By Morgan Hughes
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Wyoming Department of Education staff heard some pushback from the State Board of Education during its meeting Thursday regarding the state's proposed new K-12 computer science standards.
Many members of the board called the standards overwhelmingly complex. Trustee Sue Belish raised concerns about whether educators would be able to adequately meet the standards suggested by the department, which include instruction beginning in kindergarten.
Belish said she wondered if educators, particularly at the elementary level, would be able to set aside enough time in the school day to meet the proposed expectations.
With the 2022-23 deadline looming for all districts in the state to offer computer science courses, per legislation passed last year, having realistic standards and resources to meet them is at the forefront of administrators' minds.
Advocates of the computer science addition say the courses will prepare students for the future and diversify their career opportunities. Many call it a necessary step. But how districts will pay for these additions is still an unanswered question.
Some districts already offer computer science instruction, but concerns have been raised about how districts with limited resources will meet the state requirements in the given timeframe. Even districts that can afford it may not be able to recruit instructors with the necessary experience.
Nate Breen, who sits on both the State Board and the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees, said computer science curriculum is needed, but addressing funding is going to be a challenge. "I think it has to be done," he said. "We just have to be honest with ourselves about where we're going to find the money."
Breen said it is important to ensure districts have both proper facilities and properly credentialed educators to implement the new curriculum.
In a Legislature-mandated computer science cost report put out by the Department of Education, which surveyed 44 of the state's 48 school districts (four districts did not respond), 89 percent said they needed "widespread training of teachers in computer science."
But credentialing existing teachers and hiring new computer science instructors costs money. The department's cost report estimated the annual statewide cost of implementing the new standards would be roughly $12,269,574, but that estimate did not account for certifications educators would need to teach the computer science courses. A certification at the University of Wyoming is just under $11,400.
The cost estimate also did not include the costs districts would incur to develop new curricula and align assessment systems to the standards. A large district estimates this cost at $250,000.
Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said 2022 was an ambitious goal and that districts might need to get creative to meet it.
"If you go to some of the smaller places in the state, there's no way they're going to bring in a computer science teacher; there's no way that's going to happen," he said. "I would be very surprised to see every district have a computer science teacher by 2022."
He said the computer science instruction might need to be folded into existing science or math courses to avoid having districts recruit computer science experts, who might not want to teach in favor of making more money as programmers or working for private companies.
Still, he said he is excited for Wyoming to add computer science to its core curriculum.
The Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board created a program to allow educators to work toward computer science endorsements in small chunks through an exception authorization. Nish Goicolea, the board's executive director, said the authorization is essentially a provisional license. The program allows instructors to teach computer science for one year while working toward their credential.
That program is designed to be temporary, however, and will dissolve around the same time the computer science standards are fully implemented in 2022, Goicolea said.
Both Laramie County School Districts 1 and 2 are already teaching computer science, and both are taking advantage of the exception authorization.
But that doesn't mean those districts aren't concerned about finding adequate long-term staffing to meet the standards.
LCSD2 Superintendent Jon Abrams has been advocating for computer science for a while, and he testified on behalf of the curriculum last year.
"I haven't talked to anybody who isn't excited," he said. "The challenge is finding people with the certification.”
One LCSD2 elementary school teacher is working toward a full computer science endorsement, and two high school teachers are micro-credentialing, or getting cleared to teach a specific topic within computer science. The district is helping pay for those credentials.
For districts unable or unwilling to pay for their teachers to get new certifications, there are some alternative options. Code.org and Microsoft offer either low-cost or free computer science certification programs that, according to the Department of Education, a number of Wyoming educators have taken advantage of.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, voted against the legislation that is now requiring the computer science curriculum. He said one reason he opposed the legislation was that the Legislature did not have a way to pay for it.
"In a sense, it was an unfunded mandate to the school districts," he said.
He said despite his voting against the bill last session, he is supportive of computer science education and believes school districts are finding a way to pay for it.
Department of Education communications director Michelle Panos said the department did visit each district to complete the cost estimate and will be surveying the districts again to gauge concerns now that there are draft standards.
**Writing the standards
The standards proposed by the Department of Education include detailed targets for K-12. A proficient K-12 student would be able to write computer algorithms and debug programs. A proficient student in grades 9-12 would be able to compare programming languages and discuss legal frameworks around software development.
A 40-member committee comprised of parents, educators, business leaders and policy wonks developed the intensive curriculum using public comment and existing national standards.
Now that the department has draft standards, it is seeking additional public comment through an online survey accessible at edu.wyoming.gov and through informational sessions being held across the state. A session will be held from 6-7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at Storey Gym in Cheyenne.
The department hopes to have finalized draft standards to Gov. Mark Gordon by August.