All jobs of the future will require some computer literacy skills so it’s increasingly important that quality computer science (CS) education is an urgent priority for school systems around the globe.
Although CS has been offered in K-12 public schools for decades, it has not been uniformly required, nor universally available. Yet, as society becomes increasingly dependent upon technology, many school systems feel an urgency to adopt policies that provide universal access to CS education and to ensure that all students have an understanding of computational thinking (CT).
CT relates to the skills and practices for solving complex problems. CT and CS are the focus of the 2021 State of Computer Science Education report, which takes a critical look at nine policy principles that support K-12 computer science education across the U.S. The report was a collaboration between Code.org, the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and the Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance.
This article will analyze the nine policies from the perspective of Mississippi and Wisconsin, two states with similar percentages of high schools offering computer science, but that have vastly different strategies for implementing Code.org’s nine policies. Additionally, we have worked as educators in each of these states and experienced their CS journeys firsthand.
Policy #1: Create a state plan
Overview: Student access to CS education varies across the U.S. Though many schools offer computer labs and classes in computer literacy (e.g., typing, internet use, word processing), CS courses go beyond basics to provide instruction on computational thinking, programming, coding languages, debugging, troubleshooting, as well as hardware and software applications. Our educational system must require its teachers to have these skills as well. Making computer science a fundamental part of a state’s system of education means it must provide preservice teacher education, professional development, and a K-12 scope and sequence that is integrated throughout the curriculum.
Equipping preservice and in-service teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to deliver high-quality, inquiry-based computer science instruction.
Developing and maintaining engaging and equitable computer science curricula.
Maintaining computer science standards that are consistent with relevant education and workforce demands.
Developing and maintaining industry partnerships to ensure computer science education meets industry needs.
Identifying, exploring and preparing for future trends in technology.
Wisconsin has developed a statewide strategic state plan to make decisions regarding state agency resource allocation, implementation and industry partnerships. Each section includes state-level goals and strategies.
Overview: High-quality, equitable standards create foundational expectations for all students and prepare students for success in a variety of postsecondary, college and career opportunities. Just as with other standards, like math or literacy, computer science standards exist to ensure consistency and access for all students.
The Mississippi standards seek to accomplish the following:
Introduce the fundamental concepts of computer science to all students, beginning at the elementary school level.
Present computer science at the secondary school level in a way that can fulfill a computer science graduation credit.
Encourage additional secondary-level computer science courses that will allow students to study facets of computer science in more depth and prepare them for entry into the workforce or college.
Increase the availability of rigorous computer science for all students, especially those who are members of underrepresented groups.
While these standards are not required at all schools, they do provide the standards for the implementation of computer science curricula and resources. Various sets of standards and standards-related documents were used in the development of the Mississippi Computer Science Standards including:
The Wisconsin Academic Standards for Computer Science were developed by a statewide writing committee and submitted for extensive review by the public and the State Superintendent's Review Council. State Superintendent Tony Evers adopted the standards in June 2017.
This vision for K-12 CS standards and the CSTA CS Standards is intended to:
Introduce the fundamental concepts of CS to all students, beginning at the elementary school level.
Present CS at the secondary school level in a way that will be both accessible and worthy of a CS credit, or as a graduation credit.
Offer additional secondary-level CS standards that will allow students to study facets of CS in-depth and prepare them for entry into a career or college.
Increase the knowledge of CS for all students, especially those from under-represented groups.
Ensure that CS courses offered at the high school level directly align with state-level course codes (just as with math and literacy).
Ensure that K-8 computer science standards have a scope and sequence that prepares students for meeting the 9-12 standards.
Look through state digital literacy standards and computer science standards to see where they overlap. Here’s an example from Wisconsin.
Begin thinking about artificial intelligence and cyber-security as potential integration within CS standards.
Policy #3: Allocate funding for computer science teacher PD
Overview: This policy is crucial! In education, we routinely see schools and districts adopt technology that “would be great.” But if teachers aren’t trained, those tools sit on a shelf or are not used to their full potential. The only way to ensure that we implement CS and CT properly is with training.
Overview: The path to obtaining a computer science teaching license needs to be clear. We do not want teachers to give up on obtaining a 9-12 computer science license if they cannot figure out the requirements they need to meet. Additionally, K-8 teachers need to have an option for obtaining a computer science endorsement/certificate.
The state does require CS certification for middle and high school level teachers. The state computer science and engineering class is considered the new STEM class. A 983 endorsement qualifies teachers to teach the CSE course.
Teachers who hold a 6-12 teaching license can add on a license by passing a content area Praxis test. For computer science, it is Comp. Sci.5652.
