FORTIFYING OUR POSITION

This past week I was asked to fill in for a speaker, at the NGA 2018 Governors’ Education Policy Advisors Institute, that was not able to make it due to Hurricane Florence. First, let me extend my sympathies to those on the East Coast that were affected by the storm and resulting floods; my thoughts and prayers are with you and your families.

During the short time, approximately 23 hours, I had to prepare for my speech, I thought about “what do I want to discuss.” Of course, I could have presented the same “Computer Science in Arkansas” discussion that I have given so often that I recite it in my sleep, but I decided since I had gubernatorial policy advisors in the room, that I would issue a challenge, or what turned into a series of challenges. I will share some of those challenges and thoughts here.

While a good portion of the speech focused on the technological displacement, or in a positive light “emerging jobs creation,” I also reminded the group of the following:

“Exposed deficiencies in our educational system come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new fields is accelerating rapidly. For example: Computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives–homes, factories, and offices.
We must emphasize that the variety of student aspirations, abilities, and preparation requires that appropriate content be available to satisfy diverse needs. Attention must be directed to both the nature of the content available and to the needs of particular learners. The most gifted students, for example, may need a curriculum enriched and accelerated beyond even the needs of other students of high ability. Similarly, educationally disadvantaged students may require special curriculum materials, smaller classes, or individual tutoring to help them master the material presented. Nevertheless, there remains a common expectation: We must demand the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged, whether destined for college, the farm, or industry.
The teaching of computer science in high school should equip graduates to: (a) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device; (b) use the computer in the study of the other Basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and (c) understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies.”

When I informed the group that this was from A Nation at Risk published in April of 1983, I noted quite a few shocked faces. Then I asked the real questions. What has changed in education over the past 35 years? Has the role of teachers changed to better utilize the technology that is becoming not only more prevalent within our classrooms, but also increasingly crucial for students to learn before they are sent into a job market that demands they have an appropriate amount of digital literacy mixed with problem solving skills?

Many industry leaders I interact with say that the K-12, or even the K-16, system is not providing the workers with the skills they need. The current workforce has more computing power and digital resources at their disposal than at any time in history, yet we find that some just cannot or choose not to “get the job done.” Our industries do their best to provide the latest technology, a safe and comfortable work environment, and on-the-job training. They encourage, correct, direct, and support their employees, yet they still are often left with producers of subpar work. Why is this? Is it because we at the K-16 space have in many ways failed? I do believe that the fault has to partially lie at the feet of educators, and I include myself in that fault group. We are failing to produce more problem solvers than brain flushers.

What is the solution? It is to not teach (or at least teach as it is currently understood). A big part of the solution will be educators who become facilitators of learning. They will allow our kids to grapple and struggle with real problems on a daily basis; allow them to get frustrated occasionally and find a solution to that frustration on their own; and stop rewarding bad practices and mediocre effort in order to not hurt someone’s feelings. Industry doesn’t reward poor performance, so why should education establish this as an expectation within our students?

One of the reasons I love technology and computer science is because it doesn’t care about feelings. It expects and demands perfection because it knows nothing different. Students and adults who are programming computers have to be precise. They have to work out a way to a solution that works all the time. They have to try to break their own product through testing. These are all actions that develop communication, problem solving, self-reflection, and personal growth. Teachers moving to a facilitator mode, can leverage technology to meet the needs of our high performers, main stream students, and those that need additional support. This type of approach is what will produce a workforce that better meets the soft skill and technological prowess needs of our industries.

If we want the excitement and movement that is happening in the computer science education community to continue and have a positive long-lasting impact, we must each ask ourselves on a daily basis, “what am I going to do to ensure that the educational system undergoes radical positive change that will prepare our students to meet the needs of industry?” In short, what are we doing to make sure that in another 35 years, we are not still a nation at risk.

Anthony A. Owen
State Department Representative

Leeroy Jenkins!

Now that Ready Player One is exiting theaters and transitioning to home video, I figured I would start with a quote from Armada, another book written by Ernest Cline.

“I had been hoping and waiting for some mind-blowingly fantastic, world-altering event to finally shatter the endless monotony of my public education.”

While this quote is from a fictional story, the first time I read it, I paused and took time to read it again. Though this was in the first chapter of the book, I continued thinking about it in the context of today’s students and the work we have in front of us. In Armada, the protagonist, Zachary Lightman, thought these words to himself when he saw something truly remarkable happening outside of his classroom window. While the details of everyday life are not as dramatic as those in the book, this scenario is not fictional.

Millions of children are finishing their last few days of school this week, and they are feeling like a prisoner about to be paroled. Why is this the case? Well my opinion is that for the past 40 or so years, we have established a system that in many ways labels over 1/3rd of our kids as “losers.” No, I am not talking about kids that scored at a certain level on an assessment or kids that didn’t make football, band, cheerleading… I am talking about the roughly 35% of our high-school graduates that do not go to college. Our nation, and states, have established public school systems that are trying to be assembly lines to produce college applicants; notice that I didn’t say college graduates. Approximately 40% of those that enter college do not graduate. When this taken into consideration, we are establishing a system that is set up to work efficiently for 39% of our population; what about the other 61%? Well many of them have thoughts, on a daily basis, like Zach, or cry out like Job in his final defense. That 61% figuratively, and sometimes literally, cry out to their teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, and state leaders, “why do you not answer me? You see me and know my current and future plight, but you continue to make decisions that support the others and leave me in the dark!”

