Over the years, computer science hasn’t always gotten its due in New Jersey’s public schools.
For more than a decade, New Jersey has included computer and technology skills among those students are expected to learn in school. To that end, there is a wealth of courses and even whole schools and academies centered on STEM and computer skills.
But in the typical school and especially in elementary schools, those classes have sometimes been treated as step-siblings to the core curriculum taught in the classroom, a tendency that can carry over to the training of teachers and administrators.
But that situation is slowly but surely changing, with Gov. Phil Murphy this week taking further steps to amp up computer science instruction in areas like coding and programming — even down to the lowest grades.
Computer science goes to kindergarten
Murphy announced a five-point plan that would press ahead on detailed standards for computer science in every grade from kindergarten to 12th, as well new credentialing and training for educators.
He has also proposed an additional — if modest — $2 million to expand state grants to districts to bolster their most advanced high school classes, especially those where money is tight.
Murphy framed the plan around the need to teach students for the jobs of not just the future but the present.
“These are the disciplines that are fueling our future,” Murphy said in announcing the plan on Monday at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. “These are the skills that employers are looking for in prospective employees.
“We must close the gap that sees us unable to fill the growing number of jobs that require a firm grasp of STEM concepts and computer science skills,” he said.
And the governor wants to start young, with the standards now being drafted that include elementary school, starting with kindergarten to 2nd grade.
Blazing a trail that starts in elementary school
That is welcome news to Russell Lazovick, superintendent of Bridgewater-Raritan, which hosted the announcement this week. The district was praised by Murphy as a trailblazer in the computer sciences, including in its elementary schools.
“It starts at the kindergarten level,” Lazovick said. “If you are going to have kids taking these programs in high school, you have to have everything down to the elementary level.
“This, in my mind, is a modern language,” he continued. “And we need to be pushing that, because if students don’t learn to speak that language, they will be left behind.”
The superintendent said it is not advanced coding at that age, of course, but some of the basic concepts and principles of how computers work.
“It is what is age-appropriate for kids who are five or six years old,” he said. “Coding looks differently for a kindergartener, with snap grids and the kind of visual cues that kids that age use ….
“Kids are more graphic today, and they are interlocking puzzle pieces and moving them into different combinations to get the computer to do different things,” he continued.
“Kids learn this as something fun — it is puzzles, problem solving. And by the time they are in high school, these are courses they are not only well-prepared for but they want to take.”
Revamping core curriculum
The drafting of the new standards is already underway as part of the state Department of Education’s ongoing update of all its core curriculum standards, including language arts, math, science and others. Officials said those changes are expected to go before the State Board of Education in the next couple of months.
David Greer, the state’s deputy assistant education commissioner who is overseeing the effort, stressed these are not mandates as much as guideposts, but ones that do tell a district it should be reaching the youngest grades.
“As we develop our standards, each district has the responsibility for creating programs that make sure students meet or exceed those standards,” he said.
And would high-level skills be included? “There will be more coding and things like that,” Greer said.
The state is also revising how it certifies teachers in these fields, including working with colleges and universities in improving their education programs.
“There are certifications now for technology, but we are looking to expand them as well,” Greer said. “There was a law that passed to help encourage more computer science teachers, and the state is grappling to what that coursework would be.”