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Virginia Becomes First State to Require Computer Science Instruction

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In 2016, Virginia lawmakers made a short but significant revision to the required academic standards that all districts must teach, by adding these topics to a long list: "computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding." 

Now the state has completed a new set of computer-science standards (in Virginia jargon, the "standards of learning," or SOLs), which will shape curriculum and what teachers are expected to teach at each grade level.

Here at Education Week, we've written about the explosion of computer science in K-12 before, particularly a push for computer coding that counted everyone up to former President Barack Obama as supporters. More recently, President Donald Trump has called for his administration to direct more grant money to computer science. But having a state make it mandatory is a major development in that evolution.

According to Virginia's new standards, computer science in grades K-8 should be addressed within the content areas, while the middle and high school classes are designed as stand-alone electives. 

Three other states—Texas, Arkansas, and West Virginia—require all high schools to offer computer science, but it isn't (yet) mandatory for students to have exposure to computer science, according to a March report from the Education Commission of the States.

Virginia's standards didn't come out of thin air. They were pushed by groups such as the nonprofit CodeVA, which promotes coding in the Old Dominion state. Similar groups have also mounted an influential and successful push nationally; Code.org, for example, helped create a second Advanced Placement course on computer science principles that is considered to be more accessible than the AP program's longer-standing course.

Nevertheless, the Virginia board members were somewhat hesitant about adopting the standards at their meeting last week, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, fearing that they might be too ambitious. 

The grade-level expectations summary are enlightening in this respect. Here's what they say for 6th grade, for example: 

The 6th grade standards emphasize constructing programs and utilizing algorithms to accomplish a task. Students continue to decompose larger problems into smaller tasks and recognize the impacts of computing and computing devices. Students in 6th grade begin to understand the means of storing data as representations of real world phenomena. The accurate use of terminology as well as the responsible use of technology will continue to be built upon. The foundational understanding of computing and the use of technology will be an integral component of successful acquisition of skills across content areas. 

The million-dollar question seems to be this: Are teachers well trained to integrate computer science across all these grades? I took a quick spin on the Title II website, a federal collection on teacher preparation, to try to get a sense of what the incoming workforce looks like. In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent for which data are available, Virginia prepared only six teachers who majored in computer science, while 39 took an exam measuring knowledge of technology education principles. 

It's notoriously hard to tell what, specifically, candidates are learning in their preparation programs, but this data does suggest that the teaching force will need some ongoing training in order to turn the SOLs into good teaching.

Photo: Getty images

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