By September coding will be mandatory in British schools. What the hell, America?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 10, 2014

From The News Desk

The British Government just put America to shame by mandating a programming curriculum in all primary and secondary schools. The UK Department of Education has been fiddling with the idea for awhile, since deciding to scrap its traditional ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) curriculum almost two years ago.

They announced the coding requirement this past summer, and just last week formalized it into the PR-extravaganza known as "Year of Code." The program is off to rather an inauspicious start, complete with a cheesy promotional video, one of its advisors quitting and publicly condemning the program, and a terrible BBC Newsnight interview in which the Director of the program admitted she didn't know how to code.

Despite the shaky beginnings, though, the Year of Code still raises the question: What the hell, America? Silicon Valley is the biggest powerhouse of technology and entrepreneurship in the world. Every child in the United States -- or at least California -- should be learning how to code in school. Instead, our beautifully accented British brethren have beat us to the punch.

By September, all state primary and secondary schools will be rolling out the new computing curriculum, where children from early ages will be taught how computers work and how to make them do cool things.

According to a BBC report on the new UK program, Michael Gove, the country's Secretary of State for Education, said, "[T]here was no alternative to making this work if we didn't want the Googles and Microsofts of tomorrow to be created elsewhere."

It's a strange quote, given that the Googles and Microsofts of the world were "created elsewhere" to begin with. But Gove's point is clear: the next tech giants are more likely to be built in places where coding is taught from childhood.

Here in the US, tech startups are core to five out of ten of our fastest growing industries (ranging from 3D printing to online eyeglasses sales). The "computer systems design and related services" industry is one of the American sectors with the most rapidly increasing wage and salary employment according to a December 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Since the early dot-com days, American innovators have been building the technology platforms and tools that change the way the rest of the world operates. In recent years, Silicon Valley is seeing such rapid growth that there's not enough programmers to keep up with it, and founders are facing a terrible talent drought which has made trouble recruiting engineers to keep up with the pace. What would solve this problem and ensure our continued dominance in leading the world's technology industries? Making coding skills a priority in all our schools.

The fact that we should be teaching code to more students earlier in their education is not a new idea. A year ago President Obama said so himself, during a Google+ Hangout with selected citizens following his State of the Union address. Last fall, Harvard's Ed. Magazine released its list of 30 tangible ideas worth spreading to transform education. Mandatory coding in schools was one of them. There have been charter schools and private schools dabbling with incorporating code into the classroom for sometime. It's certainly a priority in any STEM focused programs.

But although the idea has been floated, it has never been formalized into action. The US Department of Education has been focusing on other huge, arguably flawed programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top initiative.

With schools across the country struggling with drastic budget deficits, classroom sizes of 30 or larger, and more and more teacher pink slips every day, the idea of adding yet another educational requirement is wishful thinking.

It may wind up being wishful thinking for Britain too. Although the government is pumping out PR on The Year of Code, the devil will be in the details. Teaching everyone to code sounds great in theory, but in actuality it will be tough to roll out.

The program has already been criticized leftright, and center, for everything from its Director's dottiness to its lack of board diversity. Of the 23 people listed as being part of "Year of Code," only three of them have a technical background. Also, despite the fact that the program is aimed at state education, there's no school teachers, members from any public sectors, academics, or any computer science researchers mentioned on said advisor page.

The British government also isn't investing that much money in this program. It's paying 500,000 pounds, roughly 820,000 dollars, to help educate teachers on programming. That's in addition to a 120,000 pound contribution from Google, two million pounds of public money the British Computer Society is already spending to send "Master Teachers" into schools to teach other teachers coding, and 1.1 million pounds for Computing at School's online workshops and trainings for teachers.

How will such sweeping curriculum change happen so quickly with so little funding you ask? The answers aren't entirely clear yet. Criticisms have been raised as to the tight timeline and whether teachers who have never done programming can really learn enough to adequately teach their students.

People hate that the director herself doesn't know how to program and yet happily explained on national television that someone can learn how to teach coding "in a day."

It's understandable that we haven't instituted such a sweeping change to our own curriculum in the US. It would be a hell of a difficult thing to roll out across 50 states.

However that doesn't mean we shouldn't be a little nervous about the fact that Britain is attempting to get there before us. Even if they fudge up the operations massively for the next few years, at least they're trying.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]