Where are the kid coders? Not in U.S. schools

United Kingdom becomes latest country to teach programming to kids as young as 5; will United States rise to the challenge?

If you plan to help your kids with their homework in the future, better start boning up on your programming skills now. (And you thought new math was hard!)

The U.K. Department of Education this week made a radical departure from its current curriculum, announcing plans to begin teaching "rigorous computer science" to all children ages 5 to 14. After studying the current state of instruction, the department concluded that computing in British schools had been "dumbed down" and attempts to teach programming dropped. Children were instead merely being exposed to word processors and spreadsheets, "mostly Word, Excel, and, of course, all running on Windows." They axed the curriculum, saying it was "so harmful, boring, and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped."

As the British education minister commented:

Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones.

The United Kingdom is hardly the pacesetter in teaching kids to code. Estonia began a pilot program in its schools last year that introduces computer programming to all school-age children. As Matthew Humphries at Geek.com wrote, "Adding programming as a standard part of a child's education makes a lot of sense. Not only does it add new skills as part of their learning, but it supports other subjects as programming typically requires the use of math and logic."

How the United States measures up

Will the United States follow suit any time soon? Keith Wagstaff noted in a Time opinion piece last year that "the tech industry is one of the few bright spots in a dim economy. So why aren't we teaching kids the skills they need to participate in it?" Wagstaff found that programming was being offered in only 10 percent of American high schools. And the College Board reported that in 2010 only 14,517 students took the AP computer science test, compared to 194,784 students who took the AP calculus test.

A hard-headed look at what passes for computer instruction in most American schools would -- as in the United Kingdom -- likely discover they all too often cover just the basics: learning how to type and use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was famously programming at the age of 12. But his early interest in computers was nurtured not by his schools but by the private computer tutor his parents hired to come to the house once a week. That kind of go-it-alone philosophy may not be a winning strategy for producing the next generation of programmers in sufficient numbers.

Indeed, a report released this week by Evans Data predicts that by 2017 India will surpass the United States in the number of software developers it produces: "Today, the U.S. leads the world in software developers, with about 3.6 million. India has about 2.75 million. But by 2018, India will have 5.2 million developers, a nearly 90 percent increase, versus 4.5 million in the U.S., a 25 percent increase though that period." Tech giant IBM already has more workers in India than in the United States.

It's not only schools that are stuck in the past where computer skills are concerned. Veteran developer Ted Neward confesses his loathing for the programming tests administered by potential employers, arguing that while "some are pretty useful ways to demonstrate basic programming faculties ... the ones where the challenge is to implement some algorithmic doodad" make him shudder. "In 20 years of programming, I've never had to do this. ... In times past when I've been confronted with this problem, I'm usually the first to ask somebody next to me how best to think about this and start sounding out some ideas with them before writing any bit of code."

Ted has a point, but if you're still up for some programming practice, then you -- or your kids -- should head over to round 3 of InfoWorld's programming IQ quiz.

This story, "Where are the kid coders? Not in U.S. schools," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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