At first glance, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s initiative requiring high schools to teach a computer science course seemed more like a single than a home run. It seemed nice, but small.
But the results have been big for Arkansas.
When the initiative started in 2015, fewer than 1,100 high school students were taking a computer science course, and fewer than 20 teachers were trained to teach it. This past school year, more than 8,000 students took a course – more than 2,400 of them females – and the state now has more than 370 trained teachers.
On Monday, education leaders from 30 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada met at the Governor’s Mansion for the National Computer Science Summit for State Leaders. Participants discussed increasing computer science education opportunities, and meanwhile sang Arkansas’ and Hutchinson’s praises.
Arkansas has gained a bit of a reputation as a result of this initiative. In 2015, Wired magazine ran a story headlined, “So, Arkansas is leading the learn to code movement.” Sheila Boyington, president and CEO of Thinking Media, an educational technology firm, told summit attendees that when she was in Sacramento a year ago, people expressed a desire to be like Arkansas in computer science education.
California, she noted, is the “biggest tech state.” It’s the home of Silicon Valley and some of the world’s biggest technology firms, including Apple, Google and Facebook. So it’s noteworthy that some folks there are looking to Arkansas for leadership.
Hutchinson was inspired to mandate the class after his 11-year-old granddaughter, Ella Beth, created a mobile app for his 2014 campaign. She appeared in commercials that ran often during that election.
The Legislature in 2015 passed the requirement that high schools offer the class, which counts as a math or science credit. The state provides $5 million every two years for teacher training and $5,000 stipends, student prizes and other expenses.
Four years later, Hutchinson remains a passionate advocate for the cause. Each year, he embarks on two coding tours where he visits about 10 schools and encourages students to take the class.
He’s not a fiery speaker, but he gets the point across that someday they’re going to need a job, and computer science is a great field to find one. According to Code.org, a national advocacy organization, 500,000 computing jobs are waiting to be filled nationwide. Its founder and CEO, Hadi Partovi, spoke at the Governor’s Mansion Monday.
Growing the teacher force has been one of the keys to the initiative’s success. The state offers the course online through Virtual Arkansas for schools that don’t have a teacher, but “that’s not inspiring students,” Hutchinson said. In Sheridan, one student was taking the course online. When the district trained a teacher, participation rose to 30 students the next year and 60 the next.
In Manila in northeast Arkansas, French teacher Gerri McCann decided students needed the course and got herself trained. Of the seven who took the course the first year, four went on to major in computer science and three in engineering. The next year, 45 students took the class. Now she teaches four computer science classes and only three French classes.
Despite the mandate and all the successes, no student is taking a computer science course in 37 percent of Arkansas high schools. Those are the schools that offer the course through Virtual Arkansas. In other words, they’re obeying the letter of the law. Hutchinson said the lack of interest is a result of “students who don’t believe they can” and “superintendents who are not believing in the importance of computer science education.”
Committed teachers are one antidote to disinterest. Another is increasing student demand, which Hutchinson said schools will meet. Computer coding classes in grades K-8 provide students an early exposure and pique their interest. When they arrive in high school, they expect to be taught more, Hutchinson said.
Will these efforts birth tomorrow’s Google or Facebook or produce the next Bill Gates in a town like Manila? Maybe, but those are one in a million shots. More importantly, 8,000 students last year were given a foundation in a subject area where very good jobs are plentiful and opportunities are limitless.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.