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So, Arkansas Is Leading the Learn to Code Movement
Tuesday, July 12, 2016 · 3:54 pm
This article was originally published by wired.com on March 20, 2015.
Arkansas may be one of the last states that comes to mind when you think of major hubs of tech talent. And yet, last month, it became the first to pass a truly comprehensive law requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science courses to students, beating better known tech centers like California and New York to the punch.
If for one reason or another you’ve been following local Arkansas politics, this should come as no surprise. During his run for governor last November, Governor Asa Hutchinson made computer science education for all one of his core campaign promises. “It’s probably the first time in the history of politics that the word ‘coding’ was used in a political commercial,” Hutchinson tells WIRED.
“Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers,” he says. “If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”
The Call for Coding
That computer science ought to be a fundamental part of every child’s education was once a refrain sung only by the Silicon Valley set. Now, however, it’s being echoed by government officials from both sides of the aisle, in every corner of the country, and even at a federal level. Just last week, President Obama announced the launch of the TechHire initiative, a new program that aims to connect more people with coding classes and more employers with this new cohort of tech workers. As the president noted in his speech, two-thirds of the country’s tech jobs exist in non-tech industries, meaning the need for tech talent extends to places that aren’t necessarily nerve centers of tech activity, like, well, Arkansas.
“People don’t realize in every single state and every single industry there’s a shortage of computer engineers and software engineers,” says Hadi Partovi, co-founder and CEO of Code.org, a non-profit organization that advocates for computer science education in schools and builds tools to help students learn to code.
According to Partovi, other states have taken half-steps toward similar legislation. South Carolina, for instance, lists “computer science” as a high school graduation requirement, but that credit can be filled by learning basic skills like keyboarding. Other states require tech education courses, but Partovi says, that can mean something as simple as learning to use social media. “Calling it ‘computer science’ is confused,” he says. “Learning to use Facebook is far less educational than learning to make the next Facebook.”
Other states, like Washington, are working to expand computer science courses or to ensure these courses count toward graduation instead of as an elective, but that doesn’t guarantee all schools will actually teach it. And last summer, Texas quietly mandated computer science education in schools. But so far, Partovi says, the rule has gone unenforced and unfunded.
The Need for Teachers Who Code
All of which makes what Arkansas just did particularly noteworthy. The state didn’t just pass a law. It also set aside $5 million to get this new program off the ground in Arkansas schools this fall. That money will not only fund teacher training, but it will also be used to reward schools that have high performance and enrollment rates in the new courses, which are not mandatory for students. “It’s a way to put a larger investment into it and make the whole program stronger and more long lasting,” Hutchinson says. “It’s a small investment with the opportunity for a huge return.”
Still, he admits not everyone was thrilled with this new initiative, least of all the educators themselves. Currently, he says only about 20 teachers in the entire state are “properly prepared” to teach these new courses, which makes teacher training a monstrous undertaking. “There’s a lack of confidence and comfort,” he says. “That comfort level needs to change.”
To ease the transition, the state is offering schools free access to an online education portal called Virtual Arkansas, which can supplement training for both teachers and students.
“These days you can have lectures delivered via video and problem sets that grade themselves,” says Partovi, who is working with the state to bring Code.org’s tools to schools as well. “All of this reduces how much effort the teacher needs to put in and reduces the total cost of training the teacher to do that work.”
Computer Science Everywhere
Which begs the question: why do students need to learn computer science in schools, when the internet can teach them everything they need to know? For starters, Partovi says, students who take coding courses in school have a much higher completion rate than those who learn on their own time.
But there’s more to it than that, he says. When computer science is offered during the school day, it means every kid gets a chance to learn, regardless of whether they have a computer at home or a role model encouraging them to pursue a career in tech. Bringing coding to schools can equalize access to and interest in coding, an important step in bringing some much-needed diversity to the tech field. Partovi says this effect is already showing up on Code.org, where 43 percent of its 5 million students are girls, and 37 percent of students are black and Hispanic.
“It’s a really great sign for what’s going to happen for tech diversity in about 10 years,” Partovi says.
But even if the diversity and employment arguments don’t move you, Partovi says there’s a much more basic reason for more states to follow Arkansas’ lead. “No matter what you want to major in, computer science is now impacting the world at a foundational level,” he says. “You learned about gravity and the digestive system, not because you became a physicist or biologist. It’s just learning about how the world works, and for today’s kids, learning how technology works is equally foundational.”
To read the original article on wired.com, click here.