Cracking The Code To More K-12 Computer Science In Washington State

Cracking The Code To More K-12 Computer Science In Washington State
At Excel Public Charter School in Kent, Washington, a computational thinking program integrates principles of computer science into an array of academic subjects. Photo: Excel Public Charter School.

Demand for computer science jobs in Washington is three times greater than for all other jobs combined. Average starting pay in the state is a healthy $105,584. However, there’s a problem. The state isn’t graduating enough students to fill all the open positions.

According to code.org, there are 22,999 computing jobs currently open in Washington state, but only 1,001 computer science majors graduated from colleges in the state in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available.

Unfilled Jobs

Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, one million computer science jobs will go unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.

Only 23 percent of Washington high schools that offer AP programs of any kind, or 95 schools, offered an AP computer science course in 2014-15.

The College Board reports that of the 79,567 Washington students who took an AP exam in 2015, 1,048 students took the AP Computer Science exam, the least taken of any Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subject area exam.

Early Innings

Both State Senator Christine Rolfes (D-23) and State Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-22) note that the low turnout for AP computer science exam stems from how new the course is.

“Unlike general AP exams like AP math or English that apply for a lot of degrees in college, when you take AP Computer Science, you’re pretty darn set on computer science for college,” said Reykdal.  He added that the AP computer science exam will always be less generic.

“I think computer programming should be required, but it’s not right now, and if we required it, we’d have to come up with the funding to pay for it,” said Rolfes.

‘Nontraditional’ Approaches Key

“My instinct on teaching computer science in high school is the kids often know more than the teachers do so it’s not like teaching history or literature or English,” said Rolfes. “It’s one of these fields that change so rapidly, so we’re going to have to think of a nontraditional way to keep coursework up to date…maybe even facilitating classrooms where kids are teaching each other.”

At Excel Public Charter School in Kent, a “computational thinking” program means computer science principles are integrated into teaching of several different subjects.

Reports the national education publication The 74, “Students dissect complex problems into steps and use computer science vocabulary – algorithm, abstraction, decomposition – to understand their assignments. They do it in computer science class and they do it in English class and they do it in orchestra class.”

A former Microsoft manager runs the program and details progress at the school’s computational thinking blog.

Maggie Johnson, Director of Education and University Relations for Google, writes that layering computational thinking into K-12 learning gives students “a basis for making an informed decision on whether (computer science or information technology) is something they wish to pursue as a career.”

Chris Stephenson, Head of Computer Science Education Programs at Google, and Joyce Malyn-Smith, Managing Project Director at Education Development Center add that computational thinking builds valuable “dispositions” or “habits of mind” including “recognizing patterns, experimenting, describing, tinkering, inventing, visualizing, and conjecturing.”

Flexibility On Pay To Attract Qualified Teachers

The median starting salary nationwide for computer and information technology occupations in 2015 was $81,430, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, getting qualified computer science teachers in K-12 isn’t easy.

“If you can get a job that pays twice as much, you’re going to take that job,” said Representative Chad Magendanz (R-5). He is the ranking minority leader of the House Education Committee. “We’re a bit handicapped in the public education arena right now because we can’t differentiate pay. The unions are very insistent that every teacher is paid the same regardless of the demand for specific types of teachers.”

“It’s a little daunting sometimes when you consider there are a million school kids” in Washington state, “and how few are getting access to the careers with the most long term potential,” said Magendanz.

Liv Finne, Director of Education at Washington Policy Center, said, “Let’s look at the freedom to innovate that the charter schools are allowed, why can’t we spread that freedom to the traditional schools that are overly regulated?”

Teacher Mentoring

Raising teacher skill levels in the field is another approach. Magendanz pointed to the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program founded by Microsoft employee Kevin Wang in 2009. It aims to pair volunteer computer science professionals with K-12 teachers to teach computer science side-by-side. The goal is to have the classroom teacher take over responsibilities after two years.

Last year, 60 education and business leaders asked for Washington lawmakers to support expanded K-12 computer science through support for HB 1813. Among backers were executives of Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks.

Lawmakers approved the bill, which created a K-12 computer science grant program aimed toward at-risk students. The bill also required that OSPI adopt leading computer science teaching standards.

Getting Credits Right

In many states, computer science courses don’t count toward the math or science graduation requirement. In 2013, Washington lawmakers passed HB 1472 which allows coursework in the field to count toward the math or science graduation requirement in K-12, and as a core admission requirement for higher education. But the state doesn’t require all secondary schools to offer computer science.

In contrast, The Chicago School District, the country’s third largest, now requires computer science for graduation. State Impact Indiana reports that beginning this school year, the state will be required to teach computer science skills to all elementary and middle school students. Additionally, computer science is now required through eighth grade.

Post-Secondary Bootcamps

Not all post-secondary computer science options are within the public sector. Private fast-track and bootcamp style academies teaching computer science are flourishing.

Flatiron, a  technology school in New York takes students through at 12-week course with a price tag of $15,000. No degree is granted but what the course does get them, the Wall Street Journal reports, is a well-paying job with an average starting salary of $74,447. The school’s model is “intensely focused curricula that are constantly re-tailored” to meet employer needs.

Galvanize, another technology educator headquartered in Denver, Colorado, operates a bootcamp style program. The Denver Post reports the training school has high success rates, with 91 percent of their graduates finding a job within six months of completing the program. Starting salaries averaged $76,838 for web developers and $111,485 for data science grads.

Fully Funding Basic Education

Reykdal said incorporating more computer science in K-12 in Washington means “fully funding basic education.” He added when districts have the funding they need, they can institute programs they haven’t been able to afford before.

Paying teachers more, and paying them more consistently across Washington K-12 school districts with sometimes widely varying property tax resources, is Topic A for a legislative task force which has resumed meetings this fall. The panel will deliver a plan to lawmakers who are likely then to develop a ballot measure for November, 2017.

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