Lawmakers – not Computer Scientists – Send Students Mixed Messages on College Preparation

Washington State Rep. Drew Hansen (D-23rd District) believes that companies looking at his district as a possible location do consider computer science literacy of the local workforce in their decision-making processes. “We have 20,000 open computing jobs in the state right now, and yet our state produces only 1,200 computer science graduates each year. Who is going to fill those jobs?” asked Hansen.

Which is why he and other backers of increased computer science education are encouraged by the passage of HB 1813 in the state of Washington on March 5, 2015.  After nearly two years of bipartisan work, the state adopted “High-quality statewide computer science teaching standards” that “expands scholarship eligibility for educators interested in pursuing professional development in computer science, and directs the creation of a computer science endorsement for educators interested in teaching computer science.”

More movement on the computer science education front came from the Illinois State Board of Education. It issued updated graduation requirements in a February 2015 report as guidance regarding legislation enacted in 2014 (P.A. 98-885 effective Aug. 15, 2014). The law requires a school district “to count toward the state-imposed graduation requirement of three years of mathematics, any credit earned by a student who has successfully completed an Advanced Placement computer science course.” This comes at a time when College Board is updating its AP Computer Science Course for Fall 2016 “to increase the number of students interested in and prepared for success in computer science and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.” The course has been made more rigorous as it “focuses on the innovative aspects of computing, as well as the computational thinking practices that help students see how computing is relevant to many areas of their everyday lives.”

The New Jersey Education Association urged its members to vote “Yes” on New Jersey Senate Bill 2032. The “legislation would require the State Board of Education to develop rigorous guidelines in computer science curriculum at the middle and high school levels that shall be incorporated within existing technology and science core curriculum content standards where appropriate.” Unfortunately, New Jersey does not offer a certification in computer science for its teachers, but “is currently undergoing many changes in curriculum and instruction that may provide an opportunity for the inclusion of computer science principles.” The bill was voted out of committee in September 2014, but is stalled pending further action.

Flexibility in High School Graduation Requirements

But as the landscape for students in Washington shifts toward computer science, other bills in the state and elsewhere promoting the subject may have unintended consequences. Washington State Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-Tumwater) proposed House Bill 1445, which makes computer science or programming count toward foreign language requirements for admission to the state’s colleges. The bill would amend current regulations, which only recognize “any natural language” that is “formally studied.”

Similarly, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia recommended that computer programming courses be eligible to satisfy core graduation requirements—math, science or foreign language—for receiving a high school diploma. In order to make this work, he also recommended that the Board of Regents of the University System in the state “follow suit by accepting these courses for admission into institutions of higher education.”

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of charter schools focused on computer science may not even offer foreign languages. Wasatch Institute of Technology—Utah’s first computer science high school and charter school—requires four credits of math and four credits of computer science to graduate. The courses and graduation page does not even mention foreign language.

Iowa (House Study Bill 580), New Mexico, and Kentucky are also considering similar flexibility on core graduation requirements. Senate Bill 16 in Kentucky passed January 2014, but as of February 2015 was still engrossed or being amended. The bill would “ensure that computer programming language courses be accepted as meeting foreign language requirements for admission to public post-secondary institutions.”

Objections to Alternative Requirements

Groups such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages won’t be pleased with changes in foreign language requirements. “[C]ompared to other nations where nearly all students study a second or third language, the overall picture [for foreign language study in the United States] remains unsatisfactory.” Career Builder lists Information Technology first on its list of career areas where speaking a second or third language increases job opportunities.

This is substantiated by actions at Computer Science university programs. The Center for International Education’s Global Science and Engineering Program recommends a five-year program in which students go abroad to study a foreign language in their fourth year. The institution believes that is necessary to “prepare international leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines with the skills to effectively communicate across borders and cultures and creatively address the complex issues of the future.” Again, the call for substitutions of one critical subject for another does not seem to be coming from computer scientists. 

Computer Scientists Speak Out

The Computer Science Teacher Association calls the move to allow computer science to substitute for a foreign language as simply “A bad idea.” Similarly, many other important voices from the computer science field are quite clear on the need to keep foreign language and mathematics requirements, while adding computer science as a core subject.

