Putting Education Reform To The Test

Where Should Programming Fit Into Florida School Requirements?

Students at the CodeNow workshop in Miami learned to program simple games, such as asking users to quickly match words and colors.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Students at the CodeNow workshop in Miami learned to program simple games, such as asking users to quickly match words and colors.

Lots of people think teaching students computer programming is a good idea. But where coding fits in schools is a difficult question.

Is it a science? A language? Career training?

Florida lawmakers proposed, but did not approve, letting students substitute coding for foreign language or physical education courses required for a high school diploma. The idea is also tucked into the education plan of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

Students can use computer science or programming to replace a math or science requirement, but not for math courses higher than Algebra 1, nor science courses such as biology, chemistry or physics.

So where does programming fit? And does it squeeze out other subjects?

“It’s a really interesting debate,” said Ryan Seashore, founder of CodeNow, a group which holds coding camps in Miami and other cities. “You can look at whether it’s a science, whether it’s a foreign language or whether it’s like an elective. But for me, it’s however we can get it into schools. Wherever it fits. Wherever you have the talent. All that matters is getting it in front of these kids.”

A bigger problem, Seashore said, is finding folks with coding experience willing to teach.

It’s why CodeNow has focused on weekend sessions outside of school, so they can bring in working programmers.

“It’s such a highly sought after skill that if you have a (computer science) degree,” Seashore said, “you can easily go get a really well-paying job. It can fit anywhere in school, it’s just finding the talent.”

Few argue that coding isn’t an important subject. But many advocates say just because programming is a hot industry right now, it shouldn’t be considered more important than other subjects.

Foreign language teachers argue coding is more a math skill than a language skill, and shouldn’t replace foreign languages. Some languages — Chinese or Arabic — are also highly sought after by employers.

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle thinks students should learn to code and thinks it should be required to earn the new scholar designation on a high school diploma or to get a Bright Futures college scholarship.

But he wants to make sure programming isn’t emphasized over other sciences. Computer scientists will need physicists and others to develop new computing breakthroughs.

“The biggest mistake the Code.org people are doing is basically cannibalizing the physical sciences,” Cottle said, referring to one of the largest nonprofit efforts to teach programming.

Lawmakers listened and made sure students couldn’t exchange the highest-level math and science courses for computer programming. But lawmakers told Cottle they’re also concerned about adding more requirements in order to graduate high school.

Florida requires students to take eight elective courses to graduate high school. Lawmakers should add a programming or computer science requirement, Cottle said, and reduce the number of electives.

“Coding or math or science is really a false choice,” he said.


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