Who benefits from ‘coding for all’?

As a former music teacher and arts advocate, No Child Left Behind and the accompanying push for ‘back to basics’ education in the early 2000s felt like a direct attack on music education in US public schools. Recently, ‘STEM education’, ‘coding for all’ and ’21st century skills’ are being popularized as a way to expand education. But these simply feel like the modern and more trendy version of ‘back to basics’. Even more worrying is that recent discussions on these themes have given tech companies a louder voice in political debates about education. And this has a significant influence on education reforms.

Behind the advocacy for STEM education, ‘workforce training’ is inserted as the purpose of schooling and the guiding force for funding. The video below announces a presidential memorandum – but not increased funding – allocated by the US Department of Education to put $200 million dollars each year toward promoting STEM. Personally, I wonder where that money will come from. It seems unlikely that it would be reallocated from reading or math funding. Very likely it would come from cuts to programs for arts education, outdoor education, humanities, research, and the other things that make education wonderful even though they are not visibly contributing to a certain workforce.

But my biggest problem with this call to action is not simply that funding would go from arts to STEM. It is that it has a particular purpose which benefits certain groups more than others.

In an article entitled ‘Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages‘, Ben Tarnoff from The Guardian points out the problems with increasing school-based training for technology skills and coding in particular. He argues that the push for coding education is simply a way for tech firms to flood the market with workers, reduce their wages and avoid investing in training their own employees. He summarizes:

‘But coding is not magic. It is a technical skill, akin to carpentry. Learning to build software does not make you any more immune to the forces of American capitalism than learning to build a house. Whether a coder or a carpenter, capital will do what it can to lower your wages, and enlist public institutions towards that end’ (Tarnoff 2017).

Thus, STEM education, and coding training in particular, create a path where public money flows directly into private profit.

In the video announcing the presidential memorandum, Ivanka Trump highlights the importance of creating the ‘workforce of the future’, that schools are part of ‘workforce development’ with the goal of creating ‘the American worker to maintain our competitive advantage’. She also re-tweeted this article from code.org, a non-profit intended to increase participation in computer science related fields. Out of curiosity, I looked to see who supports code.org . Their corporate sponsors are some of the largest tech firms and most profitable businesses in the history of capitalism. Apple, Google, Amazon and many other high power businesses are on the list. These are companies for whom $200 million is less than their line item expense for desk chair replacement wheels.

What an incredible set of companies stand in the wings and watch as the US Department of Education re-allocates already stretched funding. They have an amazingly loud voice in how politics influence schools and the purpose of education. Here is the proof:

I saw this video as a joke — that ‘the Ivanka robot had malfunctioned’ due to the visible computer code that is in the accompanying text to the Tweet.

But what is interesting about code is that good code is invisible. If it functions well then you don’t even know it is there. While teaching STEM, computer science and coding education is a very visible way for schools to ‘innovate’, it is not the savior of any school system. My personal belief is that the invisible, barely perceptible elements of education are really what makes it great. Things like being part of a community, the awe of learning something new, the strangeness of caring about something you didn’t even know existed before. And the self-actualization that happens in those moments.

Maybe STEM has the possibility to foster those ideals – I think it is possible – but I would argue that arts education creates those situations as well or better than most other things. It is only possible for STEM education to enrich education in a similar way if the purpose behind it is for students to experience the invisible rather than the visible output of code or technical skill. And I fear that’s not the purpose.

Image from http://www.code.org Accessed 26 Sept 2017

N.B. For an interesting comparison, check out the list of “corporate partners” for the National Association for Music Education: https://nafme.org/membership/corporate/nafme-corporate-members/

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