States could allow students to learn coding instead of foreign languages

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First published on the Education Week Curriculum Matters blog

By Jackie Zubrzycki

Michigan is the latest state to consider allowing students to replace required foreign language classes with computer coding classes.

The state House of Representatives voted earlier this week to approve a bill that would allow students to take three credits of computer, arts, or career technology training instead of a foreign language in order to graduate.

Proponents argued for the billwhich has not yet been passed by the State Senate, would give students more flexibility in choosing their courses.

This isn’t the first time a state has claimed that computer code is an appropriate substitute for a foreign language in high school. Texas passed a law in 2013, it allowed some students to use computer coding to meet their foreign language requirements, and Kentucky and New Mexico considered similar bills around this time.

In Montana, a bill currently on the table would put computer science, or coding, classes in every high school and allow them to count towards a foreign language requirement.

In Florida, the legislature considered a bill earlier this year that would have required state colleges to accept coding credits in lieu of foreign language credits for incoming freshmen. This bill had the backing of tech companies and was backed by Florida Senator Jeremy Ring, a Democrat and former Yahoo employee, who said coding would be a great equalizer for students in the state. But civil rights groups, including the Hispanic American League Against Discrimination, have denounced the bill, saying it would deprive students of essential language skills. The bill passed the state senate but died before becoming law.

The White House has supported schools and states that want to expand the role of computing in schools, offering $4 billion to states for computer programming under a “computers for all initiative.” launched earlier this year.

But advocates of computing and foreign language teaching have raised red flags about the confusion of computer language and human language.

“A global language course helps you connect with people around the world that you can relate to because you speak the language and understand the culture,” said Marty Abbot, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign. Language, in an interview. “It’s a completely different end result than what you find with computer coding.”

“We don’t see the connection at all,” she said. “We are concerned about this tendency to equate computer coding with learning a global language.”

Abbot said about 17 states require students to take a foreign language to graduate (other states require it for certain types of degrees or have state universities that require two years of language for admission) , so the ACTFL is wary of any effort to water down these requirements. About 20 states do not even collect data on the number of students taking world language courses.

Computing proponents have also taken issue with the argument that coding equates to a global language: In 2014, Amy Hirotaka, head of state policy and advocacy for Code.org, wrote an article blog saying that computing is not just about learning to code, and that coding is more related to math and science than world languages. A number of states allow computer courses count as a credit in math or science.

Computer science courses are becoming more common, but the debate over what they should teach has also grown. Should we focus on theory or practice? Imitate the work of computer scientists or introduce students to the basics? A recent report argues that computing should be taught as a basic science, not just as a set of codes and activities. As more states and lawmakers take an interest in coding, chances are we haven’t seen the last of the arguments that computer code is a language.

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