National standards are critical to get cybersecurity education to more kids

Without national standards, there is huge variation between what one school and a district in another state may be teaching students at the same level.
By: | April 28, 2021
Janet Hartkopf is the Cyber Program Director at Basha High School in Arizona.

Janet Hartkopf is the Cyber Program Director at Basha High School in Arizona.

With millions of children across the country learning online, schools have been a top target of cyber-attacks this year. A report from The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center indicates that during 2020 there were more than 400 school cybersecurity incidents including student and staff data breaches, ransomware and phishing attacks, malware outbreaks. This uptick in cyberattacks on education infrastructure makes now a critical time for increased cybersecurity education at all levels.

At the same time, the U.S. can’t fill roles in cybersecurity fast enough, leading to a growing cybersecurity workforce shortage expected to reach 1.8 million open jobs globally by 2022. Filling the pipeline requires building skills and interest in cybersecurity starting as early as kindergarten.

But a recent report on the state of cybersecurity education in K-12 schools provides a sobering look at the lack of cybersecurity knowledge and skills among school-age children. Less than 50% of students have access to cybersecurity education today. Much more needs to be done to ensure equal access to K-12 cybersecurity education across the country. It is critical that we develop and adopt national standards to get K-12 cybersecurity into more classrooms. These standards would ensure that cybersecurity curriculum would be adopted by more states and implemented into the classrooms of the next generation of cyber talent.

In my role as the Cyber Program Director at Basha High School, I am responsible for introducing cybersecurity curriculum at our school. But without national standards, there is huge variation between what our school and a district in another state may be teaching students at the same level. For example, we offer a dual enrollment pathway that includes classes in networking, Linux, and skills needed for the Security+ exam. Another school in the area may offer hardware/software classes, one class in networking, or an overarching class called “cybersecurity.” Students leave these various programs with differing foundational levels of cybersecurity knowledge.

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Standards are key to unifying the curriculum. Without them, we can’t ensure that all students are receiving equal access to the same cybersecurity curriculum. This is why I chose to partner with CYBER.ORG, other educators and key industry partners to develop the first national cybersecurity standards for K-12 education. Cybersecurity standards provide a great foundation for districts interested in standing up a cybersecurity program without any idea of where to start. These standards will be instrumental in increasing the number of districts across the country offering cybersecurity programs. For me, this has provided an opportunity to be part of something bigger than just my corner of the country, as they will have a national impact for years to come.

While the standards are still in development and state departments of education must decide whether to adopt them, teachers and districts can work to increase their cybersecurity confidence and incorporate cybersecurity into existing lessons. Teachers can get involved in cybersecurity by attending conferences or professional development events. CYBER.ORG also offers free cybersecurity curriculum for students in grades K-12. With the confidence in teaching cyber courses through available resources, teachers may feel more comfortable incorporating this curriculum in additional courses and building foundational knowledge with students.

Our networks are only as strong as our weakest link. If the six-year-old son of the CEO of a major corporation playing on his dad’s laptop clicks on a phishing link, hackers can gain access to the company’s network. One innocent act can open up a world of vulnerabilities for the employee, the corporation, and potentially the federal government.

We must create a foundation of cybersecurity awareness, hygiene, and digital safety as early as kindergarten. Giving young students this baseline knowledge can make them more aware of potential vulnerabilities in their own networks and encourage them to pursue cybersecurity careers. This could have a profound impact on our pipeline of cybersecurity talent, our national security and the future trajectory of our student’s livelihoods.

Janet Hartkopf is the Cyber Program Director at Basha High School in Arizona. She has more than 13 years of experience as an educator and is currently involved in developing National Cybersecurity Standards through an initiative at CYBER.ORG.

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