High School Math, Science, and Foreign Languages: At Risk from Computer Coding?

Mar 30, 2017

Pembroke Pines sixth grader Ethan Greenberg traveled to Tallahassee last month to testify before the education committee of the Florida Senate about a bill he thinks can help him land his dream job. “I love Nintendo,” he said. “I want to become a game programmer for Nintendo.” 

He thinks it could help a lot of kids find a path into one of the best-paid and fastest-growing sectors in the economy. “Currently, there are about 22,000 computing jobs in Florida alone. Also, there are only 2000 computer science graduates,” he said.

 


Senate Bill 104 and its companion in the House, HB 265, are both designed to give students and their schools incentives to embrace computer science skills starting in high school.  They direct the Florida Department of Education to select computer coding courses rigorous enough to earn credits in a range of other subjects—including foreign languages, in the case of the senate bill, or math and science, in the House version—that would help them gain admission to Florida’s public colleges and universities.

ROBBING PETER TO PAY PAUL?

Florida State University (FSU) physics professor Paul Cottle compared the bills’  approach to saving money on the house by skimping on the foundation. “We’re trying to convince students and parents that this is a step they can skip,” he said, referring to high school science and math courses students might pass up in favor of learning coding. “The crazy thing about that is, if you want to be a computer scientist, it turns out you need to learn a lot of math and physics,” he said.

AP computer science is the most rigorous course currently available at the high school level in Florida. As it stands, Cottle points out, even students who pass that class and go on to major in the subject in college have to start from scratch in FSU’s computer science department. 

FSU Physics professor Paul Cottle likened the bills' approach to promoting computer coding to saving on a house by skimping on the foundation.
Credit Paul Cottle / FSU

He believes coding classes are unlikely to form a bridge to STEM jobs without a more robust effort to improve traditional math and science instruction at the K-12 level.

"What you need to do is reach out to parents, students, teachers, and principals, and just tell them how important this is: Make the sale," says  Cottle, pointing out that enrollment in high school physics in Bay County has doubled since he began outreach work there last year.

Florida law already lets kids get high school math and science credits for computer science classes that come with an industry certification.

Cameron Wilson, Chief Operating Officer of the group Code.org, says that’s a good example of how computer science often gets misunderstood. “Industry certifications [are] usually about using software in the workspace,” he said.  “Photo editing software, movie editing software. That’s really about IT literacy, not computer science.” 

Wilson’s group supports some other measures in the house bill, like identifying teachers trained to teach computer science and spot gaps in the computer science curriculum. 

Advocates for foreign language education scored a victory when specific references to foreign language instruction were stripped from the house version of the bill earlier this week. But, says Eric Dwyer, who teaches foreign language education at Florida International University (FIU), “not enough to alleviate people’s concerns” that schools will use coding to supplant language instruction. The revised version of the bill states:

“The committee’s recommendations must identify:

a. High school courses in computer science, including computer coding and computer programming, identified by university faculty as having sufficient rigor that they may be used to satisfy specified State University System admissions requirements, including requirements for mathematics and science.”

That, argues Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a  longtime advocate of bilingual education, “does not remove the danger to foreign language programs or the risks for our students' higher education aspirations. ‘INCLUDING’ does not mean  ‘LIMITED TO,’ she wrote in an email this week.

LEGISLATING UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS

The nod to the role of university faculty came thanks to behind-the-scenes advocacy by the Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida—the original language left the task of identifying courses that would meet admissions standards to FLDOE. 

“We met with Senator Brandes this morning, and he is open to ideas on how to make [SB 104] better,”  Renee Fargason, Assistant Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Board of Governors (BOG)  wrote in a February 6 email to colleagues obtained by WLRN. The beginning of the legislative session around the corner, she wrote, the BOG had “a very quick turnaround time to come up with some language we can live with.”

When a similar bill was introduced last year, staffers in the Florida House worried it might infringe on the role of the BOG, which, they noted, has the “constitutional responsibility to govern admissions to [State University System] SUS institutions, as confirmed by the SUS Governance Agreement and in statute.” No similar analysis of the impact has been done this year.

 

Staff analysis done in 2016 for HB 887, legislation designed to encourage more computer coding instruction in Florida schools.

“Lawmakers want to get into the nitty gritty of what constitutes a college degree,” said Tom Harnisch, Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, noting that it’s not uncommon for legislatures to seek more control over academic affairs at public universities. He worries that legislation that addresses university admissions makes it so that political leaders, rather engineering or computer science faculty, for example, are shaping college degrees. That said, added, “University officials need to be careful not to alienate state lawmakers because they ultimately write the checks.”

 

It can be very problematic once you open the door for a legislator to begin mandating curricula,” said Jason Lane, a professor at the School of Education and the State University of New York at Albany, “because then you have to ask, ‘where does it stop?’”

 

Lane says lawmakers around the country have been seeking legislative fixes to what many see as a ‘return on investment’ problem with college programs that don’t prepare students for a 21st century jobs. That pressure has been compounded in some cases by corporations who no longer provide the robust job training they did in the past. Regardless, he says, evidence shows that “Higher education is still one of the single best investments you can make over the course of a lifetime.”