Special Report

Is Coding the New Second Language?

Kids may know their way around a computer, but in order to get a job in the new economy, they will have to know how to write a program, not just use one

Writing code is similar to giving commands, says one software engineer to his young students. “The computer can’t know what you don’t tell it.” (© Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/Corbis)

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To be sure, computer science is thriving in some high schools. On the west coast, the High Tech High Schools (their slogan: “You can play video games at HTH, but only if you make them here”), the brand new Academy for Software Engineering in New York City and selective high schools in major cities throughout the nation have a strong CS curriculum. But those schools are the exceptions rather than the rule. Most high schools haven’t figured out what a solid computer science curriculum should look like, who should teach it and which students should take the courses.

Part of the problem is that while industry titans and economists say computer skills are central to our economic viability, computer science is marginalized by high school administrators. Only nine states have made computer science courses count as a graduation requirement. In the majority of high schools computer science is considered an elective—like home economics or shop. For many kids who are keeping their eye on college, computer science is an afterthought.

Schools that offer computer science often restrict enrollment to students with a penchant for math and center the coursework around an exacting computer language called Java. And students frequently follow the Advanced Placement Computer Science curriculum developed by the College Board—a useful course but not for everyone. “What the computer science community has been slow to grasp is that there are a lot of different people who are going to need to learn computer science, and they are going to learn it in a lot of different ways,” says Mark Guzdial, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of the well-respected Computer Education blog, “and there are a lot of different ways people are going to use it, too. ”

Over the next five years, with support from the National Science Foundation, an equally rigorous but more wide-ranging and widely applicable course called “Exploring Computer Science” is expected to take a place beside AP computer science. It’s about time, says Guzdial. “Giving students a course that will provide them with the computer skills they need—not to become a programmer but to easily interface with computers in their own fields, “ he believes, will help stoke flagging enthusiasm for the subject by appealing to a broader range of high school students and align education with useful career-centered computer skills.

Getting different kinds of computer science classes in high schools may be particularly effective in widening a field dominated by white and Asian men and getting more students of color to develop computer skills.  In a survey of 1400 Georgia college students enrolled in introductory computer science classes, Guzdial found that 44 percent of the students who come from underrepresented communities (Black, Hispanic, Native American or multi-racial) had taken some computer science in high school, compared to 27 percent of the white students. White students, it seems, were more likely to take a risk and sign up for a college level course in a subject that had only heard about.  If you want to encourage a more diverse workforce in computer science, he says, “Early experience counts.”

But hurdles remain. As it is, schools struggle to find qualified teachers to instruct students in AP computer science courses. Finding educators to teach Exploring Computer Science will be a formidable task. Adults who have computer skills readily command salaries that are double those of a starting teacher. Computer whizzes with a yen to teach also face Kafka-eque certification requirements.  (For example, there are states that require computer science teachers to take a “methods” course in computer science but then have teacher colleges that don’t offer such a course.)

Dr. Chris Stephenson, executive Director at the Computer Science Teachers Association, says ultimately it’s up to parents to lobby principals and school boards to invest in the kind of rigorous, wide-ranging instruction students need. But first, she says, parents need to understand just how little their kids know. Most parents, she says, wrongly assume their children “know about computers” because they are so adept at using technology. “But being a consumer of technology—using a device—is using someone else’s code. What we need for tomorrow is students who know how to adapt computers to their own use and for their own interests,” says Stephenson.

Back in Harlem, Cristo Rey junior Byron Acosta says that while he enjoys learning code, he won’t major in computer science in college. He plans to study political science or history and with luck, end up as a lawyer. “By the time I get to be a lawyer, you may need some computer science skills.” If that happens, he wants to be ready.

Peg Tyre is a journalist and the best selling author of two books about education, The Trouble WIth Boys and The Good School. She is also director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation, which invests in organizations that get low income kids to and through college.


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