Closing the tech gap in NYC starts with expanding K-12 computing education

With a boom in tech jobs during the pandemic, preparing New Yorkers from underrepresented communities for these positions should be a top priority for the city.

Technology is where the city’s good jobs are growing, writes Eli Dvorkin of the Center for an Urban Future and Amber Oliver of Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund.

Technology is where the city’s good jobs are growing, writes Eli Dvorkin of the Center for an Urban Future and Amber Oliver of Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund. Farah Nosh/Getty Images

The pandemic has changed so much about life in New York City – from the rise of remote work and the embrace of open spaces to the uneven economic recovery and the lasting challenges facing small businesses. Amid all this transformation and disruption, one factor has remained a welcome constant: Technology is where the city’s good jobs are growing.

New research from the Center for an Urban Future and Tech:NYC reveals that New York’s tech sector has been among the city’s few economic bright spots since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since the start of the pandemic, the city tech sector added jobs at a faster clip than every other major industry. 

The sector’s recent gains build on years of striking job growth. Since 2010, the city’s tech sector has added 114,000 jobs, growing by 142% – more than seven times faster than the city’s economy overall – and tech roles are driving demand in industries well beyond the tech sector, including health care, finance, education and advertising.  

But New York needs to make much more progress in expanding access to these well-paying tech careers and ensuring that New Yorkers of color and women are fully represented. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has already demonstrated his passion for addressing this tech opportunity gap and building a stronger and more equitable economy.  

The way to do it is by strengthening and expanding computing education in the city’s schools.

Undoubtedly, the city will also need to ramp up adult tech training programs, apprenticeships and investments in CUNY. But there is no area where the mayor could have a greater impact than through bold new investments in computing education at the K-12 level.

The time to act is now. After two-plus years of disruption due to the pandemic, many students from the city’s lower-income neighborhoods have almost certainly fallen further behind than students from wealthier communities. At the same time, far too few young people are prepared with the foundational computational thinking and digital skills that make them stronger learners and problem solvers – and are now required by more than half of all job postings in New York City.

Achieving this doesn’t require an enormous new investment. Why? Because the most important thing the city can do is to amplify and extend the work already underway to make computational thinking – the ability to ask questions, organize data and solve problems with a computer – a foundational part of every child’s sound basic education. There are two things that Adams and New York City schools Chancellor David Banks can do immediately to help prepare students for future careers in the tech sector.   

First, equip the city’s current and future teachers to become champions of computational thinking. Every teacher – not just those focused on computer science – should receive ongoing professional development in computing education.

Adams should expand efforts, such as CUNY’s Computing Integrated Teacher Education program to ensure that every educator receives comprehensive training in the practice of teaching computational thinking. This would include researching equitable computing education practices and helping to test and scale training, coaching and leadership development programs for current and future educators, and school leaders. 

Over the past 2 1/2 years, the city has worked to get computers into every classroom and directly into students’ hands. But this investment in technology will only be effective if every teacher and student has the ongoing support needed to use it. To help drive the effective implementation of technology tools in the classroom, Adams should work with the New York City Department of Education to convert existing information technology specialists into instructional technology specialists – dedicated professionals certified to coach teachers on how to integrate technology in their classrooms – and embed them in every school.

Second, build on the city’s vital Computer Science for All initiative to ensure that every child exits the K-12 system computationally fluent – with rich computational learning experiences at every grade level and clear pathways to further education and careers, as mandated by the state’s new Computer Science and Digital Fluency Standards. This means ensuring that computing education is integrated into every elementary classroom as a daily practice to advance learning of all subjects, from demonstrating pattern recognition in early literacy to using building blocks to model decomposition in math. Every middle school should provide all students with a course introducing the fundamentals of computing, enriched by career exploration opportunities. At the high school level, every school should launch an introductory computer science class for all students and a computing course that earns college credit, ensuring that thousands more young people graduate high school computationally fluent and having already made progress toward a degree in a computing field. 

As tech-powered jobs continue to spark the city’s economic resurgence, preparing New Yorkers for these jobs should be among city leaders' top priorities. Today, Black and Hispanic workers make up 4% of New York City’s overall workforce, but hold just 1 in 5 tech sector jobs. Just 24% of the city’s tech workers are women. Tech has long struggled to diversify its ranks and encourage more underrepresented talent. To succeed in building a more inclusive economy in New York City, while closing the learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, this will have to change. 

No policy or investment is better positioned to achieve this than an all-out commitment to universal K-12 computing education.