JEFFERSON CITY — Not all of Burdett Wilson’s computer programming students at Macon Area Career and Technical Education Center are planning on earning bachelor’s degrees.

Some of them are taking their coding skills directly into the workforce, earning starting annual salaries ranging from $26,000 to $30,000 with just a high school diploma. Wilson even had one student accept a $65,000 salary for a data analysis job in St. Louis within two years of graduating high school.

That’s why Wilson wants to make sure policymakers in Jefferson City don’t design the state’s new computer science curriculum with only traditional four-year college-bound students in mind.

“One of the trends nationwide is to turn computer science at the high school level into Advanced Placement courses,” Wilson told the Missouri State Board of Education at its meeting Tuesday morning. “Some of my students told me they never would have taken my class if it had AP in front of the name,” he said, emphasizing the real-world value of learning computer science skills.

Wilson’s testimony came as the state education board met to hear updates from the computer science work group, which is comprised of educators tasked with developing K-12 computer science performance standards.

The group formed after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed House Bill 3 into law last October. The law allows students to apply a computer science course toward graduation requirements and aims to expand awareness about job opportunities in STEM fields. It falls in line with Parson’s broader agenda of investing in workforce development to meet the technological demands of the 21st century and encourage students to pursue a variety of high-need professions, like coding.

“Computer science is a literacy,” said Doug Barton, a Lindbergh School District instructional technology curriculum specialist and one of five educators in charge of the working group.

“Not every student needs to be a coder, but every student should understand how it all works,” added group leader Bob Deneau, who also serves as an instructional technology specialist at Rockwood School District in the greater St. Louis area.

To improve computer science literacy in Missouri schools, Barton said the group, which has consulted with industry experts and policy experts from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is considering two possibilities: adding entirely new computer science courses, especially at the high school-level, and integrating computer science skills into existing courses.

Patrick Sasser, a group member and digital media teacher from Columbia Public Schools, said the goal of the new computer science standards is to provide a foundation for local school districts to implement as they see fit.

“If a school district decides to create stand-alone course at the high school level, then they have a good document to draw from. At the same time if they decide they think it’s best to use an integrative approach, then they also have a document that can help them find those connections,” Sasser said.

Education board member Peter F. Herschend raised concerns about how these extra requirements could stretch educators too thin.

“The vast majority of teachers did not have a class in teaching computer science,” Herschend said. “Making it a separate class is one more class in a curriculum that’s already full.”

Deneau said supporting teachers is key to advancing the goals of the computer science standards. “Teachers are going to need our support through resources, through our guidance. (We want to) take away the fear that computers can (instill) in people.”

Infrastructure

But before computer literacy can reach all of of Missouri’s school districts, every community will need the proper infrastructure in place, namely broadband internet. Last year, Missouri lawmakers created a Broadband Development Office to address disparities in high-speed internet access, after a 2018 report by the Columbia Missourian explored the issue.

Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said that while Missouri hasn’t quite closed the broadband gap, “it hopes to be there by the end of next year.”

Next steps

The computer science work group will take public comment on its drafted standards over the next month and submit its work in April. From there, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education will hear the final recommendations. Finally, in May, the state education board will consider them for approval.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.

  • Kathryn Palmer is an education reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate student at the MU School of Journalism. She can be reached at kathryn.palmer@mail.missouri.edu

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