Is Coding in High School Really Misplaced?

Brad McPeak

Jathan Sadowski’s recent article in WIRED argues that a focus on coding in high school is misplaced because:
● People without basic literacy cannot learn to code, and if they could it would do them little or no good.
● Teaching coding is expensive and will draw resources from areas with greater need, such as literacy
● Teaching coding is viewed as a panacea for all “future-proofing” for our students when in fact literacy and the ability to learn does that much more effectively.
There are some assumptions here that can be challenged:
● The assumption that the only purpose of HS is to get all students to a basic level of literacy.
Basic literacy is certainly a priority for schools, but it shouldn’t be the only one. One of the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act in some schools is a redistribution of funding by which advanced placement, gifted, and elective programs are defunded in order to expand testing and focus on basic proficiency. In some cases, higher achieving students (from both rich and poor families) suffer while poor performers show very little improvement.
One of the purposes of education is to provide these high achieving students the preparation and motivation to go and learn more and achieve more. Teaching coding can do this by introducing students to a world of computing that that they may have never worked in before. This is especially true for low income, high achieving students, who have suffered under “the digital divide,” and have had less access to technology coming into high school.
● The assumption that failure in basic literacy is only a resource problem.
There are programs that make a tremendous difference to underachieving students. AIM’s Graduate Twice programs are targeted at lower income students whose parents didn’t go to college – the students who start out “at risk” of not performing. We help these “at risk” students to do more, to see more and to open up their eyes to a world of potential that is there for them if they’ll learn to communicate and learn the skills that are in demand in the work world. Our programs offer sustained mentoring and interpersonal coaching, factors that have been proven to provide important positive effects on student success in school. Coding and IT proficiency are one of the skills that are very much “in demand” and do truly offer high paying jobs and a pathway to significant lifetime earning power for these students. Even in our programs, however, we have to work with students who are willing and prepared to learn and who can meet commitments for program attendance, after school activities and academic rigor.
● The assumption that, because coding doesn’t address all of our educational ills, it’s not worth doing.
Coding isn’t a cure all for our educational ills. Students will benefit very little from learning to code if they don’t at the same time learn to read and write and do some advanced math; however, coding can be a way to engage students who are wired a certain way. But studying coding can help them want to achieve in other areas and can help them to see why they are learning other skills in the first place in that coding gives them something to do with their math skills, a way to communicate using their language skills and so on. Also, it can help them to envision a future in which they can put those skills to work to benefit themselves, their families and society. Learning to code can motivate students and it can provide them a context for learning.
Our society desperately needs high achieving students to move forward. There aren’t enough high achieving students from middle class and wealthy families to draw upon. Our hope lies in helping lower income students to achieve great things, to become the entrepreneurs and technicians of the next generation. Learning coding will help some do just that.