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Coding as a second language? Kentucky jockeys to be next to join the movement

New legislation in Kentucky may soon allow computer programming to count as a high school foreign language credit.

 
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Students around the world participated in Code.org's "Hour of Code" in December 2013.
Image: Code.org
 Spanish, French, Latin, or computer programming? Kentucky high school students may have an additional choice of foreign language after a proposed bill passed 10-1 through the Senate Education Committee last week. Kentucky is one of several states to move forward in this legislation amid a national campaign to make computer science more widely accessible to students.

New Mexico proposed a similar bill this week, and Texas implemented a version of it last year. Oklahoma public schools already allow students to take computer technology courses in place of a foreign language.

An influential player in the movement to bring computer science courses to schools is the nonprofit Code.org, which offers coding tutorials for people to use at home or in the classroom. The company aims to expand participation and education in computer sciences by making it available in more schools across the nation and to underrepresented students such as minorities and women.

"Our main policy goal is to make computer science count as a math or science credit," said Roxanne Emadi, grassroots strategist for Code.org. According to her, 33 out of 50 states don't even allow computer science to count as anything but an elective course.

According to a 2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, of 12 technical subjects, computer science was the only one to decrease in popularity from 1990 to 2009.

The alliance of companies and tech leaders working to teach programming earlier in the high school curriculum was one of Sen. David Givens' biggest inspirations for the Kentucky bill. Givens said that by the time students have the opportunity to take computer programming electives, they are close to graduating, distracted, and past the point of benefiting fully from the courses. He added that it offers flexibility for schools in addition to opening student opportunities.

"Foreign language teachers are limited," he said. "By adding a computer programming option, an accredited math teacher can pick up that credential and help with the overflow of students that need language credits instead of searching for a foreign language teacher."

The fact that these numbers are lagging affects state and national economies. Federal labor data shows that companies need to fill 150,000 math and computer science-related jobs across the United States every year. In Kentucky, about 5,500 new math and computer-science jobs open up each year, and this continues to be the fastest-growing field in the state.

According to the Kentucky Bureau of Labor's 2013 statistics, the average annual salary for web developers is about $52,000; the average for computer programmers is about $64,000. However, the starting salaries in Louisville—the state's most urban community—is roughly $40,000 a year for web developers and high 40s for software engineers, according to hiring managers that prefer to remain off-the-record.

Enter Senate Bill 16, the brainchild of Sen. Givens, a Republican from Greensburg, Kentucky. The bill is now on the Senate floor and will most likely be voted on later this week, he said. He has not yet spoken with House Education Chairman Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, about passing the bill through the House.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel, a Democrat from Louisville, was the only member who opposed the measure. She could not be reached for comment.

Some may view foreign language instruction as a blameless victim in this scenario. Foreign language programs across the nation have been waning in recent years. Over the last decade, foreign language instruction in elementary and middle schools decreased dramatically, and more than a quarter of both report a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers. Only 18 percent of Americans report being able to speak a language other than English, Secretary of Education Anne Duncan reported in 2010. These statistics show that in our increasingly globalized society, American students may already be at a disadvantage.

Code.org, which works with school districts around the nation to implement computer science programs that appeal to students and teachers, advocates for these computer programming courses to count as a math or science credit.

"We advocate for more of that rather than replacing it as a foreign language," Emadi said. "[Foreign languages] are important, too."

Kentucky students must earn 22 credits to graduate high school, though 15 of those are requirements for math, science, English, and social studies. After two foreign language courses, that leaves five elective credits that most high school students put off until senior year, according to Givens.

Computer science is the outlier of math and science subjects, said Joanne Lang, executive director for AdvanceKentucky, which is a math-science initiative associated with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation that works to expand advance placement programs in schools.

In the state, students can opt to take AP computer science as a fourth-year math elective. But even though the option is available, schools don't view it as a priority and students don't take advantage of it because there are no clear feeder courses that lead students into it, she said.

"That's the crux of the issue and what that bill focuses on," Lang said. "We have to do something, and we need every avenue we can get to do this."

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Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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