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A student works on an app

A student works on an app during a coding class at the Billings Public Library on Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

There’s broad agreement that schools need to offer more computer science classes. But a split between university faculty and K-12 advocates highlights the complexity of getting more teachers trained to teach those classes — and carries echoes of larger debates about teacher shortages.

The Montana Board of Public Education in mid-July approved a new subject-area license for coding that would require teachers who already hold a regular license to take 80 hours of training. The license would be different from a subject area computer science license that the state already offers.

Computer science is a hot field in K-12 education: A 2016 Gallup report found that educators are putting a premium on the subject's importance and it’s being offered in more and more schools, but access is far from universal.

In Montana, small rural schools often struggle to find qualified teachers in specialty subjects, and even if they can, small student populations make it challenging to offer an array of elective courses. Even Montana’s larger districts have struggled to find computer science teachers.

According to a 2017 report from Code.org, a group that supported the new license, only two Montana schools offered the Advanced Placement Computer Science course in 2017 and only 13 students took an associated test that gives them a chance to earn college credit.

To that end, leaders of several education groups lauded the new rules. MTPEC, an umbrella group for organizations representing the likes of school boards, administrators and the state teachers’ union, said in a letter of support that the change would “ensure greater opportunities for students to engage in content that will prepare them for post-secondary success."

But leaders from Montana’s teacher training universities raised serious concerns.

“We recognize the desperation of school districts, but we do not think that reducing the requirements to be a certified educator is a solution,” read a scathing letter from the Montana Council of Deans of Education.

“We believe that coding is so important that teachers need to be more fully prepared in order to teach this subject,” the letter said. “Coding is one component of computer science, and we think teachers should be just as prepared for this subject as any other subject.”

It goes on to compare a coding licensure as akin to issuing a sewing license outside of a family and consumer science license. The head of Montana State University’s education department also wrote a separate letter of opposition.

On July 12, the board heard additional testimony supporting the change.

Future jobs

Devin Holmes, who founded the Big Sky Code Academy and training nonprofit Teachers Teaching Tech, pointed to increasing industry needs but used imprecise evidence.

Holmes said that nationally, college enrollment in computer science programs is flat.

“That’s because the exposure doesn’t exist in our (preschool) through 12 system,” he said.

But federal statistics show that between 2009 and 2015, non-doctoral degrees in computer science rose 48 percent, and doctoral degrees rose 94 percent.

“The average number of undergraduate CS majors is larger today than at any previous time, and greatly exceeds the peak enrollment of the dot-com boom period,” according to a 2017 report from the Computing Research Association.

Holmes cited a survey from the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a business advocacy group, that said its members will add about 1,100 jobs in the next year. Holmes said Montana university graduates can meet only 10 percent of that need.

Not all job growth will be in computer-related positions. Alliance members range from software companies to banks to construction companies. Similarly, it’s unlikely the survey captured all expected growth for those positions, as businesses that aren’t necessarily considered technology companies still employee tech-heavy positions.

The survey asks if employees hired in 2017 came from Montana. Alliance business reported 77 percent coming from in-state. About 28 percent of Alliance businesses said it was harder to find employees than the year before; about 11 percent said it was easier.

In a support letter, Holmes' group said their training would allow teachers to meet the new 80-hour requirement at no cost to them or schools.

The letter says training already offered by the group has led to an increase in the number of students enrolled in the Advanced Placement computer science course for the next school year to more than 300.

Computer science vs. coding

Computer science professors from MSU and the University of Montana laid out a series of concerns similar to the deans group.

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“It is critical to understand the differences between computer science in its entirety versus computer coding,” said a letter from Nick Lux and John Paxton of MSU and Yolanda Reimer of UM. “Further, coding instruction alone will not appropriately advance a teacher's ability to teach coding.”

“Coding languages change rapidly,” the letter said. “The language a high school student might learn one year in a coding class might be obsolete upon entering the workforce should they pursue a career in computer science.”

It also blasted the rule’s use of a Class 4 license, which typically offers licensure options that give teachers credit for on-the-job experience in specific fields outside of teaching.

The 80-hour requirement is not unprecedented. Class 4 licenses generally require 10,000 hours of work experience, but a handful of subject areas have alternative requirements. For example, engineering requires a math or science teaching license plus 80 more hours of training.

“I had a couple of (fellow teachers) say they would be interested in the 80-hour endorsement, particularly if the district paid for it,” said board member Jesse Barnhart, a physical education teacher at Powder River County High School.

He also appeared open to the idea of taking the 80-hour standard further.

“Perhaps this 80-hour endorsement could qualify educators to teach computer science courses in grade (preschool) through 8,” he said.

Douglas Fischer, a Bozeman trustee, wrote a letter of support.

“As a trustee, I want maximum flexibility to bring in qualified professionals, based on the recommendation of my superintendent and his staff, to fill crucial positions and meet student demand for these classes,” he wrote.

Bozeman’s superintendent, Rob Watson, also spoke and wrote a letter in support of the change.

He described how younger students are more exposed to coding principles and will expect coursework that allows them to build on that.

“As a superintendent I’m excited about that, but it also scares me,” he said.

Watson said Bozeman, which currently has the largest high school in the state, doesn’t have enough teachers to meet that demand.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.