In 2014, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson – then a gubernatorial candidate – announced his vision to make Arkansas the first state in the country to offer computer science courses in all its public and charter high schools. The announcement marked the genesis of the Arkansas Computer Science Initiative – a plan that has drawn the attention of other states looking to make computer science a core part of their curriculums.
Since the launch of the program in 2015, Arkansas has increased computer science course enrollment by more than 800 percent, according to data from the state’s Department of Education. Today, more than 10,000 of the state’s high school students are enrolled in computer science courses.
Anthony Owen, the department’s director of computer science education, said such progress would have only remained a dream if not for bipartisan support among state lawmakers at a time in which he said other states were still reluctant to focus on computer science education.
“Our state has put and continues to put a tremendous amount of funding behind the initiative,” he said, adding that the program receives about $2.5 million in annual state funding, set to increase next year to $3.5 million to bolster training for computer science course instructors.
Years ago, Owen said he noticed a widespread desire in other states to “slow the pace” of digitization to save existing jobs, drawing comparisons to the fears many had about automation eliminating job openings at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Owen thinks it was this misguided economic protectionism and reluctance by other states to embrace the inevitable that allowed Arkansas to stand out and attract IT employers.
“That [resistance] four or five years ago is exactly the reason that some of the states are having issues that they have, that we continue to see a job shortage or the shortage of these individuals able to fill these high-demand positions,” he said. “It was just protectionism of existing jobs instead of looking at how to train our populace to meet the demands of this technological revolution or change in society.”
Through the initiative, he said, students can elect to learn skills such as coding and programming to prepare them for work in tech fields. Later this year, the department plans to add subjects to its course catalog for additional emphasis on cybersecurity, data science and artificial intelligence.
Owen said one of the main goals of the program is to give students valuable IT job skills, regardless of whether they choose to pursue higher education after secondary school.
“A lot of the industries out there are fine with hiring a high school graduate as long as they have the skills, the drive and desire to do these jobs,” Owen said. “We need to be doing our job to prepare them for high-paying jobs also.”
According to a report last fall from the tech-ed policy organization Code.org Advocacy Coalition, about half of the country’s K-12 schools teach computer science. Arkansas was the first state to meet all of the report’s criteria for a comprehensive state computer science program and remains one of only a few states to do so, alongside Idaho, Indiana, Maryland and Nevada. Other states like Rhode Island and Mississippi are also following suit.
Code.org Director of State Government Affairs Katie Hendrickson said Arkansas is still leading the pack in computer science education, adding that their initiative has also helped narrow racial course participation gaps.
“Governor Hutchinson and the team of computer science specialists at the Arkansas Department of Education led by Anthony Owen has ensured all students in Arkansas are able to take a computer science course by supporting schools and teachers,” she said in an email to Government Technology. “The state’s strategic plan for computer science education and focus on supporting teacher development are models we share with other states seeking to achieve similar outcomes.”
Despite much progress, Owen said the state is still working to close the gender gap in computer science course enrollment. He said the state hopes to do so through Act 414, passed in March to make computer science courses a high school graduation requirement. The act also mandates at least four new eighth-grade computer science courses to be approved by the department and each high school to employ certified computer science instructors by the 2023-2024 school year.
In the context of the digital divide during COVID-19 school closures, Owen noted that the Arkansas Computer Science Initiative wouldn’t have continued enrollment growth without previous state digital equity programs, such as the Rural Connect initiative to provide broadband access to some of the state’s most remote and underserved communities.
Though most students are back in school buildings, Owen said the state and nation has learned a lot about the need to adapt to a digital society over the past year.
“If you look for a silver lining in every cloud, I think that the pandemic exposed a lot of our weaknesses whenever it comes to our ability as a nation to work within the digital space,” he said. “We’re going to come out of it with a larger appreciation and understanding, and hopefully, a better attitude as a nation in preparing our workforce to work digitally and produce more digitally.”
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