Notably, one such voice is from Kentucky where legislature is considering language substitutions. Dr. Christine Shannon,  a Margaret V. Haggin Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Centre College, recently wrote an editorial to spell out her reasons why “the language of computing, the language of cultures [are] not comparable.” Shannon believes that computer science “should not replace the foundational courses in math and science, but perhaps enhance their study.” She stated in a blog post, “I am definitely not an authority on K-12 education, but I am thoroughly convinced that a well taught computer science course belongs in the science and math curriculum as opposed to the language curriculum.”

Graduation Rates at Stake

It is the tandem combination of allowing computer science to fulfill math, science or foreign language that may create ripples for students down the road. They may find themselves limiting their college choices because they do not have the right combination of high school courses to create competitive college applications. For example, Virginia Tech has the motto, “Invent the Future.” That stresses that students “Take as much math as possible” in and “Do well in English.” The best scenario for students is that they invest their time in computer science without cutting other courses, if they hope to be fully prepared for competitive college programs.

Coding and Chinese Recommended

Edutopia, a non-profit founded by George Lucas, takes the position that “Programming is the global language.” Yet “students who speak English and Mandarin are better multi-taskers because they’re used to switching between language structures.” This view is shared by Ravi Gupta, who believes “Kids should learn Chinese and coding.” Gupta is co-founder and managing partner of Republic Charter Schools in Nashville, Tenn. Republic Charter Schools are “free, open enrollment public schools where computer science takes a back seat to nothing.” He definitely wants computer science to be its own requirement and not have to battle with math, science or foreign language for a slot on a student’s schedule.

Evan Ryan York, Director of Computer Programming Instruction at Republic Charter Schools, explains that graduation requirements include “Three years of computer science, two of which are AP (advance placement); four years are strongly encouraged.” Students have “a menu of electives to choose from.”

Academic Pipeline to Careers in Computer Science

For true student success, the path from middle school to college must be filled with rigor. According to a “50 State Analysis” of high school level STEM initiatives, New Mexico’s state policy authorizes districts and charter schools to create core curriculum frameworks in K-6th grades to prepare students for pre-AP and AP offerings in 7th-12th grade. The state is systematically building an “Academic pipeline” for entrepreneurship and STEM careers. Starting with the Class of 2013, students must pass four math courses to graduate high school, an increase compared to the Class of 2012’s three math course requirement. Students who seek admission to the University of New Mexico must have passed four math courses, as well as two foreign language courses (among other subjects) in high school.

Scarce Resources at the Root of the Problem

Why then, are legislators promoting bills that set key disciplines in apparent competition for the attention of high school students?

As with most problems, the reason comes from scarce resources. Besides the need to improve the computer science skills of the workforce by providing students with more options, states are also trying to increase graduation rates. Michigan and other states are watching the graduation rates very closely and champion every improvement cited by the Center for Performance and Information, like the upward trend of the last four years. Texas State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) wants to increase graduation rates and filed a bill to create an “Individual graduation committee” for students who do not pass various tests – Algebra II, chemistry, and physics being tests that students found most difficult. Students may find themselves with a diploma, but lacking the math skills needed for highly skilled technology jobs.

Besides, graduating from high school is definitely not enough to assure a place in higher education. In some places in California, according to the LA Times, colleges are trying to make admission more competitive so fewer students can or will attend. Adding an unfunded mandate for computer science when there are few funds and qualified teachers might actually work to decrease high school graduation rates, an outcome no one wants. But even then, there may not be a place for students who only meet minimum qualifications.

Cooperation is Needed

The fate of American competitiveness may rest in the ability of governors to push coordinated efforts toward a fully prepared, skilled workforce. “In North Carolina, we have recognized the importance of collaboration between technical training, our public schools, our community colleges, our universities, and our Department of Commerce because they all play a vital role in providing skilled labor to businesses across the state,” said North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.

Sacrificing one important aspect of education for another is a major concern and issue. According to Michael Tempe of the Logo Foundation,  it’s like asking whether a school “should teach math or serve kids lunch.”