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Is the best second language Java, Python, or Ruby?

Coding languages are the backbone of our interconnected world. Here's why your kids needs to understand digital language - no matter what career they pursue.

By Hank Pellissier

Our children won't be using Java, Python, or Ruby to chat with foreign strangers on trains in exotic locales, but these computer programming languages used in developing web pages and mobile apps may be the most important second, third, or fourth language your child will ever learn.

According to a growing number of experts, learning computer science will not only pave the way for future employment prospects — job growth in this sector is booming — but accelerate the U.S. economic recovery as well.

Alas, there's no guarantee that computer science will be offered at your child's school; in fact, there's a good chance it won't be. Despite the chorus of future-focused experts advocating for better computer science education, most schools aren't meeting the challenge.

The U.S. may be the birthplace of IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and umpteen other computer science-inspired giants, but in the past two decades we’ve fallen behind other countries when it comes to pumping out our own trained computer scientists. American universities still boast some of the best science and engineering graduate programs, yet many of those spots are filled by foreign students. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report states that "foreign students earned 54 percent of all computer science degrees," even though only 5 percent of the 20.7 million U.S. college students are from other countries. Efforts to interest U.S. women are also failing. The NSF statistics show the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in computer science (as well as math and engineering) have declined in the last 10 years.

Why are we foundering in this arena? Many blame our pre-college curriculum.

"We are not preparing our students out of high school to compete in the area of science and engineering very well," concludes John Borrelli, former dean of the Texas Tech University Graduate School.

What’s next — kinder code?

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed and evangelist for Codeacademy, is one of the nation’s leading digital crusaders. He argues that our schools need to incorporate computer programming into the core curriculum or get left behind. "It's time Americans begin treating computer code the way we do the alphabet or arithmetic,” he writes.

According to Rushkoff, there is such a dearth of skilled programmers in the U.S. that firms like Google and Facebook buy entire companies simply to gain access to their code-literate employees. “If you know how to code, you can likely get a high-paying job right now,” writes Rushkoff. “You will be enabling America to compete effectively on both the economic and military frontiers, where we are rapidly losing our competitive advantage due to our failure to teach ourselves code…"

Making sure our kids learn code isn't just smart career planning, Rushkoff contends, it's practically a patriotic duty.

CS in HS — a long decline

How far behind are we? Hard to say. A 2011 poll of 18 nations by the Paris-based OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA) gave the #1 ranking in digital literacy to South Korea, with New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Iceland close behind. The U.S. wasn't tested, but Ron Anderson, a University of Minnesota professor emeritus who has taught classes on the sociology of technology, says the "United States probably would have performed in the middle third of the countries… But we will never know because the last student assessment of digital literacy involving American students was in 1992."

How did we get here? Education apathy was the culprit, as the number of computer science (CS) classes in American high schools steadily declined for a decade. A 2009 survey by the Computer Science Teachers Association found that the percentage of high schools offering CS classes dropped from 78 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2009, while the percentage of AP computer classes fell from 40 percent in 2005 to 27 percent in 2009. According to the survey there are multiple reasons for the decline in CS classes — none of them reassuring — including lack of teacher subject knowledge, difficult subject matter, lack of student interest, lack of staff support.

Mark Guzdial, a professor in the school of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, observed that because of bureaucratic rules and technological limitations "learning computing in U.S. high schools is like learning programming in the developing world."

Wake up! Times they are a’coding!

Two-and-a-half years ago, America finally seemed to wake up from its long CS slumber. In August 2011 came the launch of Codecademy. The site offers free coding tutorials that attract millions of students. On January 5, 2012 Michael Bloomberg, then New York City's mayor, tweeted his New Year's resolution to learn programming. On January 17, 2012, Rushkoff presented his essay, Why I Am Learning To Code and You Should, Too, in his CNN column. Interest exploded, with pundits and media everywhere wrestling with the new question, "Should everyone learn to code?"

