In a recent issue of the Tallahassee Democrat, Johanne Deremble, Director of the Alliance Francaise of Tallahassee, complained about a proposal by Florida State Senator Jeremy Ring (SB 468) to allow computer coding to substitute for the foreign language requirements for Bright Futures scholarships and admission to the state’s public universities. She argued that computer coding is not a language with which people communicate with each other, and that therefore computer coding should not be allowed to “count” as a foreign language.
Of course, Deremble’s argument is correct. But the narrow argument over whether computer coding is somehow equivalent to a foreign language is simply a distraction from the broader discussion we should be having about what Florida’s kids learn.
During the discussion of Senator Ring’s bill at the December 3 meeting of the Senate PreK-12 Committee, the committee’s ranking Democrat (and my Senator, I am very glad to say), Bill Montford, pointed out the broader issue, saying “If we are offering the same number of hours a day and we require something else, something is going to fall out.” If the Legislature asks the schools to emphasize computer coding and deemphasize foreign language (as SB 468 does), then there will be less foreign language taught in the schools. If the Legislature does not target foreign language for deemphasis, then something else will be deemphasized.
Ring pointed out that school offerings are already evolving. His own kids are taking Mandarin Chinese, which is obviously of increasing importance. The presence of Mandarin in the program at their school is probably crowding out Latin or French. And it is arguable that it should.
Should way more students be taking computer coding classes, including AP Computer Science? The answer is clear: Yes. Calculus? Yes. Physics? Yes, again. How about Statistics? Oh yes. But does that mean we should stop teaching calculus in high schools to make room for computer programming and statistics, as Johns Hopkins professor and Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg suggested in 2014? No, no, no.
But if we are increasing the emphasis on computer coding, calculus, physics and statistics, and if we are not, as Senator Montford pointed out, increasing the number of hours in the school day or the number of teachers we are willing to pay for, then something else will be deemphasized or maybe even fall right out of the schools’ instructional programs. Should it be French? Maybe. AICE divinity classes? IB film studies classes? Those might be easier to dismiss than French. How about Junior ROTC? Band? Drama? Music theory? Psychology?
This is a serious discussion we need to have, but we seem to be allergic to it. Senator Ring is right in saying we should do more to coax more students into learning computer coding in our K-12 schools. But using such an argument to target foreign language for deemphasis (or math or science for deemphasis as has been done in other states) just gives us an excuse for avoiding the broad discussion about resetting our schools’ priorities that we desperately need to have.