A Bad Report Card for Computer Science Education in Minnesota

A Bad Report Card for Computer Science Education in Minnesota

A report from nonprofit advocacy group Code.org ranks Minnesota dead last in the nation for the percentage of public high schools offering computer science courses. What happened?

At one time, Minnesota was a pioneer in computer science education. It was, after all, a Minnesota-made computer game that influenced schools around the country and the world to start integrating computers into the classroom. That game was The Oregon Trail, created by the state-funded Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium in 1971.

The consortium’s leaders have said their aim was to put a computer “in the hands of every K-12 student in Minnesota.”

It may come as a surprise, then, that Minnesota has since fallen far behind in computer science education. According to the 2022 State of Computer Science Education report by nonprofit Code.org, Minnesota ranked dead last in the nation for the percentage of public high schools offering foundational computer science courses. Just 21% of public high schools in the North Star State offer such courses, according to the report, which was released late last month.

That figure is well below the national average, which sits at 53%. While both of the Dakotas were also below that number, Iowa and Wisconsin surpassed it at 71% and 66%, respectively.

Code.org defines “foundational” courses as those that include a “minimum amount of time applying learned concepts through programming.”

“Although computer science is broader than programming, some direct programming experience is integral to learning the fundamental concepts,” the report stated.

A chart ranking U.S. states by percentage of public schools offering foundational computer science courses

Only 21 percent of public schools in Minnesota offer computer science courses, putting the state in last place in the nation.
Source: Code.org’s 2022 State of Computer Science report

Minnesota is also among the states that don’t require high schools to even offer computer science courses. In total, 27 states now require their high schools to at least offer the classes.

“If you’re a state that’s not requiring your schools to at least offer computer science classes to students, you’re in the minority now,” said Sean Roberts, VP of government affairs at Code.org. “That’s a different world from where we were five years ago.”

Code.org has been working with the Expanding Computing Education Pathways Alliance and the Computer Science Teachers Association on the annual State of Computer Science Education report since 2017. The 2022 iteration of the report also noted that disparities exist not only at the state level, but also by race and gender. Nationally, only 32 percent of students in high school computer science courses were female, according to the report.

Minnesota also ranked in last place in Code.org’s 2021 report.

Jeff Tollefson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Technology Association, said he’s been “trying to raise the alarm bells” for years about the state’s poor showing in computer science education. But he’s cautious not to critique the schools themselves. Ultimately, it’s in the Legislature’s hands. “I think we’ve been underinvesting in STEM education, in particular computer science in schools. The [Minnesota] Department of Education is doing its best to make sure we’re appropriately educating students, but they are very much financially constrained in what they can implement in terms of dollars and policy.”

In an email, a Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson noted that the agency “does not have the authority to require computer science education.” Minnesota’s ranking on the Code.org report “is not acceptable, and shows just how devastating the global pandemic has been on teaching and learning,” the spokesperson said.

Indeed, in Minnesota and across the country, students’ basic reading and math skills have declined in the wake of Covid-19. In late August, the Star Tribune reported that only 45% of Minnesota students met proficiency levels on math tests, and only about half met reading proficiency levels. At a time when time-strapped and overworked teachers are already struggling to get students up to speed on math and reading, how can they even begin to think about coding?

But Tollefson maintains it’s not an “either/or” proposition. Coding courses could easily replace an existing math standard, for instance. “In a lot of schools in the country, that’s already the case. If you take a computer science class, it can count toward the mathematics requirements of algebra, calculus, and so forth, because it is about problem solving.”

Tollefson said it’s less about specific programming skills and more about “computational thinking.” For some computer science advocates, it’s not necessarily a big leap from traditional instruction to coding instruction.

Code.org’s Roberts said age isn’t a factor in learning computational thinking. In fact, he said he found that veteran teachers often excelled at teaching it.

“Because they were used to teaching sequential thinking and sequential ordering — those kind of computational thinking concepts — those veteran teachers were able help out the less experienced teachers who were digital natives,” Roberts said.

The Minnesota Department of Education notes that there is not a specific computer teaching license. “Teachers with math, business and communications technology career licenses can teach computer science in high school,” a department spokesperson said via email.

While Minnesota may have ranked poorly in Code.org’s report, the state has made some attempts to improve computer science education. For instance, Gov. Tim Walz did sign onto a compact from the National Governors Association calling for expansion of K-12 computer science education. Without backing from state legislators, though, it’s unclear how effective that will be.

Tollefson also lauded efforts by local nursing schools to recruit more workers. Earlier this month, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State unveiled a new program designed to address a nursing shortage in the state. He thinks a similar effort could help the computer science field. “We think we also also need to have this business and education collaboration to make sure we’re appropriately skilling our next generation of technologists, and it all starts with our public education system,” Tollefson said.

There has been at least one attempt in that direction. CS for All Minnesota — a combined effort by educators, nonprofit groups, government agencies, and industry players — has been gathering data about computer science education in the state since 2018. “We have done a lot of the groundwork that is needed to understand inequities in [computer science] education in Minnesota and consider a path to improved policies that will make [computer science] available to all K-12 students,” said Renee Fall, a member of the group’s steering committee and a senior research scholar with the National Center for Computer Science Education.

Still, the state has a lot of catching up to do, especially if it hopes to live up to its storied past. “Minnesota played a significant role in the creation of the modern computing industry,” Tollefson said.