Even President Barack Obama entered the fray. At Computer Science Education Week 2013 he urged youngsters, "Don't just buy a new video game. Make one. Don't just download the latest app. Help design it. Don't just play on your phone. Program it. No one is born a computer scientist, but with a little hard work and some math and science, just about anyone can become one… just give it a shot." 

Today, Codecademy has myriad competitors — Code School, Treehouse, Code Avengers, Google Code University, MIT OpenCourseWare, Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy — and even professional basketball players, i.e. Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat, tout the perks of programming. "Learning to code is simply about understanding how the world functions," Bosh told Wired." Plus, it’s cool. 

CS for your geek

Is it easier today to enroll your own adolescent geek in high school computer classes? Yes, it is. Many high schools offer excellent programs. Montgomery Blair High School  in Maryland has a team that's a frequent champion at the American Computer Science League contests. Other top contenders include Freehold High School in New Jersey, Jefferson Sci-Tech in Virginia, and Cary Academy in North Carolina.

If you dwell in the Big Apple and your teen wants to pursue the former mayor's new hobby, the best bet could be the Computer Science Institute at John Dewey High School. This rigorous three-year program, with an emphasis on Java, has long been defined as the school's "most selective and academically rigorous program."

If you're situated in the Windy City, you're in serious luck. The Chicago Public School district is moving computer science from "elective" status to its K-12 core curriculum. Oddly enough, Arkansas is discussing a similar move, but this needed reform remains ignored in other so-called "techie" states like California and Massachusetts.

Even if your child’s high school doesn't offer any CS classes, you can still help your son or daughter learn what some have dubbed an essential 21st century skill. If they're seeking an intensive alternative to Codecademy and the schools listed above, you can sign 'em up for "immersive experiences" like InternalDrive's tech camps offered in 27 states for kids 7 to 18 years old. If these tuition prices are beyond your budget, perhaps they can participate in Code Summer Plus — a condensed version of Codecademy's curriculum that is part of President Obama's Summer Jobs Plus Initiative.

No matter how you do it, keep the ultimate goal in mind: your child’s future opportunities. How bright are the chances of future employment for CS specialists? A Georgetown University study estimated that from 2005-2018 there will be a 2.2 - 2.6 percent annual employment increase in computer and mathematical science occupations and 700,000 of the 800,000 new jobs will be for computer specialists. Many of these jobs will bring considerable rewards.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the average salary for programmers was $74,280, for software developers $93,350, for computer scientists $102,190. Growth in these fields is also rising, especially for software developers: positions are increasing by 22 percent annually. App development, in particular, is exploding — the smartphone market increased at the dizzying rate of 46 percent from 2012-2013. To stay current, check out the best programming languages to learn in 2014. 

Finally, it’s worth remembering that not every child has what it takes to be a computer scientist. Not only are strong problem-solving and analytical skills essential, but it also helps to be detail-oriented and to have a crackerjack memory. So before you engineer an education makeover for your child, make sure your child is as excited by the prospect as you are.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the author of Brighter Brains: 225 Ways to Elevate or Injure Intelligence. He is also a SAT and SSAT tutor and director of the Brighter Brains Institute.

