Computer programming should qualify as foreign language for UC

In 2002, ten African American and 39 Latino students enrolled and declared a Computer or Information Sciences major at all of the University of California schools. Six years later, eight African American and 25 Latino students graduated with that degree, according to UC’s office of the President. There is clearly an opportunity gap for students of color in computer science.

In Silicon Valley, across California, and around the nation, there is a vast shortage of computer programmers in the tech industry. Tech companies have had to rely on outsourcing their programming needs. Meanwhile, high schools in California and across the country are being chastised for not preparing students, particularly students of color, to be able to major in STEM fields in college – what the need for outsourcing is blamed on. What if a simple change by the UC system could help bridge this gap?

Recently, I took the introductory Rails for Zombies course for Ruby on Rails. Ruby, as it is known, is one of the newest and fastest growing programming languages on the web. I was a double major in college – biology and classical languages – and have always loved learning new languages. That’s all Ruby on Rails is, after all. There is unique vocabulary, confusing punctuation, and alien grammar. Ruby is replete with idioms, synonyms, and shortcuts that only those entrenched in the language understand. It is very much a foreign language.

The UC system should be innovative and grant high school students credit for learning a computer language as their “E” requirement of 2 years of a “Language Other Than English.” All California high school students, in order to be “UC eligible” (a standard supported by most educators in California), must complete a series of courses at their high school deemed the “A-G” requirements.

  • A = 2 years of History/Social Science
  • B = 4 years of English
  • C = 3 years of college prep math (4 recommended)
  • D = 2 years of lab science (3 recommended)
  • E  = 2 years of language other than English (3 recommended)
  • F = 1 year of visual and performing arts
  • G = 1 year of a college prep elective (computer science currently fits in here)

The UC approves high school courses to fit in each of the categories for individual high schools through a process that involves the submission of a detailed course syllabus by each school for each course. Statewide, only 35 percent of students complete a-g requirements upon graduation (by subgroup: Whites: 41 percent, Asians: 59 percent, Latinos: 26 percent, African Americans: 27 percent).

I see the potential of affluent districts rushing to implement a policy such as this while lower-income districts struggle to find the resources (human and technological). In order to ensure that this is fairly and equitably implemented and to monitor its impact, begin it as a pilot program in high schools with the lowest percentages of A-G eligibility. In this way it can tackle three issues together: (1) opportunity and achievement gap; (2) increasing need for computer programmers; (3) the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

Tech companies should then adopt districts and provide them with their slightly used computers expressly for the purpose of teaching computer science. They should also think about dedicating an employee to oversee the program and teach the courses. One teacher/tech employee can reach almost 200 students a year. If that’s not building a diverse pipeline in tech, I don’t know what is. Companies would probably need to release that employee only once or twice a week as online programming courses continue to pop up and the programmer could pop in to provide targeted guidance for the school and students and answer questions remotely. If I’m pushing 40 and can learn Ruby using an online course, I’m sure any 15-year-old can.

Computer Science provides students with marketable skills other languages do not while still providing the same cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language. Empowered with computer science skills, students will see a path forward in college and career in one of the highest paying and fasting growing job sectors.

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute, a San Francisco-based non-profit that promotes innovative approaches to education and the workplace by removing barriers to full participation  by underrepresented groups. He spent the three years before that as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He earned his EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.

This entry was posted in A to G Curriculum, STEM, UC and CSU on by .

About Robert Schwartz

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute. He spent the three years prior as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles, leading the strategic expansion of the academic program from three schools with 500 students to 15 schools with 4,000 students. As the founding principal at ICEF’s flagship high school, the first three classes achieved a 100 percent graduation rate with 97 percent accepted to four-year universities. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He graduated from Binghamton University with degrees in Biology and Classics, and earned his MA in Urban Education Policy and EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.

9 thoughts on “Computer programming should qualify as foreign language for UC

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps

    Rather than replacing foreign language (which many of the Hispanic students do fairly well at), why not reduce the number of English classes?  It is already an unfortunate truth that many English teachers have given up on teaching writing, so that 4 years of English is spent almost entirely on literary analysis, not on skills that will be useful in any field other than literature.
    Allow students to substitute tech writing or creative writing for one of the English classes and allow them to substitute writing computer programs for another.  It would provide a much better college prep than the current A-G requirements!
    See my post at
    http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/death-to-high-school-english-education-salon-com/

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  2. el

    As a computer programmer, I cannot disagree more with your proposal to replace the requirement for a human foreign language with a computer language. Computer languages are not even a shadow of the kind of learning that takes place with a true foreign language – which includes not only syntax and synonyms but whole words and concepts that don’t exist in your own culture, and general lessons in other culture.
     
    Computers have tiny vocabularies and they are very literal. Human languages are full of idiom and nuance and empathy and perspective and their own unique literature – and that is why foreign language is required.

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  3. el

    “Tech companies should then adopt districts and provide them with their slightly used computers …”

    Most schools these days have pretty decent labs of current generation computers. They’re not large, necessarily, but enough to run a computer science class. Schools have become wise to the cost of older, hard to maintain hand-me-down equipment.

    Race To The Top contains a huge amount of money to develop new standardized tests that will be administered via computer (laughably in 2014). Of course, the companion money to ensure those schools have enough computers, IT staff, and bandwidth to actually implement such a plan has not emerged.

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  4. el

    So what I would do instead is to create project-based learning in computer science. There’s no reason EVERY school shouldn’t have a website run by the students.
     
    The best programmers I’ve worked with aren’t necessarily computer science majors. They’re people who like to problem solve and who picked up programming as a tool to solve a problem, then taught themselves the language they needed to implement it. Only then does the formal training of a computer science major really sing.

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  5. Amy

    El, I agree that some of the best programmers are people who like to solve problems and didn’t major in computer science, but I also think that learning how to program teaches you HOW to solve problems.  Nothing quite like designing a piece of code, testing it, and debugging it in real-time to motivate you to take a disciplined approach to solving problems.
    That being said, computer languages change much more rapidly than foreign languages do, and it’s no more a foreign language than Biology is with it’s massive vocabulary, so let’s not confuse the two.  If we want students really prepared for STEM careers, they should be learning both Mandarin and computer science.  Let’s work with the tech companies to help us help them prepare their future workforce.

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  6. GS

    I am so glad to have read your post because it provides a “voice of reason!”  Computer Language does not equal a foreign language in any universe. A computer language is a collaborative tool used among programmers in order to communicate to a compiler to produce machine level code so that a system can operate as the code dictates. A foreign language is required to communicate to another person in a different language to share ideas and experiences that otherwise could not be communicated because of a language barrier between the two persons.
    I have a Computer Engineering degree and I would never recommend this, even though some interesting features are shared among human languages and computer languages its not an indication for equivalency.

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  7. Navigio

    Robert, do you think the reason tech companies are outsourcing coding is due to a lack of coders?
     
    There is also a lot more to computer science than just programming.
     
    I think here is real value to learning a computer language (and once you know one, learning another is usually pretty straightforward). But I could not agree more with what El says about the value of natural languages. If anything, we should be doing both.
     
    This from a dual major linguistics and computer science..  :-)

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