Florida Legislators trying to boost high school computer science enrollment by sacrificing other important disciplines are missing the whole point

Florida’s legislators are desperately looking for some subject they can sacrifice to boost the ranks of high school students who are bound for careers in computer science.

Last year and for most of the present session, it was foreign languages. The idea was that if a student had taken a “rigorous” computer science course in high school (back to that definition later) that she or he should be excused in the state university system admissions process from having to know a foreign language.

Now it is math or science: On Monday, the House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee will consider language in which the state university system’s already pathetic admissions requirements in math and science would be lowered further for a student who has taken a “rigorous” high school computer science course.

Both proposals – and the legislators responsible for them – miss the whole point.

So…what is the point? How should the State of Florida go about encouraging students to study computer science in high school?

To answer that question, we should start by looking at a school district that is already quite successful in encouraging students to take the most rigorous computer science course widely available in Florida’s high schools, AP Computer Science A. My regular readers (both of them) will have already guessed which district I’m talking about – Seminole County.

According to the Florida Department of Education, Seminole County had 21,745 students in its public high schools in October – 2.6% of the state’s total. Yet it had 203 students enrolled in AP Computer Science A, which was 10.3% of the state’s total of 1,967. (An additional 499 students were registered for AP Computer Science A through the Florida Virtual School – an impressive 20.2% of the state’s enrollment for the course. All of this course enrollment information was recently supplied by the FLDOE.)

How did AP Computer Science A become so popular in Seminole County? Seminole students don’t have any waivers from state university admissions offices from foreign language study. Nor do they take fewer upper level math and science courses than students in other districts. In fact, Seminole is Florida’s math and science superpower, with enrollment rates in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus that are at or near the top of the state rankings in each subject. The number of students (summed over all grades 9-12) taking a calculus course is 27% of the number of 12th graders in the district, an astonishing number.

So how do high school students (and their parents) in Seminole County get the message that taking AP Computer Science A is a great opportunity even without crazy incentives like those the Florida Legislature has been considering? It’s actually really simple – culture. Students in Seminole County (and their parents) expect to take rigorous courses in STEM fields. The rate at which Seminole County high school students take calculus is two-and-a-half times the state rate. The county’s students take physics at a rate nearly triple the state rate. It’s what students in Seminole County have always done (in the words of a physics teacher there) and it’s what they expect to do.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. A culture of excellence decays unless it is attended to. And the county’s K-12 community – from the teachers to the district leadership – keep pressing to maintain it. For an example, read the column by the Orlando Sentinel’s Beth Kassab about the physics shows put on by Lake Mary High School physics teachers Luther Davis, Steve DeSanto and Gregory Skeates during the school’s (wait for it…) football games. And according to another Sentinel story crowning Seminole the state’s math and science champion, Superintendent Walt Griffin said that the district monitors upper level math and science enrollments and acts if they begin to lag at one of the high schools.

But how can a legislator craft an edict that instantaneously creates a statewide culture of excellence in high school math, science and computing when most of the state is mediocre or worse in those subjects? Memo to the House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee: You can’t. And declaring that high school computer science classes should cannibalize math and science courses like physics doesn’t make sense, especially in a state where the physics course enrollment rate is already just above half the national rate.

Instead, Florida’s education leaders – and IT industry leaders – should roll up their sleeves and start the hard work of educating students (and more importantly their parents) about the challenges facing them in the 21st century economy and the opportunities available in computing (and the mathematical sciences like engineering and physics). Instead of cannibalizing math and science, they should be building on them. After all, a bachelor of science degree in computer science – at least at my university – requires two semesters of physics (with three semesters of biology and chemistry as an alternate) as well as two semesters of calculus, a semester of statistics and some discrete mathematics.

Two more notes here:

Yes, it is important that students considering computer science careers take physics in high school. Take it from a professor who has several such students in physics class every semester and sees those who are unprepared for their physics classes struggle and sometimes lose their lucrative job offers because of it.

And…while AP Computer Science A is Florida’s most rigorous widely available high school computer science course, a passing score on the AP exam only earns credit for my university’s “computer fluency” course. Even with a passing score in AP Computer Science A, a student majoring in computer science, engineering or physics still has to start at the very bottom of the university’s computer programming sequence. That would probably come as a shock to the members of the House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee.

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