Computer Courses Measure Puts Arkansas at Forefront of Expanding Coding Opportunities

Gov. Asa Hutchinson: “It is a skill set that our young people are wanting.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson: “It is a skill set that our young people are wanting.” (Karen E. Segrave)
Gov. Asa Hutchinson discusses the new computer science requirement at the state Capitol.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson discusses the new computer science requirement at the state Capitol. (Karen E. Segrave)

Newly elected Gov. Asa Hutchinson drew the attention of educators and the technology industry across the country when he successfully ushered a bill through the Legislature for all high schools in the state to offer computer science courses.

The requirement — and the back-end work to put it in place, including teacher training and certification — rocketed Arkansas to the forefront of coding education in the country.

Hutchinson’s campaign pledge came to fruition with the passage of House Bill 1183, which established the mandate, starting with the school year that starts in August. The law also laid the groundwork for a task force that will evaluate more ways to improve computer science education in the state.

In the meantime, years of work by the Arkansas Department of Education and the Arkansas Department of Career Education have come to the forefront as students from Bentonville to Blytheville and Texarkana to Eudora can expect to enroll in the courses in a matter of months.

Hutchinson smiled broadly as he discussed how he sees Arkansas responding to the needs of industry and providing opportunities for well-paying jobs. The governor, like several others interviewed for this story, cited a Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that predicted there would be 1 million unfilled computer science-related jobs by 2020.

“It’s really a great economic opportunity for the state of Arkansas, but most importantly it is a skill set that our young people are wanting. And it’s wonderful that they’re wanting a skill set that actually leads to a job and a good-paying job,” Hutchinson said in an interview at the Capitol.

Who Will Teach?

Hutchinson and educators are in agreement about one of the program’s biggest obstacles: a shortage of educators qualified to teach the now-required courses.

Debbie Bruick-Jones, assistant commissioner for learning services at ADE, said the department has developed its first computer science test for teachers, which it will provide for any teachers in June. A licensed teacher who passes would be eligible to teach one of four computer science courses: Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate computer science, essentials of computer programming or computer science and mathematics. A licensed teacher who does not pass could still receive a “provisional certificate” that would allow him or her to teach a class while preparing to take the test again next summer.All high schools must offer one of the four courses, but which courses are offered and the specifics of the curriculum are decided at the local level.

School districts that can’t field a qualified teacher will have access to the courses through Virtual Arkansas, an online teaching program already used by the department.

The computer science test is part of the department’s goal of laying a foundation for complying with the new mandate by expanding the number of qualified teachers around the state. The department will use part of the $5 million set aside for the program by the governor for teacher training and is allowing districts and schools to apply for grants of up to $20,000 to build capacity to teach the courses.

Several options are available for teachers to develop their skills, including free weeklong training in the state and multiday courses for teachers at locations across the country.

Bruick-Jones explained that the department wants to be prepared for when the task force comes back with its recommendations.

“We certainly don’t expect to just have this one computer science class [requirement] and be finished with it. I expect that they’ll have recommendations for middle school and for elementary so that they have a really strong program of computer science so that students can get to really high levels of computer science and coding at the high school when they get there,” she said.

Bruick-Jones said that the test and a set of standards for the courses, which were approved by the state board in February, were new challenges for the department.

Previously, computer science courses fell under the purview of the Department of Career Education, which is now working alongside the Department of Education.

“When ADE started this the beginning of this year and wrote the computer science and mathematics course, it’s really the first time that we wandered into that field. We both agreed we need to work more together so it makes better sense to schools,” Bruick-Jones said.

Tim Johnston, program coordinator for school improvement and STEM education at the Department of Career Education, said his department offers a slew of computer-related courses.

According to information provided by the department, that includes 19 courses on everything from mobile applications development to computer programming languages including Java. Career Education has 240 instructors for those courses working in high schools across the state, but also teaches classes in middle schools and secondary career centers, which service multiple districts.

Johnston said that some of those courses have been available to students for years, and have been offered partially in response to industry requests. The department will also be following the work of regional advisory groups, which will be gathering information on industry needs in those specific regions.

Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, praised the governor’s initiative in a statement released to Arkansas Business.

“The Governor’s coding initiative is a valuable opportunity to expand the skill set of Arkansas’ high school students,” Robinson said. “The AEA looks forward to working to ensure that the educators that will teach coding are well qualified and certified so that student outcomes are successful.”

Needs of Industry

Computer science education for high school students is not a novel concept. For more than a decade, programs like Project Lead the Way have made courses that expose students to computer science and engineering available across the country.

Arkansas was one of the first to require computer science be taught in all schools, and stands out because of its framework in building teacher certification requirements and standards, said Cameron Wilson, chief operating officer for, a nonprofit that works to provide access to coding education.

Wilson said that that back-end work, coupled with funding for professional development for teachers, sets the state up for “sustainability and growth.” He said other states will likely be looking to Arkansas as an example.

“I think they’re going to be a model for the country. And it’s really great to have a state like Arkansas, which you don’t expect to take a leadership position on computer science education, kind of pave the way for the rest of the nation, both on addressing the policy issues and addressing the funding and teacher pipeline issues,” Wilson said.

Wilson said that there is a need for computer science workers across the country and that there are almost 1,900 open computing jobs in the state.

Trained teachers could leave after developing their skills, Wilson said, so it’s important to continue to provide training options for others.

Eric Dodds is the chief marketing officer for The Iron Yard, a company that offers or has plans to offer computer programming courses in more than a dozen locations nationwide. The company plans to launch courses in Little Rock by the middle of June.

Dodds said in an interview that he has also seen the demand for computer science education firsthand. He said part of the group’s decision to move into the state was based on his conversations with businesses here.

“Everyone said, ‘I need to hire a bunch of developers yesterday and it’s really hard for us to find good talent,’” Dodds said.

It remains to be seen how the state will grow computer science education and how quickly it responds to the needs of industry.

But Hutchinson said that he sees the current mandate for computer science courses as a “low-cost investment with a high return.” He said he expects the private sector to expand on the state’s work.

“What I would [expect to] see is, even as we move in the public schools to more comprehensive computer science education, that the private sector will supplement, will take it to the next level, so that they can provide more sophisticated, more diversity in the computer programming,” Hutchinson said.

Enrollment in Career and Technical Education Courses   

Course Name 2014-15 Enrollment*
ALICE Programming 146
Computer Engineering/ Diagnostics 740
Computer Engineering/ Networking 550
Computer Engineering/ Operations 702
Computer Game Design and Development 45
Computer Science and Software Engineering 102
Digital Electronics 533
Engineering Design and Development 58
Introduction to Engineering Design 3,350
Introduction to JAVA 9
Introduction to Mobile Application Development 245
JAVA Programming 3
Mobile Application Development I 26
Mobile Application Development II 19
Mobile Application Development Lab A 12
Mobile Application Development Lab B 8
Principles of Engineering 3,348
Programming I 670
Programming II 483

*Enrollment includes students taking multiple classes