Deseret News

Covering education for the Deseret News takes me to two distinct spheres. One is the “policy place” where lawmakers, reformers, education administrators and advocacy groups grapple over the best way to educate U.S. children and adults — and how to pay for it. It’s a land of reports, graphs, balance sheets and legislation.

The other is the place where the learning actually happens. It might be a classroom, a dining room table, a college library or even a computer station. It’s anywhere learners and teachers — the school kind and the family kind — come together.

My favorite education stories of 2013 brought the two spheres together, exploring trends, policies and innovations through the eyes of those most affected.

The experiences of one high school girl born with mild Down syndrome and another with a more severe disorder revealed rewards and challenges of including students with disabilities in regular classrooms.

A young woman who aged out of the foster care system illustrated the difficulties of attending college without family support — and spotlighted a new program designed to help.

A divorced dad’s efforts to stay involved in his children’s lives uncovered a promising new trend: fathers are volunteering at their children’s schools in increasing numbers. Research shows positive effects on grades.

Along with my readers, I felt the worry of a mother whose 3-year-old didn’t talk and another whose third-grader couldn’t read. I learned about the hurdles such parents face and rejoiced because these two found help from inside and outside the public school system.

Not all stories allow such personal tellings, though. The education world of 2013 was rife with talk of technical innovation, changes to traditional college structure and efforts to improve the achievement of K-12 students in the U.S. The Deseret News waded in.

On the higher-education front, efforts to change the credit hour system to one based on what students know and can do instead of how much time they spend in class showed promise. So did exciting ideas for blending face-to-face instruction with improved ways of learning online.

Some say reforms like these will bolster learning and save costs for college students and their families. Others say these innovations could dismantle higher education’s finance model. I’ll be watching.

Stories about the new Common Core standards adopted by most U.S. states tackled misunderstandings and spelled out areas of controversy. The subject remains contentious; expect more stories.

What happens in education policy is critically important because it affects what happens between learners and those who teach them. And that spells the future for each learner, and for our society. It is a privilege to tell you about it.

Celia R. Baker, Deseret News

How MOOCs are changing education

New learning platforms driven by technology promise to make college learning less expensive and more accessible, but some say those radical changes could topple higher education’s traditional model.

That was the subject of a recent web-based video debate about the future of higher education titled “It’s the End of College as We Know It.” The discussion was part of New America Foundation’s “That’s Debatable” series about the next generation of college classrooms. The two education experts in the debate agreed that dramatic change is inevitable but diverged about what path it will take.

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Toddlers and touchscreens: The research is mostly good news
Deseret News

At the age of 8 months, Evie Gerulat grabbed an iPhone in her chubby, dimpled hand and figured out how to unlock it. At 12 months, she could open and use her favorite apps — interactive digital programs that taught her to mimic animal noises and recognize alphabet letters by sight and sound.

Evie, who lives in Orem, Utah, is 2½ now. Not long ago, she shot a movie and posted it to the Internet. She's no Steven Spielberg: the video footage was of her knees. It's doubtful Evie understood what the "publish" button on mom's smartphone would do. But she soon will.

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Common Core State Standards attract controversy across U.S.

The Common Core State Standards for K-12 education, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, are touted by some education-watchers as a states-led effort to improve college and career readiness of high school graduates and raise students’ slipping scores on international tests. Others decry the new standards as an intrusive federal program with a cookie-cutter approach to education.

Now it appears that some states that adopted the standards might never implement them, because of a backlash that’s prompting several states to reconsider their support. It’s a battle that has created strange bedfellows among liberals and conservatives and highlighted rifts within the GOP.

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Is college getting too expensive?

Mark Smith thought he did everything right.

When it came to paying for college, almost 40 percent of his fellow undergrads were borrowing an average of $7,100 a year to pay for school. But Smith attended a less expensive state university and he earned his bachelor's degree without any debt. He didn't have a car payment, he worked hard in school, and he paid enough attention to the economy to know that he needed to be careful with his money if he wanted to get ahead.

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Left in or left out? Schools debate how to meet needs of kids with disabilities
Susan Adelman

Devon Adelman's life as a student at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School is quite ordinary.

Like almost any other 17-year-old girl, Devon sometimes tries to avoid doing homework. She plays on an intramural basketball team, and she's a member of the cheerleading squad. With her long golden hair, ready smile and "happy-to-be here" attitude, it's easy to imagine Devon as a Nancy Drew-style adventuress busily unraveling neighborhood mysteries. In fact, she inspired such a character in a new mystery novel written by her father, Sean Adelman, "Sam's Top Secret Journal."

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Improving graduation rates for refugees and immigrants
Deseret News

It's a chilly winter morning and eight students sit in Valerie Gates' ESL class for "new arrivals" at West High School. They are enjoying a feast of international flavors including Egyptian basbousa cake, Burmese breakfast rice and Mexican rice with mole.

Gates talks with her students about the dishes they have each brought to share. She speaks slowly and clearly so her students, who only speak a few words of English, have time to hear and translate her words. They answer her questions with shy smiles and short, cautious phrases.

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Character skills impact ability to finish college
Michael Lewis

Plenty of U.S. students are getting into college, but only 55 percent of them are getting out with diplomas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The United States ranks ninth in college enrollment among industrial nations, but last in completion rates.

The disparity leaves experts wondering whether "soft skills" like grit, independence and perseverance might have as much to do with finishing college as IQ scores and academic prowess. As a result, schools across the nation are taking a hard look at ways to increase college readiness.

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How a 'gap year' between high school, college can change the rest of life
Courtesy of Samantha Krieg

Samantha Krieg’s arrival in Florence, Italy began the worst day of her 18-year-old life — or that’s what she thought at the time. But now, Krieg appreciates her memories of not knowing how to get to her apartment, and being lost for hours in a foreign city where she couldn’t understand the language. Figuring out how to solve her dilemma became a fitting start to the “gap year” the New Jersey native spent between her high school graduation in 2012 and entrance to Georgetown University this fall.

“At the time, it seemed like the end of the world,” said Krieg, now 19. “Looking back, I’m so glad I had that experience. I learned more from that than anything else.”

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How sports are siphoning funds from academia
Associated Press

Between 2005 and 2010, spending by college athletic departments rose more than twice as fast as academic spending on a per-student basis, according to a new report by USA Today. An analysis of federal and school data found that public universities competing in NCAA Division I sports spend up to six times more per athlete than they spend to educate students. In 2010, the most recent year of available data, per-athlete spending at schools in each of the six highest-profile football conferences topped $100,000.

Meanwhile, tuition at four-year public universities increased an average of 38 percent, while state and local funding rose just 2 percent.

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Homeschool co-ops socialize kids, help parents pool resources
Bea Ward

Olive Ward’s busy life includes trips with friends to New York City's Museum of Natural History and other nearby cultural landmarks. The 8-year-old Manhattanite plays violin in a small orchestra and makes craft projects with a weekly art group. The lecture series she attends recently featured Nobel laureate Eric Kendel. And Olive's family goes on educational trips with other families — like one to Cape Cod, where she joined other kids in touring a potato chip factory.

This is how homeschooling looks for the sociable, urban Ward family — a lively blend of group activities offset by quiet hours in which Olive is taught at home by her mother, Bea Ward. Her dad, Ryan Ward, is a scientist who helps out by supervising science experiments for groups of homeschooled kids.

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Don't miss the other editors' picks

Editors’ picks 2013: Care for the poor

Editors’ picks 2013: Excellence in education

Editors’ picks 2013: The family

Editors’ picks 2013: Faith in the community

Editors’ picks 2013: Financial responsibility