State leading way on computer classes

Texas was the first state to require that all high schools teach computer science, but Arkansas schools catapulted ahead in the past year after a mandate from the governor backed by millions in funding, said state and national advocates.

In Texas, a single state school board member pushed to require high schools to teach the classes. But few schools are following the policy and Texas has put up little if any state money to train teachers.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson made computer coding a state priority and pushed a bill to provide funding for teacher training and to mandate that high schools offer the courses. It also requires that the classes count as math or science credits instead of an elective…

Noemy Sotelo (left), a junior at Bryant High School, takes part in an advanced computer programming class last week. “It’s like a puzzle to solve. It’s like a game — really cool, really interesting,” Sotelo said…

By contrast, in Texas, which imposed a similar requirement in 2014, only about a quarter of its school districts offered a single computer-science class in the state’s STEM endorsement, said Jennifer Bergland, director of governmental relations for the Texas Computer Education Association. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.)

Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican who is now chairman of the Texas Board of Education, proposed the rule change requiring the classes as the board was dealing with a broad education overhaul mandated by the Legislature.

The lawmakers’ bill had not proposed requiring computer science to be taught.

“This was it. She basically made this motion and it wasn’t until it was almost all done that I was reading them going, ‘What is this?'” Bergland said. “It wasn’t a big fight. Sometimes you have to fight hard, sometimes things happen because it’s the right thing. This is one of those situations.”

But because the change wasn’t endorsed by the Texas Legislature — and had no money behind it — many Texas districts say they don’t know about the provision or cannot find or train the appropriate teachers, a key holdup.

No other state has required high schools to teach the classes — except Texas — or budgeted as much money as Arkansas’ $5 million, said Amy Hirotaka, director of state government affairs for Code.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation by women and members of minority groups.

“While Texas does have that on the books, it’s not functionally happening,” Hirotaka said…

The Texas Computer Education Association was turned down when it asked the Legislature for $25 million for professional development and a change in how computer-science classes are classified.

In Texas, which has more than nine times the population of Arkansas, that was a nonstarter, Bergland said.

“My computer-science people are excited about what your governor is doing with computer science,” Bergland said. “Texas for years has … kind of been leading in this by most people’s standards, but what I’ve heard is this is an initiative that [Hutchinson] took on and any time you put some money behind something, it sends the message that this is important.”

In January, President Barack Obama proposed spending more nationally on computer-science education. In February, Hutchinson joined a White House news conference to announce a new partnership aimed at promoting computer education nationwide. Officials at that event praised Arkansas’ initiative in pushing the classes.

Money — and the teacher training that comes with it — is especially important to making a statewide initiative work, experts said…

Arkansas’ progress may spur other states to act.

“We do think that Arkansas is a leader in computer-science education and a state that others could certainly model themselves after,” Hirotaka said.

And Texas doesn’t back down from competition, Bergland said.

“We may be trying to catch up to Arkansas,” she said. “Texas kind of thinks we invented everything and we’re best at everything, so we’re going, OK, wait a minute. We can’t let Arkansas, our neighbor, beat us in this.”

Hutchinson said he’s pushing other states to make similar changes…

 

 

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