February 18, 2019

As CT faces tech-worker shortages, momentum builds for K-12 computer-science curriculum mandate

HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
Rebecca Shomo leads Farmington High School’s science department, which offers several computer-science courses related to developing apps and Java programming. State and tech-industry officials say more K-12 students need to learn IT skills to meet the growing demand for tech workers.
Kevin Witkos, GOP Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore
Sheela VanHoose, Director of State Government Affairs, Code.org

While introducing key players on his economic-development team recently, Gov. Ned Lamont made it a point to mention the state's win last year in convincing India-based tech giant Infosys to open an innovation hub in Hartford, where the company plans to hire about 1,000 new workers over the next few years.

Those are precisely the 21st-century digital jobs Connecticut wants to see more of, but tech jobs require tech talent and the state is currently experiencing a significant worker shortage in this area.

In fact, recent data from nonprofit Code.org show there are more than 5,500 open computing jobs in the state, while Connecticut only produced 533 college graduates in 2017 with computer-science degrees.

In recent months, members of Lamont's transition teams, as well as some state lawmakers seem to be reaching a consensus: In order to develop an in-state labor pool capable of filling jobs at Infosys and other tech firms, more K-12 public-school students will need IT training.

That's leading to a push to require computer-science courses in schools across Connecticut, which would be a major — and potentially costly — change for a public-education system that currently lacks qualified IT teachers.

Lamont's transition teams focused on education and the economy proposed requiring computer science in all public schools, while a bipartisan bill in the state Senate would require creation of a statewide K-12 computer-science curriculum by next year, to be implemented by 2022.

"If we don't have the employees available for these employers, we're not going to give them the opportunity to meet the goals that they have and the ability to grow," said state Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore Kevin Witkos (R-Canton), who introduced the computer-science curriculum bill with Democratic state Sen. James Maroney. "So we want to make sure that we have our workforce educated in the skills that our employers are looking for."

State Department of Labor (DOL) data show 15,000 computer-related jobs — ranging from systems analysts to app developers — will be available in Connecticut over the next decade. As of 2016, there were just under 49,000 people working IT jobs in the state, and the DOL estimates that number will grow to about 55,000 by 2026.

And those jobs won't simply be coming from software or IT firms. Companies in many traditional industries in Connecticut — from health care and insurance to manufacturing — will increasingly rely on IT skills as technology continues to reshape the economy.

Demand for Connecticut employees with computer-science skills is nearly three times the national rate, according to Code.org.

Rhode Island’s model

If Connecticut integrates computer science into public schools' core curriculum it will be one of about 45 states taking such action, said Sheela VanHoose, director of state government affairs at Code.org, a nonprofit that works to expand access to computer science in schools.

"We joke, 'computer science mania is sweeping the country,' " VanHoose said. "Policymakers are really starting to look at how computer science becomes fundamental to not only our economy, but our communities."

Among states VanHoose sees at the forefront of K-12 computer-science instruction is Connecticut's neighbor to the east.

In fact, documents from Lamont's education policy transition committee specifically mention Rhode Island's program, which splits the task of providing computer-science education between their state Department of Education, K-12 schools, colleges, private industry and nonprofits.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, who co-chaired Lamont's education transition committee, said she sees a lot to like in Rhode Island's model. Connecticut could also offset costs associated with the additional professional development and resources likely needed by pursuing grants, including federal Carl D. Perkins grants for technical training in public schools.

But the process of designing a statewide program should be a sober-minded exercise that includes input from all stakeholders, she added.

"I would hope that we would not rush forward immediately, but perhaps step back, and really take a look at best practices out there nationally, best practices within the state," said Rabinowitz, a former Bridgeport schools superintendent. "I would put people together on a council, or taskforce."

The inclusion of educators in any such conversation would be key, said Raymond Rossomando, director of policy, research and government relations for the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), a public teachers labor union.

The issue is pretty new to CEA, Rossomando said, and the group hasn't yet been approached by policymakers about possible plans to mandate a computer-science curriculum. If and when that does happen, Rossomando said, its success will depend on how the policy is implemented.

For example, adding computer science credit requirements for new educators could exacerbate a teacher shortage. At the same time, existing teachers could find themselves without necessary certifications, if professional development demands are introduced without giving them enough time to complete training.

Equity between districts will also be a concern, Rossomando said.

"Currently, there is still a digital divide among our school districts, and obviously the ones that are further behind are the districts that have greater poverty and lower ability to raise revenue," Rossomando said. "Some districts could … be close to the goal line and get past it very quickly, while others could be all the way at the other end with 90 yards to go."

It's not clear how many school districts in the state currently offer computer-science courses.

One that does is Farmington Public Schools, one of the state's wealthier school districts.

Farmington High School already has classes on developing apps and Java programming, said Rebecca Shomo, who leads the school's science department. The school also has a course called Digital Electronics, an engineering career pathway class formed by Project Lead the Way, a K-12 engineering education nonprofit.

This year 145 Farmington High students are taking advanced computer courses, with 40 enrolled in an app inventor class, 31 in AP computer science with Java and 74 in honor's-level computer science, Shomo said.

"It's really immersing students in software engineering design process," Shomo said.

State support

Lamont has not said publicly if he will follow the policy recommendations set out by his transition team. His spokeswoman said the governor believes in the importance of providing Connecticut students with access to high-quality computer-science education, and that the administration is considering the proposals.

His first budget is due Feb. 20 and he'll have to figure out ways to tackle multibillion-dollar deficits in each of the next few years.

Mandating a statewide computer-science curriculum without offering additional state aid would engender backlash from cities and towns, particularly when school districts across the state are facing their own budget constraints.

That could mean the issue doesn't move forward this year.

Grants are useful, said VanHoose of Code.org, but a sustainable program would require some state commitment.

The costs of such a program aren't yet clear, said Witkos, the state senator, but it's a commitment he said Connecticut must make if the state is to train students for high-paying jobs, and build up a skilled workforce.

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