Au revoir French class? Coding could replace foreign languages

by: Amanda Claire Curcio|Tallahassee Democrat

November 17, 2015

Often, when she is thinking, she’s thinking in French; if she could, she would breathe in French. Everything is lovelier when spoken in French, too — even dreaded subjects like math. To Leon High School senior Jamilah Mitchell, learning the Romance language for the last four years has unlocked a world replete with opportunities.

But if approved, legislation filed last month would limit students’ options of delving deeper into world languages by altering the requirements for the Bright Futures academic scholarship program, which funds tuition at public colleges and universities in Florida.

Students would need to complete two years of computer programming, instead of fulfilling the current two-year foreign language criteria — potentially supplanting the study of foreign languages in school, educators worry.

The bill also mandates that school districts draft proposals to include coding classes in every high school by January 2017, likely overhauling staffing plans and costing districts training dollars.

The underlying aim of SB 468 — introduced by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Parkland, former executive at Yahoo!, and backed by Republican leaders — is to encourage more high school graduates to pursue computer science in college, remedying the shortage of trained professionals in the field. There is no companion House bill yet and SB 468 has been assigned three committee stops. In 2014, similar legislation died.

Ring later clarified that he intended to afford students another option in meeting the foreign language requirement in Bright Futures — students who opt to take two years of French would not have to enroll in coding, for instance. However, the bill’s language states that two credits of coding courses would be “required” for students who wish to be eligible for the scholarship.

‘Ill-informed and burdensome’

For students like Jamilah — she has no interest in coding, but is also studying Korean and endeavors to learn five languages — the bill only poses obstacles.

“When I am speaking French, I am just happy,” said Jamilah. “Language is an art; language is a smile, but done through spoken communication.

“I wouldn’t be excited about taking a coding class,” she added, shaking her head. “At all.”

While some state schools, like Florida State University, could be willing to tweak its foreign language requirements — “in certain cases,” said Hege Ferguson, a representative from the admissions office — students who are attending private or out-of-state schools could be at a disadvantage if coding is promoted over foreign language, because those institutions do not have any obligation to alter admissions criteria. A majority of colleges and universities require at least two years of foreign language in high school.

Local teacher union representatives view the bill as “another ill-informed and burdensome” educational initiative needlessly thrust upon districts by lawmakers.

“Once again, the legislation is putting things into place that place restrictions on teachers, students and the overall joy of learning,” said David Worrell, president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association. “There’s a responsibility to ensure that students are prepared for the future, but eliminating the requirement for foreign language is absurd. If anything, students should be focused more on learning languages.”

Not only will kids be unprepared for a global economy, Worrell said, but the bill could eventually jeopardize any number of the 36 foreign language teachers’ jobs at Leon County Schools.

District officials do not expect teacher layoffs in the “immediate future” though, said Randy Pridgeon, LCS divisional director of secondary schools, since many students may opt to take both electives. If colleges begin to accept coding instead, he hypothesized, an eventual decrease in foreign language teaching positions is probable.

If the bill passes, LCS will gauge student enrollment through course surveys conducted in the spring prior to the upcoming school year when the coding requirements would begin, Pridgeon explained. Legislators did not specify which type of programming language, such as C, Python or Java, would be implemented.

The biggest challenge, added Pridgeon, would be hiring qualified coding teachers because they would need to earn requisite education certifications.

Programmers earn a significantly higher salary in the private sector and “retooling” current teachers would cost money. Specifications of computers would have to be adjusted to run instructional coding programs.

Despite expected costs, there aren’t any provisions included in SB 468 that would give LCS more resources associated with this transition.

“I would not suggest making this a legislative priority,” Pridgeon concluded.

A utilitarian approach to education

In recent years, Gov. Rick Scott and legislators have backed Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education initiatives — as a better use of tax dollars to prepare students for rapidly expanding fields, or those that are expected to emerge in the future, they explained.

Some educators say more technical STEM activities “level the playing field” for students who don’t perform well in more traditional classes, like foreign language. Mayor Andrew Gillum, for instance, has already launched the Google CS First program, a coding initiative that exposes students to computer science curriculum, at Cobb Middle School last month.

“With coding, and STEM, students can see how many opportunities can go beyond college and how they play out in workforce and vocational areas,” said Stu Greenberg, LCS chief academic officer. “This unlocks the entrepreneurship of students and triggers creativity and synergy to move kids forward.”

In the U.S., there are 586,982 available computing jobs, but only 38,175 graduates with a degree in computer science, according to code.org, a nonprofit that advocates to increase access to computer science. This gap is expected to widen; by 2020, there will be 1.4 million open computing positions, but only 400,000 computer science students, statistics suggest.

Critics contend this practice of assigning a utilitarian value to learning can be destructive to students.

“Computers are useful, essential tools that enhance students’ learning opportunities, but it cannot replace a course where students are making human connections,” said Colette Clarke, a French teacher at Leon High. “That’s the only thing we say matters — is STEM or something STEM-related? You can’t put students behind a computer and say this is your only accomplishment.”

Clarke says foreign language classes also prepare students in bridging cultural divides — going beyond multilingual skills, such as vocabulary and grammar.  Students are provided a lens to outside traditions, values, food, music, arts and sports of people who “are just like us who live in other countries,” she said.

As a result, students become more empathetic and diplomatic — evidenced during cultural exchanges the school hosts for dozens of French students every year. This cannot happen in a computer class, she asserted.

Professionals in the computer science field say students can receive this sort of cultural enrichment from other classes, like history or English Language Arts, but still disagree with lawmakers’ attempts to make coding mandatory in lieu of foreign language for Bright Futures.

Most programmers, said Michael Viscontini, Chiles High graduate and developer at Canopy Software, can skip college and be successful, so “it doesn’t make much sense” to make it a scholarship requirement. Foreign language is something you need to get into college, but that isn’t the case with computer science.

Viscontini, 27, was an anthropology major at Florida State University until the program was slashed due to budget shortfalls. He decided to leave school and found a job coding. A lot of his expertise stems from on the job training, although he had enrolled in a handful of computer science courses at FSU.

While Viscontini maintains that coding is structurally similar to a language — “it has its own syntax, its own semantic meaning and overall organized structure” — he says students should be able to choose, based on their interests.

“You are potentially short-handing those who are more inclined to do well in languages,” he said. “Instead of arguing one or the other, why not recognize the merit in both fields? You want more people in school, not less.”

read full article here. 

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