered the development of strong out-of-school time computer science programs that also teach these skills, he added.

But Levin maintains that there is a difference between money awarded to nonprofits and money granted directly to schools. It's not a given that nonprofit programming will be free for schools or students, he said, and it may be harder for rural schools to benefit from the money, as many out-of-school time computer science programs are not based in rural areas.

Ivanka Trump, who appeared with the companies in Detroit, has made coding and computer science one of her public priorities in her role in the White House. Last week, she penned an op-ed for the New York Post advocating teaching technology skills in K-12 schools and closing the gender gap in tech industries. 

Trump's involvement has drawn scorn from some who feel her efforts in this area are outweighed by broader critiques of the administration.

Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, has said she declined Trump's invitation in January to participate in her computer science initiative. In an op-ed in the New York Times, she wrote that she did not want to align her organization with the administration in the wake of President Trump's travel ban affecting majority-Muslim countries, especially considering many immigrant students—including Syrian refugees— participate in Girls Who Code programs. 


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