comp codeThe Virginia legislature, with the encouragement of, just passed a bill that would require computer science to be added to the state’s K-12 learning standards. Specifically the bill says “computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding” should be emphasized in each district’s program of instruction. Virginia is the first state to pass legislation focused on teaching coding, but it is being promoted in other states as well, such as Arkansas, California, Rhode Island,and New York. There is no doubt that computer coding is important, as technology is enhancing or supplanting basic human functions. The potential for coding to transform our experience is tremendous.

Take a look at this TED talk by a graphic artist at Pixar who talks about her combined love of math, science and graphic arts and how they all came together to produce movies like Finding Nemo.

Danielle Feinberg: The Science of Light

How very inspiring to young children who have been raised on CGI movies that are approaching the realism of Diego Velázquez , Giacomo Ceruti and Eilif Peterssen. For them, the light cycle sequence in the 1982 movie Tron  is akin to the cave paintings in Lascaux France. Toy Story is a quaint antique. And the coders aren’t done tweaking their craft to be as close to the real world as possible, or maybe even better than.

Until now that work, writing individual lines of code to create the 3D graphics we see, has been tedious and time consuming. But as each barrier to perfection is broken, using math, physics, anatomy and the natural sciences,  line coding becomes common boiler plate, loaded into larger software packages, much like the coding running behind your operating system which allows you to do all kinds of things on a computer without having to actually understand how the computer does those things. The coders don’t handle individual lines of code, they combine preset sequences. They let the computer do the hours of rendering by itself.

In the computer world of Silicon Valley, coders are very important, but they are not at the top of the food chain. There is a class system that prefers graduates from Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA and MIT. These graduates may start out coding but they are headed for project management, concept marketing and systems analysts positions. True coders are a commodity. The UCLA graduates check their work, they don’t sit and write code.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for the skilled computer programming industry, which was at 328,600 professionals in 2014, to decline 8 percent, which should result in a loss of 26,500 jobs between 2014 and 2024. Many jobs in this profession are being outsourced to other countries where pay is lower, saving companies money.

With Silicon Valley’s tunnel vision towards selection of candidates from a limited higher ed pool and basic coding being sent over seas, it is hard to fathom why entire states would entertain mandatory coding training for all students, starting in kindergarten.

Every time we add something new to the mandatory curriculum, if we are responsible, we also require people trained in that subject to teach it. That means more training and certification for all our education degree candidates and more in-service professional development for our teachers.

Computer language is not a relatively static content area like math or earth science. It continues to evolve. We have gone from Fortran (1957), to Cobol (1959), to Basic (1964), to C (1972) and C++ (1980),  on to Java and Delphi (1995), Groovy (2003), and most recently Swift (2014) and Rust (2015) with many other languages in between.  If the technology continues changing as rapidly as it has been, that means a lot of training to keep up with the latest industry knowledge. The coding language being used when a child enters kindergarten may have been superseded as many as 20 times by the time he/she graduates. The best schools might be able to do is to teach the basic concept of coding without getting hung up in the specific protocol of a specific language.

The governor of Virginia is expected to sign the bill. How districts incorporate this requirement into their instructional program will, for now, be up to them. This will not be a simple little addition to the existing ever expanding curriculum and, with job prospects looking less promising as time goes on, it is hard to see districts spending much time on such a specific requirement that benefits a specific industry.

To be fair, the more mundane uses of coding like in web design, robotics, and industrial processes means more call for people with these skills, in fields other than just the visual arts. The last two areas, however, also bode poorly for other Americans.  More and more coding jobs will be going over seas to create automated processes that will further reduce jobs for very low skilled Americans. Most of the children trained in coding will not be able to get a job in that industry and if they do, because everyone has been trained, the salaries they could command will be very low.

Go ahead and expose children to coding. Have them try writing programs to understand the basic idea of how it works and teach them what it is like to have a career doing this. Sure. But mastery of any particular coding being a requirement for graduation? We’re not there yet, but you can see it coming. We’re going to need nurse practitioners too so, should we train everyone to use a sphygmomanometer and require they pass basic anatomy? And then there is great demand for over the road truck drivers so should we have everyone study for the Class A CDL test? What happens when those jobs give way to self driving trucks as they are in Europe?  It’s easy to see how gearing our basic education system towards being a job preparation program can become very difficult very quickly. Once government panders to one business sector, can others not be far behind? We should be very careful about statewide requirements for training in any specific job skill. Our crystal ball of centralized workforce planning may not be as clear as we think.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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