Seizing the (Computer Science) Initiative in Arkansas
Working closely with Governor Asa Hutchinson, Anthony Owen has helped turn his state into a leader in high-tech education
Not many people have Anthony Owen’s job.
As Arkansas’ computer science czar, Owen is one of the few state officials in the nation totally focused on expanding computer science education. It’s a crucial role in Governor Asa Hutchinson’s administration, which has been committed to expanding computer science in the state for seven years. (The governor believes in computer science education so much that he ran campaign ads about coding classes.) And under Hutchinson, Arkansas has become a national leader in high-tech education. Computer science is also now a graduation requirement in the state, and lawmakers have committed millions in funding to expand course offerings and close racial and gender gaps in computer science enrollment.
“It’s a lot broader than just coding or programming,” Owen told The Elective recently. “We now have data science, mobile applications, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. We have lots of pathways that give students a way to make computer science interesting.”
Wearing a “CS for AR” button, Owen spoke with The Elective via Zoom to explain how the Arkansas Computer Science Initiative came together, what has been done to make the classes more appealing to students, and why he’s not a fan of excessive meetings or neatly-bound strategic plans. “The most important piece of advice is that they shouldn’t wait for a perfect plan before taking action,” Owen said. “Just get moving!”
There aren’t many dedicated roles at the statewide level to promote computer science education. How did you end up in this job?
I grew up in southern Arkansas on a farm raising chickens, and I decided early in my life that I wanted a job that had air conditioning. I worked my way through college, got a master’s in educational leadership, and then figured I didn’t have enough student loan debt so I went back to get my law degree.
At the time, then-candidate Hutchinson was campaigning for governor, running advertisements about the importance of coding and computing for our students, I was a math specialist in the Department of Education. I had done some work looking at other states that had expanded computer science education, like Alabama where they were requiring computer science as a math course in high school. But Arkansas hadn’t made much progress.
So when Governor Hutchinson started talking about dedicating someone in the governor’s office to computer science education, making us the first state to do that, I applied. I wrote a 22-page strategic plan, thinking that whoever actually got the job would take that plan and run with it. That plan was what put me over the top, and it’s still the basis of the work we’re doing today.
What went into building that plan? What were some of the key things you did to make Arkansas a leader in computer science?
I had worked in the industry for a little while before going into teaching. I did retail management at RadioShack and GameStop, and while people might not consider those technology jobs, they gave me a very results-oriented mindset. I came in with the idea that you have to have specific targets if you’re going to get things done.
We talked to educators, we talked to people in tech in Arkansas to hear what they felt was genuinely useful in this space. We didn’t treat “stakeholder engagement” as just a box to tick, but as an opportunity to get real, actionable advice. I’m willing to talk to anyone, but if we don’t have meaningful steps and actions we can take by the third meeting, then I’m done meeting. I’m going to move on.
Anthony Owen with students and computer science specialists during an appearance on KATV Channel 7's "Good Morning Arkansas" in December 2018.
Arkansas has had remarkable success in bringing more diversity to computer science courses, to the point that your CS classes now mirror your student population. The Education Commission of the States gave you an innovation award for that work. What made the difference?
We don’t have a cookie-cutter pathway into computer science. We have a variety of course options to try to meet students where they are, meet their interests, and engage in this work in a way that’s meaningful for them. We want to make sure that we’re pushing things out that are truly inclusive without being exclusive.
The first year of the initiative, there was a great disparity between how many White students we had in the classes versus other student groups. It was the same kind of overrepresentation of White students you see in computer science classes all over the country. But every year, we’ve made progress in closing that gap. For about two or three years now, our percentage enrollment in computing and computer science has been within 3 to 5 percentage points of our general population.
We got some great advice on really basic things like renaming our classes. The feedback we got was that our course titles were very—well, they weren’t fun. I’ve got a math background, a legal background, and a very linear thinking process. So in our first year, our computer science classes were titled Computer Science with Programming Emphasis or Computer Science with Networking Emphasis. That’s very descriptive! But can you imagine telling a ninth-grade student, “Hey, you should sign up for Computer Science with Networking Emphasis!” Does that sound exciting? When you go to the average person and say, “computer science,” they think of pocket protectors. They think of programming and not much else.
So we changed the titles and expanded the pathways into computing. Now you can take Cybersecurity, you can take Mobile Application Development, or Game Design Development—things that aren’t so technical, that sound more fun. The content is still there, but revisiting the way we talk about the courses really mattered.
A lot of our progress also came from looking at earlier grades. If all we were doing is looking at high school, then we’re just going to get the students who were already interested in these classes, anyway. You have to look at the K–8 space. By making computing classes standard for every student, we’re making it a normal expectation for everyone. When we make computer science normal for every student, it’ll be abnormal for no students. And that’s what we want in Arkansas.
Looking at earlier grades is also important because that’s where you see more teacher diversity. And if a student sees, you know, Mrs. Johnson in eighth grade talking about coding and computing, hearing it from someone who looks like her instead of someone who looks like me, it makes a difference.
You and Governor Hutchinson have both touted computer science education as vital for the state’s economy. What’s the connection?
When we talk about bringing jobs to Arkansas, we talk about our computing and computer science initiative. It’s education that is designed to build a pipeline of talent, and that has allowed us to attract different businesses from other states and grow some of our own right here. If you look at Arkansas’ statistics, only about half of our high school graduates ever set foot on a two-year or four-year college campus. We need to make sure we’re giving that other 50% of high school graduates the skills necessary to step into a high-quality, high-paying job, and that’s why we think of our computing initiative as a jobs initiative.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson meets students during his Fall 2017 Computer Science Tour.
As I tell students, just about all companies are technology companies now. They all have technology as part of their work in some way. If you go and look in the cab of a garbage truck right now there’s a computer sitting there that tells the driver where he needs to pick up, what the shortest route is to complete all the houses he needs to hit, which households haven’t paid their bills. So driving a garbage truck requires some level of computing knowledge, and it’s only going to get more pervasive as we look at the growth of automation and jobs being taken over by computers.
This is the fourth industrial revolution, and if you don’t have these computing skills, you’re facing a job market you’re just not prepared for. Plus, with the growth in remote work, there are more technology jobs than ever that you can do from anywhere. I tell students all the time, even if you want to work for one of the big tech companies in Austin or Silicon Valley, you don’t have to move to get one of those jobs. Those companies will employ you even if you stay right here, and then you can afford to buy a house and really enjoy the quality of life. I travel the country all the time, and I like to open up the Zillow app and look at the local home prices. And man, that makes me glad to be in Arkansas!
What advice can you offer other states interested in the Arkansas model? What can policymakers do to get computer science so thoroughly integrated into the K–12 system?
I spend a lot of time visiting other states to talk with legislators and education department officials, and the most important piece of advice is that they shouldn’t wait for a perfect plan before taking action. No plan is perfect, and if you’re trying to get absolutely everything in a row before taking that first step you’re never going to get there. Be willing to change as you go. I don’t believe in a strategic plan being printed. This is a working document, and it needs to evolve as the work moves forward. That’s how I approach my job. If we’re printing our plan and binding it with a nice cover, then we’re stagnating.
I’m not a military man, but I love the military saying that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I’ve seen so many states that are spending years and years having meetings about this, and you certainly need to get people onboard and get buy-in. But at some point, you have to start implementing things. You have to take action, take steps toward fulfilling one of Code.org’s nine policy recommendations. You don’t have to have a plan to do all nine yet! Just get moving. Work with College Board to boost enrollment in AP Computer Science Principles or AP Computer Science A, or expand the number of schools where those classes are offered. There are things you can do right now.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.