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.