Computer Science: A Foreign Language Substitute?

“What do you think about computer science courses as credit for a foreign language?”

Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-32) asked a simple question, but it prompted a heated debate among school leaders, state legislators and students Friday.

He first posed the question to the half dozen high school students who attended the Loudoun County School Board Legislative Breakfast, an annual event that brings school and state leaders together to talk about priorities for the coming 2016 General Assembly session.

Greason said his son, a junior at a Loudoun County high school, doesn’t have enough available class time to fulfill the courses required for an Advanced Studies Diploma and take other electives that he wants, such as computer science. As is, he has voluntarily taken a finance course over the summer.

“He doesn’t have a free minute and he just blew a whole summer with no free time either,” Greason said. “That’s something we should look at.”

To earn an Advanced Studies Diploma, which most Virginia teens pursue, students must successfully complete three years of one language or two years of two languages. Loudoun high schools offer six course options—French, German, Latin, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language—to fulfill that requirement.

Local schools also offer computer science courses, from an introduction-level class to a rigorous Advanced Placement class. But the computer courses’ enrollment is abysmal compared to that of the language courses because they are only offered as electives.

Chad Musa, a junior at Riverside High School, said the county should take the lead in giving students the freedom to get a good foundation in coding and programming before college.

“It won’t be long before the ability to code will be a test of literacy in many jobs,” he said in responding to Greason’s question. “I think most people will have to have that knowledge.”

School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) said the state would do well to give students an incentive to take computer science courses early on, especially in light of the growing gap between the number of jobs in the industry and the number of qualified employees. Encouraging students to begin computer science as early as middle school, as they do now with foreign language, could make a big impact on the shortage of IT-savvy workers in the long run.

“This is absolutely what we need to remain competitive,” he said.

At a recent Cyber Careers panel discussion hosted by officials from Virginia and the Department of Homeland Security, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said there are roughly 17,000 cybersecurity jobs available in Northern Virginia alone. And they pay an average salary of $80,000 a year, he noted.

John Wood, CEO of cybersecurity company Telos in Ashburn, was part of the Cyber Careers panel. He said he was asked what one thing he would change about school curriculum.

“We should be teaching our kids coding as early as elementary school,” he said.

Almost everything, from cars to thermostats, is now Internet-enabled, and a foundation in computer science helps students understand how their world operates, he explained. It also helps them apply math to their everyday lives. “The more they have practical applications for math and science, the more they’ll stick with it.”

Similar to the “space race” of the 1960s, the U.S. and China are in a competition to secure cyberspace, Wood said.

This year, the Chinese graduated more than two million “cyber warriors,” as compared to just 30,000 young people who took the computer science certification exam in the U.S.

“We have to get more kids interested in this field,” Wood said.

Some, though, are worried that nudging students toward computer science classes will automatically have a negative effect on traditional foreign language classes.

Newly elected School Board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run), who’s worked in the information technology field for 18 years, said it would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“Yes, we need to solve the problem that we need more computer science in our schools,” but not at the expense of foreign languages, she said. “We need to recognize foreign language as a priority, especially as our world becomes smaller and more diverse.”

Greason doesn’t consider giving students an option to opt for computer science over Spanish or German or French to be discouraging foreign languages. He said there are students interested in careers in the technology sector who, right now, do not have the opportunities to learn the basics of the field in high school.

“This is an offer to give a student a new pathway—that may be computer science for some students,” he said.

[Next week: School system leaders are looking at one middle school math teacher’s computer programming lessons as a possible model for other Loudoun schools.]

Contact Danielle Nadler at

3 thoughts on “Computer Science: A Foreign Language Substitute?

  • 2015-12-10 at 9:37 am

    Steering students into taking a computer science class, or at least Computer Math (which does involve learning how to do at least some programming) could be worthwhile for many, but not all, students.

    Sacrificing exposure to at least one other foreign language to achieve that seems like a bad idea. Beyond cultural awareness, study of another language should help students understand English, if that’s their native tongue, better.

