Missouri will still face a lot of work in growing its support for computer science in schools, whether Gov. Mike Parson signs into law a bill on his desk that begins the work of doing that, according to a report from a national computer science advocacy organization.
Code.org's "2018 State of Computer Science Education — Policy and Implementation" report notes 30 percent of Missouri public high schools teach computer science, compared to 78 percent of public high schools in Rhode Island; 63 percent in Arkansas; and 59 percent in Virginia — the top three states listed.
Parson called the state Legislature back into a special session this month in part to craft a new version of a bill he had previously vetoed — to expand course opportunities for high school students, create a certification process for teachers, establish a fund for any future public and private financial support, and develop curriculum standards — all for computer science.
The bill also would create a science, technology, engineering and math awareness program for middle school students.
The bill — House Bill 3 — was delivered to Parson on Sept. 19 and, as of Wednesday, awaits his action.
There's been a large amount of support for the legislation from the business and education lobbies in the state, and expansion of computer science in Missouri will need that kind of continued interest and support, given where the state stands in terms of its progress, according to Code.org's report.
The report notes, "Universities in the state did not graduate a single new teacher prepared to teach computer science in 2016," a finding that didn't apply only to Missouri, but also other states.
"We know there are individual universities doing good things," said Katie Hendrickson, director of state government affairs for Code.org.
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Hendrickson added, though, sometimes universities that offer computer science courses only have a couple of extra classes, and taking them doesn't result in any special certification for people seeking a degree to become a teacher.
She said there's a reluctance to prepare teachers solely to teach computer science if there's not an expectation of a job to be waiting for graduates.
Code.org's report notes only 69 schools in Missouri offered any Advanced Placement computer science course in the 2016-17 school year — which was 22 more schools than the previous year.
It's a self-feeding cycle, a "chicken and egg problem" of universities not preparing teachers for specific jobs that may not be there, but thereby creating a lack of supply of qualified candidates that keeps schools' demand for such teachers down.
Hendrickson said if Parson signs HB3 — which would allow high school students to substitute one math credit with a computer science course — "the next step will be funding for teacher professional development," in addition to the process of development of curriculum standards.
She added that funding is the big barrier to principals and administrators hiring new computer science teachers or training in-service educators.
In other words, as with the problem of whether the chicken or the egg came first, the answer is adaptation and evolution — have new education policies and systems hatch from what was different that came before.
Hendrickson admitted "adding a new subject is hard" for schools but added, "I do see a lot of potential and excitement in the state" for computer science.
As with other areas of education, though, there are gender, geographic, racial and ethnic, and economic disparities in who gets to have their potential realized in computer science.
"Only 20 percent of (AP computer science) exams were taken by female students in 2017," and "only 10 percent of exams were taken by underrepresented minority students in 2017," according to Code.org's report.
The report notes 37 percent of urban schools in Missouri teach computer science, but only 26 percent of rural schools do.
"It's already hard to get teachers in rural areas," Hendrickson said, adding it's even more difficult to get teachers who have computer science specializations or skills.
Less diverse schools in the state actually less often teach computer science — 33 percent of schools with student populations that are less than 50 percent "underrepresented minorities," compared to 40 percent of schools with more than 50 percent of their students who are underrepresented minorities, according to Code.org's report.
The gap is widest between schools with high and low rates of poverty, according to the report. Forty-one percent of schools that had free or reduced-price lunch eligibility rates under 50 percent taught computer science, compared to only 27 percent of schools that had free or reduced-price lunch eligibility rates of more than 50 percent.
"It really is a combination of all those things," Hendrickson said of reasons behind the disparities — lack of access to computers, to high-speed internet, computer science curriculum and qualified teachers.
"There might be a perception or a misconception in some rural areas that maybe they don't need computer science," she said, but added there's a demand for jobs in every field when it comes to even a nominal understanding of computers in an economy that's increasingly digitized.
Hendrickson cited as of last month, there were 10,130 open computing jobs in Missouri. In 2015, the state only had 1,138 computer science graduates, she said, adding she didn't think the numbers have drastically changed.
"Right now, 44 states have passed at least one policy in place supporting computer science education," and Missouri does not, she repeated of what she told House committee members recently when she testified in support of HB3, which is sponsored by Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit.
The only opposition to the bill at that committee meeting had been from the Missouri Association of School Counselors, concerned as they had been in the spring legislative session that allowing students to substitute a high school math credit for a computer science credit would interfere with college plans because of not meeting admission requirements.
Hendrickson said "if a kid wants to become a computer scientist, there's no question they need advanced math," but added there are other career paths in computing that may require more general knowledge in training or a two-year degree program.
She also said Code.org had not heard any concerns from higher education institutions in other states that had implemented similar computer science expansion measures.