How Silicon Valley Pushed Coding Into American Classrooms

At a White House gathering of tech titans last week, Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, delivered a blunt message to President Trump on how public schools could better serve the nation’s needs. To help solve a “huge deficit in the skills that we need today,” Mr. Cook said, the government should do its part to make sure students learn computer programming.

“Coding,” Mr. Cook told the president, “should be a requirement in every public school.”

The Apple chief’s education mandate was just the latest tech company push for coding courses in schools. But even without Mr. Trump’s support, Silicon Valley is already advancing that agenda — thanks largely to the marketing prowess of Code.org, an industry-backed nonprofit group.

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Timothy D. Cook, chief executive of Apple, at an Apple store in New York where third graders participated in one of Code.org’s introductory coding lessons.CreditAndrew Burton/Getty Images

Code.org was founded in 2012 by Hadi Partovi, an early investor in Facebook and Airbnb, and his twin brother, Ali Partovi, himself an early investor in Zappos and Dropbox. The group first gained renown by using a viral video to stir up mass demand for coding lessons. Now Code.org’s goal is to get every public school in the United States to teach computer science.

In our tech-driven world, Hadi Partovi argues, computer science has become as essential for students as reading, writing and math. “Encryption is at least as foundational as photosynthesis,” he said.

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Computer science is also essential to American tech companies, which have become heavily reliant on foreign engineers. Mr. Trump’s efforts to limit immigration make Code.org’s teach-Americans-to-code agenda even more attractive to the industry.

In a few short years, Code.org has raised more than $60 million from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Salesforce, along with individual tech executives and foundations. It has helped to persuade two dozen states to change their education policies and laws, Mr. Partovi said, while creating free introductory coding lessons, called Hour of Code, which more than 100 million students worldwide have tried.

Along the way, Code.org has emerged as a new prototype for Silicon Valley education reform: a social-media-savvy entity that pushes for education policy changes, develops curriculums, offers online coding lessons and trains teachers — touching nearly every facet of the education supply chain.

Mr. Partovi standing behind President Barack Obama and a group of middle school students at an Hour of Code event marking Computer Science Education Week in 2014.CreditJabin Botsford/The New York Times

“They have got this multipronged approach,” said Amy Klement, a partner at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment organization started by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, which has given $5.5 million to Code.org. “It’s unique and a model I would love to see replicated.”

But Code.org’s multilevel influence machine also raises the question of whether Silicon Valley is swaying public schools to serve its own interests — in this case, its need for software engineers — with little scrutiny. “If I were a state legislator, I would certainly be wondering about motives,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. “You want to see public investment in a skill set that is the skill set you need for your business?”

Mr. Partovi, 44, said he simply wanted to give students the opportunity to develop the same skills that helped him and his backers succeed. He immigrated as a child to the United States from Iran with his family, went on to study computer science at Harvard, and later sold a voice-recognition start-up he had co-founded to Microsoft for a reported $800 million.

“That dream is much less accessible if you are in one of America’s schools where they don’t even tell you you could go into that field,” Mr. Partovi said.

Even so, he acknowledged some industry self-interest. “If you are running a tech company,” he said, “it’s extremely hard to hire and retain engineers.”

Code.org is now one of the largest providers of free online coding lessons and more comprehensive computer science curriculums. It has also provided training workshops to more than 57,000 teachers, Mr. Partovi said.

The rise of Code.org coincides with a larger tech-industry push to remake American primary and secondary schools with computers and learning apps, a market estimated to reach $21 billion by 2020.

Last year, Apple rolled out a free app, called Swift Playgrounds, to teach basic coding in Swift, a programming language the company unveiled in 2014.

Before Code.org emerged, the National Science Foundation, industry, and education experts worked for years to develop and spread computer science instruction in schools. In 2009, for instance, an engineer at Microsoft started a program called Teals (for Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) that places tech company volunteers in schools to help teach the subject.

Then Mr. Partovi came along with the idea of using a viral video to spark mass demand for the courses.

He began by persuading Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, to appear in a short film promoting coding to students. In its first week on YouTube, the video, called “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” racked up roughly nine million views. Within two weeks, Mr. Partovi said, about 20,000 teachers contacted him.

Mr. Partovi compared Code.org’s approach to those of start-ups like Airbnb and Uber. “Airbnb is disrupting the travel space, but they don’t own the hotels,” he said, adding: “We are in a similar model, disrupting education. But we are not running the school and we don’t hire the teachers.”

Mr. Partovi’s elite connections didn’t hurt.

One day in early 2013, he bumped into his neighbor, Bradford L. Smith, then a senior Microsoft executive, in a driveway outside their homes in Bellevue, Wash. Mr. Smith had recently published a Microsoft reportcalling for a federal plan to better prepare students for careers in computer science and engineering.

Mr. Partovi, for his part, was hoping to go viral with a message that coding could improve students’ job prospects. Teaching skills that may lead to higher-paying jobs “seems like the kind of idea that everyone in the country can get behind,” he said.

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