Writing about education: Big problems and bright hopes

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26 2012 10:39 p.m. MST

After becoming a father during his freshman year of college, Brent Denney retraced a 350-mile journey back to the Navajo Nation in southern Utah to start paying the bills. The famed red-rock landscape around Monument Valley welcomed him home, but life on the reservation offered few opportunities. Denney still wanted to finish his college degree, but cultural ties and necessity bound him to his homeland.

That was two decades ago, and now, Denney is on his way to earning the diploma that will show his college-age sons what their dad is made of. Denney's story became one of my favorites this year, because it had perfect ingredients: a group of gifted teachers and a motivated student.

Like so many of today's education stories, though, Denney's involved an inanimate ingredient, too — a technological innovation. He attends his classes in the remote reservation town of Montezuma Creek, San Juan County, yet sees and hears professors and classmates on a bustling college campus 400 miles away. They see and hear him, too, thanks to video-conferencing equipment.

Technology is changing the way we listen to music, access information and communicate with friends. Meanwhile, it has upturned the industries connected with all of those things — and the education world is next in line. I believe passionate, knowledgeable teachers will always be education's critical component, but the best of them will incorporate new ways of sharing what they know.

This year's stories included one about innovative teachers "flipping" their math classrooms: the "homework" problems are worked at school with the teacher's guidance. The class lectures are watched at home on computers and smartphones, where students can replay tricky parts.

There were stories about helping kids get through tonight's homework, how families can get the most out of parent teacher conferences, and even ways of finishing college debt-free.

Families with children experience the education world most directly, but everyone shares the benefits of a well-educated populace and bears the burden of educational failures. Much of the news about how the U.S. is doing on the education front is distressing, but there are many hopeful signs.

Knowing the unvarnished facts about these troubling problems is the first step in doing better, and Americans must do better. We live in a remarkable age, and promising new innovations with power to combat these problems arise nearly every day.

I expect to see college costs decrease as open classes make learning more available and less expensive. Textbook costs for school districts will decline, too, as interactive etexts are made available to all students. We're going to create clearer pathways from school to workplace. And, if we are smart, we'll make sure the brightest, most passionate teachers can stay in the teaching profession, because we can't improve student achievement if we don't.

email: cbaker@desnews.com

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