How did Arkansas become a national leader in promoting and implementing a K-12 computer science curriculum? According to Anthony A. Owen, chief state STEM officer and state director of computer science education with the Arkansas Department of Education in Little Rock, many factors came together: a governor who passionately promotes CS in schools, business and community partnerships that support the idea, teachers dedicated to making the curriculum work, and state legislators who fund the project. To find out more, we contacted Owen, who also gave tips on how other states can follow Arkansas’ lead:
Q: Tell us about your position with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) and your role in computer science education in the state.
A: As state director of computer science education since July 2015, I lead the development and implementation of Governor Asa Hutchinson’s Computer Science Initiative. I coordinate with multiple national and state entities including K-12 educators, representatives from higher education and business and industry leaders to ensure Arkansas’ efforts in CS are relevant to the needs of the state and nation.
I also serve as a board member for the National Computer Science Teachers Association, and as a member of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Commission on Computer Science, Information Technology and Related Career Fields. In addition, I served as a writer of the recently published K-12 Computer Science Framework. Finally, I worked closely with Governor Hutchinson’s Computer Science Task Force, which identified the state’s computer science and technology needs.
As chief state STEM officer since May 2018, I work to ensure that all state efforts in the sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics disciplines are in line with the ADE vision to transform Arkansas into a national leader in student-focused education, as my office has done with CS education since 2015. In addition to the state’s strong CS specialist team, I oversee a statewide network of 50-plus content specialists dedicated to training Arkansas teachers in STEM content knowledge and successful teaching strategies.
From 2011 until July 2015, I served as ADE’s K-12 mathematics and computer science curriculum specialist.
I received a bachelor of science in mathematics with a double minor in education and computer science, and a master of science in education in educational leadership, both from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I received a juris doctorate from the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in 2013 and was admitted to the Arkansas Bar in 2014.
Q: Can you give us an overview of where computer science stands in Arkansas schools, and how your state achieved that position? How does Arkansas’ progress compare with other states’?
A: Arkansas is leading the nation in K-12 CS education. Alongside this Q&A, I have included a 1-pager on some key points, which include that:
- Arkansas was the first state to pass comprehensive legislation requiring every high school in the state to offer high-quality CS.
- Arkansas established a national model for the CS flex credit, which allows CS to count in place for math and science.
- Arkansas is the first state to write and mandate grade-specific computer science standards for all K-8 students.
- ADE, with the assistance of the Arkansas CS Task Force, developed and adopted a comprehensive strategic plan for CS that continues to be updated and serves as a model for other states implementing CS initiatives.
- Funding: Provided $15 million over the FY 2016-21 budgets for all high schools to offer computer science.
- K-12 CS Certification: Created a new CS teacher licensure and adopted a new assessment — PraxisTM Computer Science (5651) exam.
- Dedicated CS Position: Act 970 created a computer science coordinator position in the Department of Education.
And, I would direct you to this spreadsheet which shows how Arkansas compares with other states in meeting the nine Code.org policy recommendations to make CS fundamental to K-12 education. Arkansas meets them all. Those recommendations are:
- Create a state plan for K-12 computer science.
- Define computer science and establish rigorous K-12 computer science standards.
- Allocate funding for rigorous computer science teacher professional learning and course support.
- Implement clear certification pathways for computer science teachers.
- Create programs at institutions of higher education to offer computer science to preservice teachers.
- Establish dedicated computer science positions in state and local education agencies.
- Require that all secondary schools offer computer science with appropriate implementation timelines.
- Allow computer science to satisfy a core graduation requirement.
- Allow computer science to satisfy an admission requirement at institutions of higher education.
Q: Why is your governor so supportive of CS in Arkansas schools? Have state legislators and educators been as supportive?
A: I think the governor himself can best answer that question. He has a site and a series of YouTube videos dedicated to his CS Education Initiative; I invite you to witness his passion for yourself: https://governor.arkansas.gov/computer-science
Regarding our legislators, they have been wonderful. Every piece of meaningful CS education-related legislation has enjoyed full bipartisan support since 2015, including the most recent line-item appropriation of $2.5 million per year dedicated to the CS Education Initiative.
Our Arkansas educators have responded in a wonderful and meaningful way, which is exemplified by the number of teachers engaging in CS-related professional development, becoming fully endorsed in CS, participating in our K-8 CS Lead Teacher program and facilitating a growth of about 1,000 students taking a high school CS course in 2014 to more than 6,500 taking a high school CS course in the 2017-18 school year.
Q: Does Arkansas rely on business/community partnerships to make progress in this area of education?
A: We do rely on business/community partnerships. While there are too many to mention them all, I have included links to information on a few of the most significant ones below:
Q: How can other states replicate your strategy for successful implementation of CS in the curriculum? What steps can be taken for easy initial “wins” in this area, especially if money is tight for teacher training and for hardware and software, and if public support is lacking?
A: Our strategic plan can be found here. It outlines our early and ongoing work.
I would also suggest that states look at the code.org policy suggestions as good initial steps to take, even if they cannot take all nine. Our office’s motto is, “No excuses; only actions,” which is a shortened version of, “You can have excuses or results, but not both.”
While the digital divide is a real issue, I am convinced that it, like many other “reasons” provided for lack of student success, is a convenient excuse. Our students have access to technology, even if “outdated,” that is thousands of times more powerful than the guidance computers used to put men on the moon and bring them home; beyond that, most concepts within the CS field can be successfully taught using unplugged (or, not technology based) activities.
Arkansas has extremely successful teachers of this mindset who teach in schools that have limited resources but refuse to accept an excuse for not succeeding. High expectations for this initiative continue to be expressed and championed by Gov. Hutchinson and state Commissioner of Education Johnny Key.
High expectations for my team, our schools and Arkansas teachers continue to be communicated by myself and my office. In the most successful schools, high expectations for student learning and engagement are an integral part of the culture.
Q: What are the next goals for CS in Arkansas?
A: Our primary goal is expanding teacher capacity in both skills of existing CS teachers and number of CS teachers.
Our secondary goal is continued student engagement/growing overall and diverse enrollment in our high-school CS courses.
Third is continuing to ensure that our content standards and professional development are keeping up to date with emerging technologies and advances within the CS field.
Each year it is going to be increasingly fun and challenging to exceed the excitement generated in our state around this initiative, but it is a challenge we are up to.
If you want a sample of the kinds of programs we are proud of in the 2017 year, please see our week of CS announcements at: http://www.arkansased.gov/divisions/special-projects/arkansas-computer-science-initiative/computer-science-communications/2017-computer-science-education-week-announcements
More information about our initiative can be found at: http://www.arkansased.gov/divisions/special-projects/arkansas-computer-science-initiative