    Even if your goal were to better prepare students for careers in the technology sector, all the technical expertise in the world doesn’t get one past being unable to *communicate* effectively. As someone in the computer field, people with technical expertise *and* the ability (and desire) to communicate effectively are relatively rare.

    Even if you approach this only from the standpoint of “job preparedness” and dismiss that being able to understand and communicate with a diversity of cultures is becoming more important for human survival, exposure to foreign languages in K-12 does offer competitive advantages in the workplace beyond that.

    I’m saying this as a computer scientist myself. I would encourage all students to take at least one computer class if that is possible. Not everyone’s mind “works” the same, however, and in my experience, students who don’t or can’t think in certain ways can struggle mightily when learning how to program.

    Because this subject deals with fundamental literacies that we should encourage through public schools, I’d like to throw one more out there. I’d love to see a requirement that every student become more educated in the use and understanding of statistics, particularly the pitfalls inherent in how others’ misunderstanding or misusing them can lead to unsupportable conclusions.

    Teaching just a few simple statistical methods and “how to read” charts and graphs – which seems to characterize the level of exposure most students receive unless they elect to take an AP Stats class – doesn’t go nearly far enough in a world in which we weather a tsunami of data, information, and disinformation.

    To me, a more broad and deep understanding of statistics than current public school curricula may be offering isn’t just a “technical skill”, it’s indispensable for being an active and well-informed citizen.

  • 2015-12-10 at 9:37 am

    This is so misguided. Learning to be a competent software developer has almost nothing in common with learning a foreign language. Furthermore, the skills it requires are not present in equal measure across a student population. Expecting all kids to learn to program is no different than the unreasonable expectation that they all learn to perform appendectomies or argue a case in a courtroom or play professional football.

    Further, the NEED to be able to hand-write software is going to diminish rapidly over time for most people. With graphical programming metaphors, strong visualization and data manipulation tools, and the advent of intelligent assistants, the average knowledge worker will have no requirement to write software in low level programming languages.

    I am a huge proponent for identifying the students with the proper aptitude and interest to pursue software engineering studies, but it is ill-informed and likely quite harmful to assume that every kid should be competent in it as a required form of literacy. Tag’s comment, ““I think most people will have to have that knowledge”, illustrates a naive understanding at best about the realities of the technology at hand and its use in the broader job market.

  • 2015-12-12 at 4:54 pm

    Wasn’t the suggestion to allow students to take computer science as an option? How is that change a “sacrifice” to foreign language classes?

    You see, “rare birds” often don’t understand basic logic. The proposal stated students could (meaning those who wanted to take CS) substitute some CS classes for part of the foreign language (not all) requirement. Thus, students would still be exposed to foreign language and no student would be forced to participate. “Rare birds” who fail to grasp the logic of that statement likely will have problems not only in terms of written communications but also in becoming a proficient programmer or understanding basic statistics.

    Who came up with the idea that 3 years of a foreign language was the minimum requirement for students to demonstrate they deserved an “advanced studies” degree? Is there any research that shows students become fluent within 3 years? Is there any research that shows taking 3 years of Spanish will play a major role in their career? Or is this just another example of the cultural snobs claiming they know so much more than the rest of us? Has Joy Maloney spent any significant amount of time in a foreign country? Since when did she become an expert. Or maybe she is proposing we increase teachers’ workday and the length of time students are in school so they can take more classes. One can’t claim that they are not against more computer science classes when the foreign language requirement makes CS a virtual impossibility.

    Nobody has suggested in this article that computer science become a requirement for graduation or for advanced studies diplomas. It would simply be an option that students could choose. If a student chose to take 1 year of CS and only 2 years of German, is that student so less deserving of two more words on their HS diploma?

    In the end, CS is just like every other STEM major. It involves logic. It involves deconstructing problems into more manageable tasks. It involves making assumptions and then verifying those assumptions still hold. You can teach computer science without ever delving too deeply into a specific computer language. At its core, CS is a logical algorithm performed by a machine often with inputs and outputs. It often involves applied math. Turing showed us that nearly a hundred years ago. But I guess in Joy Maloney’s book, Alan Turing wouldn’t be a “complete Loudoun graduate” that could compete in today’s world.

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