The state Department of Public Instruction also has a state-level strategy that recommends informing people from the computer science industry on pathways to licensure. For those professionals who have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, sciences or computer science, their pathway involves being hired by a district that has identified a critical shortage, being supervised during a two-year permit period by a licensed teacher, taking 100 hours in pedagogical instruction, and passing the appropriate competency exam.
Policy #4 implementation recommendations
Ensure that recommendations from the state level come with accountability, and progress is reported to stakeholders. To ensure consistency across the state, engage local BOCES, CESAs, RESAs, AESAs, or other local educational agencies to create elementary (K-8) consistency.
Create incentive structures for professionals (teachers and nonteachers) filling computer science positions.
Policy #5: Create preservice programs
Overview: The Computer Science Teachers Association says it best: “Effective CS teachers must have thorough content knowledge and skills in computer science and understand student learning progression. They must also continuously refine their pedagogical content knowledge and skills to support all students in meeting learning outcomes. Schools of education are well positioned to leverage these standards to establish robust guidelines for their preservice candidates and serve the field of CS education by expanding the pipeline of qualified K-12 CS teachers.”
Alcorn, Jackson State University, Mississippi College, Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women, Rust College, Tougaloo College and University of Mississippi all offer the course computer applications for K-12.
Mississippi State University offers a CS endorsement for K-6 and a CS endorsement for K-12.
William Carey University offers a STEM K-12 endorsement for graduate students that incorporates some aspects of CS.
It is unclear if there are any preservice teacher education courses that focus on computer science pedagogy for grade 1-8 teachers or a grade 6-12 computer science teacher education program. While the recommendation from the state Department of Public instruction states: “Develop/review preservice academic standards and curriculum for computer science, computational thinking, and digital literacy and information technology literacy with other content areas,” there does not appear to be any such courses offered by higher education in the state.
Programs should focus on the infusion of computer science content into the core content curricula to ensure that all future teachers are properly trained, eliminating the need for additional teacher units.
Expose preservice teachers to computer science during their required coursework or by creating specific pathways for computer science teachers.
Policy #6: Establish CS supervisor positions in education agencies
Overview: Without supervision, the mission to expand CS education may stagnate. Supervisors are necessary to ensure that the timelines set forth by each state are followed, roadblocks are identified and progress is made. Creating statewide computer science leadership positions within the state education agencies will help expand state-level implementation of computer science education initiatives. Similar positions at the local levels should support districts’ expansion of course offerings and professional development. Inequitable funding for teacher PD and lack of preservice programs should be areas of focus for this position.
The state acknowledges the need for broader partnerships and innovative approaches to help it reach its aggressive curriculum and teacher training goals. However, despite the requirement to submit yearly reports, the state does not have a designated supervisor position at the state or local education agencies.
Create a statewide position that focuses solely on ensuring computer science for all students. This position should be commensurate in pay with a district administrative role.
Supervisory positions should be responsible for ensuring that state policies provide clarity, school and state capacity, sustainability of computer science initiatives, and promote access to and equity within rigorous and engaging computer science for all students (K-12).
Supervisory positions should work closely with other state-level positions to ensure equity of funding and accessibility.
Policy #7: Require all high schools to offer computer science
Overview: Historically, schools and students located in low-income or rural communities have had less access to digital infrastructure, a phenomenon widely known as the digital divide. Aside from a host of other negative consequences, this divide leaves some students with fewer opportunities to regularly interact with computing devices in learning contexts and will have less access to high-quality CS instruction. Requiring that all high schools offer computer science will narrow the divide and level the playing field for students, regardless of economical or ethnic backgrounds.
Mississippi began pushing CS in middle and high school in 2014. By 2018 the majority of schools in the state offered such courses. The COVID-19 pandemic also helped narrow the digital divide by speeding up allocation of devices and bandwidth to every student. Today, 76% of Mississippi high school students attend a school that offers computer science, but only 5.2% of students are enrolled in a foundational computer science course. More classes are being offered across the state, and most school districts have mandated CS in elementary school.
Although Wisconsin does not yet require all secondary schools to offer computer science, it does mandate that each school board provide an instructional program designed to give students knowledge in computer science, including problem-solving, computer applications and the social impact of computers.
Policy #7 implementation recommendations
Advocate for revisions to the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act to include specific language around computer science education.
Use the SCRIPT (Strategic CSforALL Planning Tool for School Districts) program at a districtwide level to ensure CSforALL.