Comments from readers

"I agree. Our children will be left behind as adults if we don't start teaching them these skills early. However, the schools these days have difficulty teaching the basics because of budget cuts. Every politician says the same thing that Education is the key to the future, but no one delivers. The public are also going to have to be convinced because we are going to have to pay for our children's education one way or another. Everyone needs to take ownership of our children's education. "
"All that time I spent learning Basic in high school leads me to think otherwise. "
"I am managing fairly large team of IT professionals across various countries including US who speak various languages....for success in career, what u need is structured approach which apparently is not very well followed in US Corporations IT departments and that leads to decay and thus leads to outsourcing to someone who is not even native English speaking but has structured approach to manage and grow. I have about 100 people working for me in US and about 50 in Poland, 50 in Brazil, 200 in India, 10 in China. Let me tell you, out of these countries which I listed, Poland offers the best environment for growth which is enabled by the government and further complemented by MNCs setting up bases there, India is second best in terms of proving structured growth just through sheer private investment, China is 3rd as government has now started to realize their importance of English and has now made it mandatory for last 3 years for students to learn English starting from Grade! 5. US is great country with some great population in general but a very poor leadership (right or left does not matter)....if leadership gets it right, US can pull in all the jobs back and still be as competitive as other nations but it is just poor leadership at US Corporations and even at government layer which just smacks of greediness and absolute control. Unfortunately some of this is finding its way into Asia too (China and India)......If you want to succeed, then you need to get out of your comfort zone and change things which are not working instead of to become part of the solution as it would benefit all. "
"I think it is good to know some computer language. Computer languages become obsolete, but like the argument for the Latin (an dead language): after you learn it, you can learn much easier a live one. You may not become a computer programmer, but most of us do not study math to become mathematician, French to become translators, or violin to play in symphony orchestra. "
"American kids have shied away from programming and computer science (a lot of STEM careers, really) because they (or their parents) see these jobs being outsourced. Some of these poor kids put 5 or 6 or more years of blood, sweat, and tears into a degree, only to remain unhired, or hired at much less than what is commonly published as the industry standard wage. Our "lack of engineers" is really just a lack of the multimillion dollar corporations wanting to pay Americans a living wage. They cry shortages so they can import H-1B employees and pay much less. That's purportedly unlawful, but I've seen it in action myself. "
"Great info. Totally agree. I'm an educator and watch americans fall behind foreign students not only in computer science but basic education as well. Thanks for exposing these facts. "
"Just recently I saw a picture of the family of 8 people all playing on Phones while waiting to be sited in the restaurant and no one talked to each other. I disagree with article. Children need to learn Life languages, memorize and retell stories and poems and sing songs in different languages that way they will be able verbally communicate not Text. "
"From an overseas view I cannot but strongly support the urgency of starting to learn to think in a language different from the mother tongue - it is not a particular language but what is important is a new way of approaching reality thus recreating your personality "
"This article is completely out of control and neurotic. In ten years, programming languages will be completely different from now, as computers will be. I have been working in Computational Linguistics since 1971, just in case. Learning a programming language is fun, and can be useful for four or five years. Learning a natural language is more fun, more richness and is for ever. Please, do not be mislead by tinpot gurus. Just think by yourselves. And, of course, if you want to invest in a language that will be useful for many other languages, including English, learn Latin, the language of Old Rome. "
"Statements like this always confuse me: "there is such a dearth of skilled programmers in the U.S. that firms like Google and Facebook buy entire companies, simply to gain access to their code-literate employees" I don't believe this. I do believe that companies don't want to pay for skilled American programmers. I was laid off from a large, Fortune 500 company 2 years ago because they could get cheaper programmers in low (India, China) and medium-cost countries (Canada, Australia). I have a master's degree in engineering and am a "skilled programmer". While I wouldn't discourage my child from engineering, I definitely would tell them not to focus on coding. "
"I have a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering. More and more programming jobs require an advanced degree. I seriously doubt that someone with just a high school education and a couple of courses in Computer Science is going to be able to compete well in the current high tech market.. High school is best left for teaching the underlying fundamentals. If something, which would help high school graduates make their way in the current economy without a college degree, needs to be added to the high school curriculum, it is Financial Education, not Computer Science. "
"Java is a computer or machine language that was developed by software engineeres. Espanol is a romace language that is beutiful to learn, just like French, Italian and so on. I would want my kid to learn languages that he or she can communicate with everyone. "
"Lack of skilled programmers in the US? I have several friends, either out of work, or worse, underpaid whom are highly skilled in both Object Oriented and traditional programming. Second, JavaScript? Really? It is almost obsolete even in the world of the web with the advent of HTML5. Why not teach concepts with a higher level language which can be applied to whatever the latest and greatest language is? "
"Throw in some real patriotism, a real foreign language, and serious music and raise sober kids in the process. "