Should computer programming be mandatory for students?

Core computer literacy will be essential in the global job market, so maybe it's time to start looking at programming as a baseline skill and not as a differentiator

If Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the State Board of Education have their way, soon every California student will have to pass an algebra test to graduate from the eighth grade.

Mind you, they aren't likely to have their way. The new mandate already faces a lawsuit filed by the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators, alleging that the decision was made without giving educators a proper chance to weigh in. Opponents of the plan claim it will force already-underperforming students into subjects for which they are not prepared.

Even if we don't agree with the Board of Education's methods, however, its sentiments are sound. If the US is to remain competitive in the 21st century, American students need to be brought up to par with those in the rest of the world. Math and science education is crucial to closing that gap.

And as long as we're talking education reform, let me propose a further step. If modernizing education is the name of the game, maybe it's time we incorporated fundamental computer literacy into the curriculum of US public schools. If eighth graders should know algebra, by the tenth grade, they should be programming in Java.

Banishing the stigma

Is mandatory programming coursework putting the cart before the horse? I don't think so. It's time we shed some of the popular prejudices and misconceptions surrounding computer literacy, many of which are simply remnants of a bygone era.

When I was in school in the 1980s, movies like War Games and Tron popularized the image of the computer hacker as the inscrutable, impossibly intelligent outsider. Video games were cool, but if you actually made them, you were probably a socially-stunted nerd.

Meanwhile, the computers of the business world were refrigerator-sized boxes that hummed away in hermetically sealed laboratories, tended by teams of engineers in white coats. If that's what your kid wanted to do when he grew up, there wasn't much you could do as a parent but smile sheepishly, think of all the money he'd make, cross your fingers, and hope someone would marry him someday.

Today, all of that has changed. Look around you: What modern school-age kid doesn't have access to a PC -- and with it an e-mail address, IM accounts, a MySpace page, games, applications, and all the resources of the World Wide Web? Today our phones are digital, our cameras are digital, our music is digital, our DVD movies are digital, even our television is turning digital.

Computing devices are everywhere. But the one thing that hasn't changed is the idea that computer programming -- real, deep-down, core computer literacy -- is something for nerds, geeks, and outsiders. Guess what? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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