Arkansas’ School-Coding Initiative Centers on Teacher PD
June 28, 2016
By: Emmanuel Felton
While politicians and education policymakers across the country have talked a good game about creating broader access to high-quality computer science classes in public schools, one state appears to be far ahead of the pack.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson campaigned on bringing computer-programming classes to every high school in the state, and early last year, just weeks after taking office, the Republican signed a bill establishing an aggressive timeline for making that goal a reality. The law, approved in February 2015, required that every high school offer computer science classes starting the following fall.
As a result, nearly 4,000 Arkansas students enrolled in a computer science course during the 2015-16 school year, a 260-percent increase from the previous year, according to the state department of education. But the students aren’t the only ones getting a digital education.
More than 1,000 teachers received some kind of professional development in computer science during the school year, most funded by $1.6 million in competitive grants awarded to schools and districts. The department doled out another $800,000 for additional training. Within five years, the state hopes to get 1,000 high-school and junior high school teachers certified to teach computer science and another 10,000 K-8 teachers trained in basic computer science.
Arkansas wasn’t the first jurisdiction to institute aggressive coding-education objectives, but some experts attribute the state’s success to how it followed up with millions of dollars to train educators to teach a discipline that is largely new to the K-12 space.
“While it is certainly a little ambitious, I don’t know of any other state that has done more than Arkansas. They have a really strong, multifaceted plan that is well thought out and probably stands the best chance for success,” said Mark R. Nelson, the executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association.
“Training teachers is the biggest part of the challenge,” Nelson added. “Inevitably, one or two teachers won’t hit the mark on the first shot, but I think the state is far better off than anyone else.”
Coding classes aren’t entirely new to Arkansas. The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, or ASMSA, a residential public high school for students gifted in math and science, has been requiring students to take computer science classes since its founding in 1993. Today, the Hot Springs school offers 11 programming classes, including one on artificial intelligence and robotics. ASMSA boasts alumni working in the IT departments of large Arkansas firms like Wal-Mart and Acxiom, as well as prominent tech-industry figures working further afield like Luther Lowe, the director of public policy for Yelp.
At least one alumnus hasn’t strayed too far. Daniel Moix first returned to the school as a teacher in 2003, serving in that capacity through 2010, and then again last year to lead the school’s Coding Arkansas’ Future program, which school officials hope will be a signature code-training center for teachers across the state.
The ASMSA’s teacher-training program entails a weeklong summer boot camp followed by a year’s worth of support and mentoring from Moix. He says he worked with 16 educators from across the state this year and that most of them were new to computer science.
“They are mostly business and math teachers, but we even have a French teacher,” said Moix. “The business teachers, as far as technology goes, are very well off. They can use spreadsheets, for example, but didn’t know computer programming or where that software comes from. The math teachers came in understanding more about algorithms, some of them had programmed calculators and some had even taken computer science classes in college. Each is facing a different set of challenges.”
Tammy Glass is one of the business teachers, based in the Spring Hill district in the southwest corner of the state. Glass explained that she and her students were bored with her school’s old computing curriculum, which consisted largely of lessons on using spreadsheets and making PowerPoint presentations, so she went to her superintendent and asked if she could apply for one of the new state grants to be trained to teach computer science. Glass didn’t think she had much of a chance, since her district serves just 550 students. When she got word that she had gotten the money, she quickly signed up for Moix’s class, not knowing what to expect.
“Just being familiar with computers helped me, but I had zero coding and programming experience,” she said. “During that week [of class], a lot of us were overwhelmed. We had a lot of information thrown at us, but it’s just like picking up a new language. Time and practice have made it easier and easier, but I’m not going to lie. It was a tough week.”
Throughout the year, the teachers in the ASMSA program have been using technology to get help from Moix as well as from each other. They have a monthly video-chat meeting to chew over their progress and get tips from each other. During those sessions, they discuss issues like how to handle behavioral issues in a classroom where every student is on a computer, or how to help students untangle a complex coding issue.
“We also have this amazing Google group,” said Glass. “You post a question, and five to 10 minutes later, someone has an answer. When you are in a smaller school district, there’s nobody else.”
Glass and one of her fellow ASMSA trainees, Deborah Horn, a math teacher in the Hot Springs school district, agree that the biggest challenge is balancing their training and new assignments teaching computer science with all their other duties.
“Juggling all the other responsibilities is the toughest part,” said Horn. “I usually teach three or four different subjects. During the year, we had to make sure to stay at least a week ahead of the students, working through everything they were going to see later, so when a kid had a question, you knew the stumbling blocks to that problem. I’d say on average we were easily spending an extra five to 10 hours a week learning computer science.”
Beyond the time crunch, Glass’ advice to educators looking to teach coding is to accept that in many cases the students might know more about the subject than the teacher does.
“Teachers like to hold all of the information and then give it out to students, but with computer science and technology, that’s not the case, our kids are exploring on their own, and they, a lot of the time, know more than I do,” said Glass.
Arkansas’s teacher-centered approach to increasing school coding offerings has begun to receive national recognition, with U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. citing the state’s progress as an example for the nation.
Educators in the state have the same agenda.
“What we’re doing at ASMA reaches into 16 districts, but this is a national movement that Arkansas happens to be ahead of the curve with,” said Moix. “It’s about moving computer science beyond the 2 percent who have been taking [Advanced Placement] classes. Getting all kids ready to be not just consumers of technology but producers, change agents.”