Now that the drama is out of the way, I will get to the point. Computer science (CS) is not the panacea we all wish it was, but it is a great start for this 61%. Not only will CS be a direct benefit for many of them, it is a catalyst for changes that can positively affect all students. In my state, I have long disliked that we set state-level pre-requisites, based on seat time, on our high-school mathematics courses. When Arkansas adopted CS standards and courses, I made sure that we did not set state level prerequisites on our high-school courses; it should be up to the local teacher and school to determine what level course the student is ready for. This policy has been a phenomenal success! Students are actually enrolling in courses that are more attuned to their skill level, abilities, and desires. The best part is, our state leadership is now having discussions if this is something we should replicate in other subject areas, including mathematics.

Computer science is the bipartisan wave we can all ride to change the culture of our educational systems. I challenge everyone of you regardless of your position, to use the computer science movement in a way that is beneficial to our students, by demonstrating that our educational system, your district, your school, or your class can be nimble and reflective of student and societal needs. If we all will rise to this challenge, the community can respond to future generations with “you’re welcome.”


Anthony Owens, State Department Representative

What are we Doing?

When I was asked to write this blog, I wondered if I should focus on the Arkansas Computer Science (CS) Initiative, after all who doesn’t like to brag about their program? Instead, I decided to publicly address something that has weighed on my mind over the past three years. Yes, while Obama was in office and more so now that Trump is in office. At almost every national presentation I have given, I have always stated, at some point and in some way, that “Computer Science is not a partisan issue, it will only become one when we the community force it to be one.” This is the focus of this blog.

On January 30, 2016, President Obama asked Congress to allocate $4 billion to expand K-12 CS education. This announcement, while the amount was questioned, was met with over all excitement and enthusiasm; the community had a POTUS that was finally talking about CS education. It is what really made the #CSforALL movement gain national attention and respect. Personally, I was captivated with the renewed excitement; people who had seemed to doubt that their state would ever make any progress forward, were again actively engaging in visionary discourse. We all know that the $4 billion was never approved in a federal budget, nor did many who were connected to D.C. discussions ever think it would be. Notwithstanding, the announcement generated headlines, got other federal agencies thinking about CS (thank you National Science Foundation), and bolstered the movement amongst states that had been thinking about, but not yet wholeheartedly committed to, jumping into the CS Education arena, which Arkansas has led since 2015 (yes, I had to throw that in there). With that in mind I ask, what are we doing to keep the excitement we all felt on January 30, 2016 as a catalyst for change?

Fast forward to September 25, 2017, President Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump announce that POTUS is requesting that the Federal Department of Education (DOE) devote at least $200 million of its grant funds to STEM fields with an emphasis on CS education. This announcement, which spurred the #CSforKids movement, was met with mixed reactions, and unfortunately, individual reactions could almost be predicted based on party affiliation. Personally, I was again excited, not at the mixed reactions, but that President Trump had found a way to continue the discussions about CS education from the platform of our nation’s highest executive office. We all knew that it would not look like President Obama’s plan, but I will admit that, prior to this announcement, I was anxious about it potentially disappearing from the federal focus completely. Before I get emails, I will acknowledge that we are still waiting on the DOE to open the competitive grant program, which I believe to be delayed for various reasons including but not limited to aggregating and considering the feedback and the lack of a long-term federal budget. With that in mind I ask, what are we doing to maintain the initiative’s momentum in a positive and cohesive manner?

Now that the history portion is out of the way, I address directly the question my title asks, “What are we doing?” After September 25, 2017, I was appalled at the way our community started fighting through various social media channels. I was troubled by the personal attacks that started flying between people who agree with each other more often than not on other political issues. I was disheartened to witness that the unofficial national leaders in the CS community, people who I admire and highly respect, were reduced to engaging in the political bickering and attempts to silence opposing viewpoints that has stalemated our country’s progress in so many other areas over the past two decades. This attitude shift in the community and its unofficial leadership created a toxic environment, which replaced excitement and enthusiasm with discouragement and pessimism. With that in mind I ask, what are we doing to make sure that CS does not become a topic that we are afraid to discuss publicly?

Fret not, all is not lost! We continue to see great bipartisan efforts taking place to continue the positive focus on CS education. The Governors for CS group, which is co-chaired by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D), is a great example of a group of individuals with various political ideologies, state needs, and regional differences coming together and focusing on advancing CS education, not only within their respective states but also across the nation. In addition to state executives, our community has a wonderful support structure through various groups, that for the most part play well together. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), #CSforALL Consortium, ECEP, Code.org, and many other large scale efforts provide our community with mostly positive and non-political mechanisms that support our community’s continued growth. With that in mind I ask, what are we doing to follow and support the leaders and visionaries of our state and national efforts?

What are we doing? We are moving forward together! Sure, there will be some nay-sayers and negativity out there, but that is okay. Critical thinking and challenging the status quo is what makes a community stronger. To be clear, I am not asking for the CS community to become an “echo chamber,” as I firmly believe that open and honest discourse is necessary. Considering different situations and points of view is how successful and long-lasting programs are built. I am asking that we as a community step back occasionally and ask “what are we doing?” Are we engaging in conversations that are bolstering or hurting the initiative? Are we focusing on minutia, that while important, is prohibiting progress? Are we demonstrating to the larger educational community that CS should be taken seriously and is of vital importance to our students, or are we creating a circus side show? Are we building up the other members of the community, or are we putting them down to make ourselves look better? In short, I guess what I am asking everyone reading this to do is what I need to do a better job of myself. Stop asking “what are we doing” but instead ask, “what am I doing, and should I continue doing it?”


Anthony Owen, State Department Representative