Policy #8: Allow CS credit to satisfy a core graduation requirement
Overview: Most state-level leaders recognize that they play an important role in supporting and sustaining equitable K–12 CS education. However, the nature of CS requirements for graduation varies dramatically from state to state. Some states still don’t require all high schools to offer CS but have taken other approaches to extending access to CS learning experiences, such as adding computer programming. Some states permit but do not require districts to allow CS to fulfill a mathematics or science credit for high school graduation. Many state policies seek to ensure that students have completed foundational coursework in core subject areas (for example, Algebra I or geometry for mathematics or basic lab sciences for science) before allowing a CS course to be applied as a credit substitution. Some states permit only Advanced Placement (AP) CS to take the place of a mathematics or science credit.
Courses that meet the state department's definition of computer science can count as a mathematics credit for graduation. Although there is a wide range of computer science courses available in Wisconsin public schools, only some of those courses are eligible for a third mathematics credit toward graduation requirements. The courses must be on the list of approved courses and/or contain the following components to be considered for mathematics credit:
Algorithmic problem solving: Systematic study of algorithms or processes that underlie the acquisition, representation, processing, storage, communication of and access to information.
Application development: Application development and application design through coding, programming and software engineering.
Computational design and Computational Intelligence: Study of the design of computational systems, understanding how computational systems work -- and hands-on application of mathematical processes within computational systems.
Computational thinking: Scientific and practical approach to computation and its application.
Management information systems: Study of the access to information generated through computer systems (programming, databases, application development) coding, database development, and the understanding of the applications used for computational processing and application development.
Policy #8 implementation recommendations
Create K-12 CS pathways that allow for exposure in early grades to encourage students to take a CS course in high school.
Create policies requiring all high schools to offer CS. Students could also be allowed to take CS courses through higher education, both locally and online.
States should allow policies to include AP Computer Science Principles, dual enrollment CS, or CS courses plus attainment of an industry-recognized credential as a CS course qualification and issue graduation credits for such courses.
Policy #9: Allow CS to satisfy a higher education admission requirement
Overview: Admission policies for most colleges and universities do not allow rigorous computer science courses to meet the mathematics or science entrance requirements, which discourages students from taking such courses in secondary education — even if they count as a high school graduation requirement. Aligning these policies would incentivize students to explore computer science earlier, which is an important step in increasing diversity in the field.
The state does not have a specific plan for creating an admission requirement for CS at this time, but by working closely with the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning and the Mississippi Community College Board they will approve any courses taught at the high school level. This is the first step in creating an admission requirement for CS. Mississippi plans to have the opportunity for CS education in every school in the state by the 2024-25 school year.
The state does not yet allow computer science to count as a core admission requirement at institutions of higher education. Admission policies that do not include rigorous computer science courses as meeting a core entrance requirement, such as in mathematics or science, discourage students from taking such courses in secondary education. State leaders can work with institutions of higher education to ensure credit and articulation policies align with secondary school graduation requirements.
Policy #9 implementation recommendations
Ensure that institutions of higher education (trade schools, two-year and four year technical, certification programs) recognize computer science as meeting the skills needed to think computationally and solve complex problems.
From policy to results
In this active era of CS policy adoption, we need to explore whether these actions correspond to changes in student outcomes in CS. Are students more likely to participate and succeed in CS learning? Do race- and gender-based gaps narrow with more universal access?
“Computing is changing every part of our lives, from how we interact with each other to how we do our jobs,” according to a report from the Code.org Advocacy Coalition and the Computer Science Teachers Association. “Yet the U.S. education system does not provide widespread access to this critical subject.”
Establishing policies alone isn’t enough to guarantee student success in computer science through computational thinking. It takes teachers and leaders who care and take action as well as access to technology to teach computer science and computational thinking in a meaningful and successful way. The goal of today’s society is to have computational thinkers who can harness the power of computing to innovate and solve problems. This is precisely the goal of both CS and CT.
Alicia Verweij is a seasoned educator who is passionate about teaching children to think critically, problem-solve, and function in an ever-changing digital world. As a 17+ year teaching veteran, she has shared her passion for integrating STEAM and project-based learning into the curriculum at local, state, regional and national conferences, and has leveraged her expertise by sharing tips and strategies with educators as the founder of EDGEucating.
Heidi Williams is a passionate coding and computational thinking advocate. Her over 30+ years of experience as a teacher, coach and administrator have included integrating coding into the K-12 curriculum. She currently serves as the computer science curriculum specialist at Marquette University. Check out her website nofearcoding.org.
Kerri Wilder has over 25+ years of experience in various aspects of education. She works as a university supervisor of student teachers at William Carey University. As a seasoned educator, she is known for her perspective and innovation for solving problems. In addition, she has shared her expertise at national and international conferences on the topics of STEM education, school climate and culture, and strategies for administrators. Kerri shares other tips and strategies with educators as the co-founder of EDGEucating.