Access to Code – A Civil Right


Student at NYU creating Code

In 1982, Civil Rights leader Bob Moses, founded the The Algebra Project with the goal of ensuring all children – especially those in underserved communities – had the opportunity to study algebra in middle school. Algebra and higher level math were viewed as gateway skills to future academic, career, and life success. Moses considered it a civil rights issue that so few students in underserved communities were exposed to algebra in middle school – whether due to limited resources, qualified teachers, or low expectations of students. In other words, denial of the opportunity to take algebra was denial of “a fundamental right: the right of every child to a quality public school education.”

Thirty years later the same case can be made for students learning code (computer programming). In many ways, coding – the ability to “write”  everything from software programs, interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations – is the new gateway skill to academic and especially career success. Beyond its growing importance to careers and jobs (e.g. programmers and computer scientists), coding is also merging as a powerful pedagogy in itself. As Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, explained in a recent EdSurge article:

In the process of learning to code, people learn many other things. They are not just learning to code, they are coding to learn. In addition to learning mathematical and computational ideas (such as variables and conditionals), they are also learning strategies for solving problems, designing projects, and communicating ideas. These skills are useful not just for computer scientists but for everyone, regardless of age, background, interests, or occupation.

Given the growing importance of code as both a career skill and learning approach, I would posit that access to – or lack of access to – code learning is a next generation civil rights issue. The Algebra Project logo

Nationally only 5 percent of high schools teach advanced computer science. In 2012, only 23 of Massachusetts’s 378 public high schools offered advanced computer classes. Most of the schools offering these courses are in higher income, suburban communities. And what about middle school and elementary school? Forget it!

Further, equal participation in coding and computer programming across gender is a major concern. While 56 percent of all Advanced Placement test-takers are female, only 19 percent of test-takers on the AP Computer Science test are female.

Organizations such as,, FirstSiteGuide, and locally MassCAN are raising awareness about the importance of code and computer science and offering curricular and training resources to schools and youth organizations. But policymakers, school leaders, higher education/teacher education programs, teachers and families must join the rallying cry as well. Access to code is becoming synonymous with access to quality public education. Time to march!

Jake Murray

Jake Murray is the director of the Aspire Institute at Wheelock College, a center dedicated to advancing knowledge and solutions in response to social and educational challenges, and to developing effective policy and practice in the fields of education, child and human development, and health and wellness.






Photos courtesy of hackNY and used under Flickr Creative Commons License and