In AP Language, Computer Courses Cut, the Washington Post announced that the College Board has canceled the Advanced Placement test on Computer Science (AB level). A few days earlier, the same newspaper carried an article with the title Skilled-Worker Visa Demand Expected To Far Exceed Supply. Here is how Shriram Krishnamurthi and I connected these events. For a technical comment we wrote early this year, see Why Computer Science Doesn’t Matter.
Late last week, the College Board (which administers the Advanced Placement exam) achieved the unthinkable: it reduced a vibrant technology discipline, computer science, to the same level of unpopularity as a dead language, Latin. It signaled this by canceling an AP exam in each area.
At the same time, last week high-tech companies were rushing to apply for H1B visas for their foreign employees. Only the timing was a coincidence. These two events are intimately linked: the former guarantees many more decades of the latter. Rather than waiting for computing to save itself, America’s high-tech companies can become part of the solution, helping themselves and our schools.
The College Board’s failure is easy to diagnose. Instead of introducing students to the fundamental principles of computing, its curriculum attempts to train mini-software engineers. It pushes the latest fashion in programming languages and tools. It overwhelms the simple beauty of the discipline with mind-numbing vocabulary and complexity. It smothers all excitement.
This development results from a widespread misconception that high school students can easily create professional software. Parents, teachers, and students nurture the misconception; software companies fail to rein it in. Only a miniscule minority benefits from this misconception, and they are often the ones who would have succeeded under any curriculum. Meanwhile, the majority suffer from it. The Advanced Placement exam cancellation serves as the punctuation.
Computing is altering the very nature of disciplines from biology to sociology to music. Teachers can now use programming and computing to enrich the way those subjects are taught. A properly designed curriculum in computing would also enhance mathematics, another national priority. Taught right, computing instills a widely applicable problem-solving discipline in students. Not only will these students emerge computationally literate, they might gravitate to one of the many computing-related majors in college.
This demands a serious commitment from high-tech companies. To begin with, companies must loudly and clearly repudiate the idea that high schools should create software engineers. Companies must advertise that schools should use computing to enhance the entire curriculum; to intrigue students in technology; and to prepare them for college majors in technology careers. Their computer scientists and engineers must visit schools to explain why their careers are so much fun. After all, surveys show that few other professions provide so much satisfaction.
Naturally, such an effort also requires a serious investment. In the late stages of the .com boom, the old AT&T launched an ambitious project, the Academies of Information Technology. The company committed to raising 100 million dollars so that several hundred schools could implement a well-designed curriculum that would attract students to high-tech college majors. They chose a non-profit, CORD, to design the curriculum (who in turn adopted the authors’ curriculum as the entry point). That boom may have died, but the rush for visas shows that the problem continues.
Recruiting and maintaining foreign employees is not just difficult and expensive. While satisfying the immediate demand for labor, it further neglects the stimulation of a creative, high-tech environment in this country. The United States and its industries need both local talent and a population that understands and appreciates the workings of technology. Our tax-base depends on this. And if investing 100 million dollars sounds daunting, consider this: each year’s tidal wave of H1B visas costs well over 250 million dollars in filing and legal fees alone. Now is a good time to reflect on our priorities.