Ruthe Farmer: Amid political change, computer science ed is a ‘nonpartisan issue’


Ruthe Farmer, former senior policy adviser for tech inclusion in the Obama White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, expects community support across the nation for computer science education to continue to build under the new administration.

Farmer, who was responsible for leading the Obama administration’s Computer Science for All initiative, believes the program has established a solid foundation of support at the grassroots level, and doesn’t expect it to weaken as Washington transitions to new leadership.

“We knew we had so much community support for this idea and wanted to lend some top down momentum,” she said in an interview with EdScoop in the days following the new administration’s arrival.

“There has been a tremendous amount of progress at the [district] level and in awareness in general. The amount of press coverage and attention the initiative received over the course of a year is really tremendous and it has gone a long way toward legitimizing the work of all of these people on the ground who have been doing this for well over a decade.”

Prior to joining the White House, Farmer worked nationally on tech, engineering and computer science education and advocacy, with a focus on equity and inclusion.

“I personally have been part of this effort for over a decade,” she said. “It’s fantastic to go from [parents saying] ‘What do you mean, my kids use their phones all the time’ to most parents and school districts fully understanding the need for computer science in K-12. That’s exciting.”

Computer Science for All was launched a year ago to ensure that computer science education is available to all students across the U.S., led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation and the Education Department, along with other federal agencies and private partners.

“There’s an established network of organizations that are doing this work,” she said. “There are major players working to train teachers and working with states.”

She cautioned that the goal of bringing computer science education to every classroom can’t be done by one organization.

“Every state is unique and individualistic in their approach,” she said. “While we can recommend national standards, everybody wants their own standards. They want to fit things to their system. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to computer science education. The U.S. educational system is quite diverse, so to that end, there need to be some models and guidance.”

Farmer said models for implementing computer science education programs in schools will come from the grassroots.

“There are a lot of people already doing this work on the ground,” she said. “Getting their knowledge and learning to school districts across the nation is critical. While there may not be an exact fit for your school district, if we can give 15 examples from across the nation of what’s working you’re bound to find something that going to resonate with you and fit. So we’re trying to identify some best practices and use cases and enable people to have road map to figure out the best path for them and their community.”

For cybersecurity, defense and the workforce

Asked to what extent she expects the Trump Administration to support the goal of universalizing computer science education in schools, she said, “I can’t speculate on what they may or may not do, but I think it’s pretty clear to me that computer science education is a nonpartisan issue. Of the 27 governors who wrote letters to Congress asking for funding, 14 of them were Republican. There is tremendous support for having a computationally literate population in our country. It’s a critical cybersecurity issue, it’s a critical defense issue and it’s a workforce development issue. In a world where we want to focus on jobs for Americans, we need America to be ready for the jobs of the future.”

One of the challenges ahead is maintaining the flow of financial resources, she said. “I know that computer science education is going to move forward, especially in the places where they have tremendous employer demand,” she said. For example, “there have been huge investments by the private sector in the Oakland public schools because there are so many tech companies in that part of the country. They all need talent and the cost of bringing talent to the bay area has become so high because of the cost of living, so the more they can incubate local talent the better.”

“But my concern is that without dedicated funding the school districts that are outside the halo of the tech community and the employer base are going to miss the train,” she added. “What we don’t want is for the divide between who’s in and who’s out to get bigger and bigger.” It will take leadership at multiple levels to continue to ensure that computer science education is prioritized and new funding streams are continuously located, she said.

For Farmer, the most important message she wants to convey is that computer science “needs to be as normal as algebra. We can’t have computer science education that’s only for outliers; we need computer science education for all kids. [Computer science in schools will be] successful when it’s not extraordinary. We will know we have won when this is not an extraordinary thing.”

What’s next for Farmer?

“I’m talking to lots of different partners and organizations about the best way for this to move forward, but I’m certainly not going away,” she said. “I’ve had going on 17 years working on inclusion in technology and engineering. This is a point of passion for me. So you can expect to see me popping up somewhere soon.”

One place Farmer is expected to pop up sooner than later: At the South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas, in March. Look for Farmer to talk about the challenges of implementing computer science in P-12 schools and the innovative ways various states, districts and schools are providing CS to students during an SXSWedu panel, “Can you speak computer science?” organized by EdScoop.