Five reasons to question mandatory computer science

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants Indiana to be the first state in the country to make studying computer science a requirement for high-school graduation. Here are reasons to be skeptical:

It’s an extreme idea. No other state makes computer science a diploma requirement, according to Jennifer Zinth, high school and STEM director for the Education Commission of the States. (Mississippi requires one unit of computer science or technology; Utah requires a semester of “digital studies.”) As far as I can tell, the primary supporters of tech education are not seriously proposing it.

The big national push for more computer science in the schools is coming from Code.org, an advocacy group backed with more than $60 million from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other powerhouse donors. Its goals include having all public schools offer computer science and to allowing computer science courses to count toward high-school math and science graduation requirements.

Thanks to savvy marketing and celebrity support from the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama, it’s had some success. But Code.org doesn’t advocate making computer science a requirement graduation, co-founder Hadi Partovi says.

There’s only so much room in the curriculum. Indiana’s Core 40 diploma requires students to complete three years of math and three years of science. Colleges increasingly expect an academic honors diploma, which means four years of math and additional requirements. Depending on their high school’s schedule, students may have trouble fitting in electives or exploring arts, music or careers.

Would computer science replace an existing requirement or would it be an add-on? If it replaced a current requirement, would fewer students study physics, chemistry, art or other worthwhile subjects?

Adding graduation requirements seems to clash with Indiana’s initiative to move to a system of high school “graduation pathways.” The initiative, pushed by chamber, is supposed to give students more flexible options for earning a diploma. Adding required courses means less flexibility.

The future of work keeps changing. Five years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that jobs for computer programmers would increase by 12 percent over the next decade. Now it projects they will decline by 8 percent. Jobs in most computer-related fields are still expected to grow, but only a couple – software developers and information security analysts – will grow much faster than average.

Code.org claims Indiana currently has over 4,000 open jobs in computer-related fields. But most require at least a bachelor’s degree. Taking a computer science class in high school may spark students’ interest, but it’s not likely to qualify them for jobs that tech companies are trying to fill.

This will cost money. Course materials will have to be developed. Teachers will have to be recruited, trained and paid at a time when schools are struggling to hire qualified math and science teachers.

Code.org recognizes this, with its statement that goals for teaching computer science should be carried out “with an appropriate implementation timeline and financial resources.” Gov. Eric Holcomb seems to recognize it with his plan to fund professional development for teachers while requiring schools to offer at least one computer science class by 2021. But will the legislature recognize it? Its recent history is to spend less, not more, on public education.

Schools don’t exist to serve business. Historian Johann Neem says American public schools were established to educate citizens, develop students’ potential and unite a diverse nation. But recent years have seen a shift to the idea that schools should train workers. This way of thinking isn’t new, but it’s gotten more insistent thanks to the clout of the tech industry.

As New York Times reporter Natasha Singer shows in the excellent series “Education Disrupted,” Silicon Valley corporations are playing a sophisticated game in which they not only push schools to train their workforce but exploit schools as a lucrative market for products.

“They have the power to change policy, but no corresponding check on that power,” University of Michigan professor Megan Tompkins-Stange tells the Times. “It does subvert the democratic process.”

If there’s to be any check on that power, it will have to come from parents, teachers and other citizens paying attention to what’s done in their local schools and at the Statehouse. The 2018 Indiana legislative session starts in early January. This issue and others will bear watching.

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