Kindergarten coders: When is too early to put kids in front of screens?

Jennifer Lentz with her children (right to left) Bryan, 7, Daisy, 4, and Thomas, 9, reading in their Swarthmore home. Lentz has concerns about her children’s screen time exposure.

Last year, Jeremy Seedorf’s 9-year-old daughter and her classmates received tablet computers from their Lancaster County school. He wouldn’t let her bring one home: “The iPads were coming, and there was nothing we could do about it.”

In the Neshaminy School District, Jessica Reeder was taken aback when she discovered that her daughter had to use the internet to do her first-grade homework: “That was a little bit concerning to us.”

Jennifer Lentz limits screen time at home for her sons, but she can’t stop the increasing amount they are getting in class at their Delaware County elementary school: “There are a lot of parents who feel like me. But I think they feel defeated.”

Hadi Partovi might consider that a victory.

Partovi, a tech entrepreneur and cofounder of the nonprofit Code.org, is leading a national effort to convince schools that more and younger is better when it comes to coding and computer science. The tech giants Microsoft, Facebook, and Google are among Code.org’s financial backers. The goal is to fill the next generation of computer-related jobs.

Code.org has expanded its reach even as parents such as Seedorf, Reeder, and Lentz try to slow the tech tide for their own children.

Twenty-five percent of all U.S. students now have Code.org accounts and 800,000 teachers use the site for class lessons, according to the nonprofit. Partovi said two-thirds of all fifth graders in the country have an account.

“It’s mind-blowing, considering it’s something I started five years ago,” Partovi, an early investor in Facebook and Airbnb, said in a recent interview with the Inquirer and Daily News.

Code.org, based in Seattle, has been pressing states to pass laws and adopt policies that support computer science and, by extension, put technology in the hands of students at a younger age.

“Many would say we’re leading the movement,” Partovi said.

Gov. Wolf has embraced the tech approach, hoping to fill an estimated 17,000 to 21,000 computer-related jobs in Pennsylvania. Advocates say early access to technology in schools can help break the cycle of poverty for disadvantaged students.

“There is definitely a supply-and-demand gap,” Judd Pittman, a STEM consultant to state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, said of unfilled jobs that require computer skills.

Wolf’s latest budget proposal includes a $50 million job-training initiative to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and computer-science education. At a summit in Harrisburg last month, elementary school teachers took Code.org’s one-day computer science fundamentals course. Over the last year, more than 1,300 teachers have been trained through a collaboration between the state’s intermediate units and Code.org.

In New Jersey, where Code.org says demand for computer jobs is even higher, all high schools are now required to offer computer-science classes. Code.org and its partners have provided K-5 computer-science training to 3,350 teachers.

Code.org has had remarkable success in advancing its agenda by offering free programs for schools and through a social-media-savvy marketing campaign and lobbying. It has raised $70 million since 2013. So far43 states have adopted education policies supporting computer science, Partovi said.

In Pennsylvania, Code.org has hired Bala Cynwyd lobbyist Sean Reilly, who served as political director for former Sen. Rick Santorum. Reilly said Code.org is seeking state funding for computer-science training for teachers. The state has endorsed computer-science standards and now allows those courses to count toward graduation, he said.

Camera icon Paul Morig / AP File
A middle school student shows off her work to Code.org Founder Hadi Partovi at the White House during a coding session in 2014.

Code.org’s critics, however, question whether Silicon Valley should have so much influence over public education.

“Why is Bill Gates concerned about schools? He sees it as another market. He sees students as workers,” said Paul Thomas, an education professor at Furman University and a former high school English teacher. Thomas doubts the value of teaching so narrow a skill as coding.

“It’s better to teach them literacy, numeracy, how to think, how to be critical,” Thomas said, “so then they can kind of adapt to whatever the future requires.”

Lentz and other like-minded parents worry not just about excessive screen time, internet addiction, and data privacy. They ask whether the new courses are being taught too early in the name of workforce development – and at the expense of more fundamental skills, like critical thinking, empathy, and collaboration.

“They should be doing what kids do and not thinking about their careers, when they’re 8 years old, in a field they may not even go into,” said Lentz, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney whose sons are in the first and third grades.

Alison McDowell, a Philadelphia education activist and mother of a high school junior, questions Code.org’s motives.

“They’re pushing it down into really young grades,” she said. “Do we send kids to school so Oracle can pay people less because they have twice as many people for the jobs?”

Partovi, a father of three, describes computer science as a “basic foundation” for current and future jobs, not just in the tech industry but in government, finance, manufacturing, entertainment, and other industries looking to hire technology talent.

“The screen time, I think, is harmful when kids are just watching movies or playing video games,” Partovi said. “But if a student is creating a video game, that’s very different. Taking that away from a student would be like taking a paintbrush away from a student that’s learning to paint.”

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN
First grader Kealen Devore, 6, shows off his progress on a computer programming activity at Ridge Park Elementary School in Conshohocken.

At Ridge Park Elementary School in Conshohocken, 5- and 6-year-olds are introduced to coding through Kodable, an education program with the tagline “Learn to code before you know how to read.” Teacher Brian Adams said such lessons emphasize perseverance, problem-solving, and efficiency.

“I tell them to think logically,” said Adams, who has been using Kodable for four years at the K-3 school. “You’re trying to get from point A to point B. What’s the best way to get there?”

Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine who has researched educational software, noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics has loosened its screen-time guidelines for children, emphasizing instead high-quality programming and parental involvement.

“If your kid is doing something valuable and creative at school and happens to use devices, I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” Ito said.

In the Philadelphia School District, 129 schools have a digital literacy and technology teacher for grades K-8. Students can learn to program a spherical robot called Sphero through a Bluetooth-connected iPad, then use it, for example, to power a model boat or test a model bridge. They have programmed an Ozobot robot to follow a paper map of the Underground Railroad, with colored markers, not a screen.

“We want students to understand coding, but in context with everything that’s going on, because that’s how our world is,” said Luke Bilger, senior project manager in the district’s office of education technology. “Everything you do, there’s some sort of programming involved.

Parent Bob Stewart is taking it a step further, supplementing his 8-year-old daughter’s education at Anne Frank Elementary School with a weeklong robotics camp this month.

“I want her to understand that she can do these types of things,” Stewart said. “I think it’s important, almost like another language. I don’t know where the jobs are going to be in the next 10 or 15 years.”

But demand is also up for no-tech education at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, a small private school in Germantown that teaches children from 24 months until eighth grade – without iPads, Chromebooks, or any screens whatsoever. There is a waiting list for first grade and other programs, according to Alexandra Borders, the school’s director of advancement and enrollment.

“I used to have to explain why we’re a tech-free school,” Borders said. “Now, I find parents are actually searching us out. They get it.”

Several Silicon Valley executives and other tech-industry employees from companies like Apple, Yahoo, and eBay have sent their children to Waldorf schools.

So does Zack Seward, the Philadelphia-based editor-in-chief of  technology news network Technical.ly. His 7-year-old daughter will be entering the first grade at the Kimberton Waldorf School this year and his 4-year-old son will start kindergarten.

“Skills like being present and thinking creatively and imaginative play are so much more important than any technical skills that can be offered at a young age,” Seward said. “It bums me out when I see a kid absorbed in a phone.”

Seedorf, the Lancaster County parent and guidance counselor, has since relented and allows his now-10-year-old daughter to bring her school-issued iPad home to manage her school assignments. But he thinks the “train is moving too fast” when it comes to technology initiatives that are getting schoolchildren online at earlier ages.

“It’s like everyone is caving and accepting this is the new norm,” he said, “and not taking into account what some of the consequences might be.”