In Brief
New legislation could pave the way for coding to have a permanent place in the classroom. But should it be considered a language or categorized with the sciences?

Everyone knows the 3 “R’s”— reading, writing, and arithmetic. Well, Florida lawmakers are debating adding another cornerstone to that list: Coding.

The proposal allows students to swap the two foreign language courses required by the state’s high schools for classes in programming languages such as JavaScript and Python.

The measure, championed by a former Yahoo executive turned state senator, would let students substitute traditional foreign language studies for courses in coding, often seen as key skill in an increasingly technological era.

“This is a global language today,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring (D) of Margate, the bill’s sponsor, at a hearing on Wednesday. “Computers and programming have become part of our global culture.”

The Coding Debate

Some Florida residents agree with the initiative. The lawmakers wouldn’t be getting rid of a language requirement, they would simply be changing the way we look at what is considered a language.

“You can translate languages across the Internet through coding, but you can’t do that without coding,” says Brooke Stewart, a 16-year-old sophomore in Tampa. Stewart says she would be interested in exchanging foreign languages for courses in JavaScript or Python, which she has used to design computer games.

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Not everyone is quite as welcoming, though.

“You said that no existing language will be replaced. My experience is when you require something, something is going to fall out, no matter what it is,” Florida Sen. Bill Montford, (D) of Tallahassee, a former teacher and district superintendent, told Senator Ring at a committee hearing in December.

The proposal, which passed the Senate’s Appropriations Committee this week, has often put Ring on the defensive.

“You can still take Latin, Mandarin, German, and now maybe you can also take C++. We’re not replacing foreign language, we’re saying computer language should be in the language disciplines,” he responded in December.

Florida isn’t alone in its idea to add coding as a foreign language. Officials in Kentucky, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington have also considered the proposition. Texas began allowing such a swap in 2014, though state officials haven’t tracked how widely it has been used.

Oklahoma also has a similar policy, but it was adopted only because rural schools have struggled to hire foreign language teachers, according to state officials.

“We were not trying to equate the two at all,” says Desa Dawson, director of world languages for the Oklahoma state education department.

The issue of cutting traditional global language studies isn’t the only opposition to the proposal. Some Florida lawmakers are also concerned about how the bill would address issues of whether all students would have access to the computer hardware required to meet the state requirements.

“It seems like a well-intentioned, well-designed bill, but there are a number of different non-profit programs out there that are trying to address the lack of minority access to coding and coding materials,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard (D) of Cutler Bay, a high school history teacher in Miami, at the December hearing, noting that local districts have also had to cut foreign language programs because of a lack of funding. “Is there a long-term goal toward creating parity at school sites?”

Researchers have expressed similar concerns. “One thing we have found is that it can be more challenging to integrate technology into classrooms in low-income communities,” says Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine.

“A lot of these communities have higher teacher turnover, administrator turnover, fewer technology-savvy parents, more kids with weaker English language skills. If you just throw technology into schools without the proper social support, technology can amplify inequality.”

A Different Approach

Earlier this week, President Obama unveiled a $4.2 billion plan to expand computer science education, calling it a “basic skill.” It’s evident that coding, and other elements of programming are becoming more vital in the working world, and therefore, could benefit from being taught at an earlier age. But the problem of how to categorize the courses still stands.

In contrast to those schools treating coding like a language, some institutions are recognizing coding courses as subject areas in math and science. CODE.org, a prominent non-profit advocating for computer science education, says that may be a better way to tackle the issue.

“Spanish is used to communicate to one another,” Cameron Wilson, vice president of government affairs at CODE.org, which has not taken a position on the Florida bill, told Reuters. “A computer language is really only used to communicate to a computer on how to execute codes on a machine.” 

But Senator Ring, who says he got the idea for the bill from his 14-year-old son, was unwavering.

“There’s no question in my mind that computer language is the great equalizer,” he said in December. “We can be the first state in America to do this, or we can be the 50th state in America to do this, it’s gonna happen.”