Low-cost solutions to some education problems

State legislatures shouldn’t micromanage the classroom, parents should monitor student progress, and students should take difficult classes, to get a better education.  Utah math teacher Allen Barney lists inexpensive — and unlikely — methods for improving education, in Salt Lake City’s Deseret Morning News.

A few days ago, the Deseret Morning News printed a “My View” by Dave Thomas regarding the needs of education in today’s changing and technologically innovative society (Jan. 6). I agree that parents want the best education available for their children but have differing opinions on how to achieve that.

A free, quality public education should be a right for every citizen. What some fail to recognize is that an educated populace benefits society as a whole. There have been complaints about paying to educate “someone else’s children.” That view is myopic at best. The children that we are educating now will become the workforce and leaders of tomorrow. It is imperative that they be prepared to deal with the society of the future.

I attended public school in the 1950s and 1960s in rural Utah and received an excellent education. Most of my teachers were well prepared, dedicated to their profession and excellent role models. The same is true for today’s educators. By and large they want what is best for their students, they work hard and are willing to expend great time and effort to help their students succeed.

Mr. Thomas identified five things that we need to do right now to ensure a quality public education. I agree with each of them. I would, however, add three more.

First, we need a positive, supportive Legislature and electorate. Our elected leaders need to be positive rather than negative about education. Education needs to return to an era of being a respected profession. We need a Legislature willing to work as a problem-solving team with educators in mutual respect and concern. The best work is not produced by someone who is micro-managed. The world’s great inventions came when people were free to imagine and work in an atmosphere of mutual respect and collegiality.

Second, we need parents who are willing to be parents. My own parents were in charge, they had been around the block and knew the value of an education. They didn’t try to make it easy for me or make excuses for poor performance. They demanded that I work hard and be held accountable. As an educator, I dread the last few days of every term. Parents suddenly seem to realize that their child is not doing well and want to know how to “fix it.” In our world of technology there is very little reason for a parent to not know where a child is academically throughout the term. Parents need to demand excellence and be willing to make the hard decisions. Academic achievement requires dedication and consistent hard work. It does not happen the last day of the term.

Third, we need students who are willing to make sacrifices now for rewards later on. Our society has fostered a culture of instant gratification. Education doesn’t work that way. It takes diligent work over a period of time to achieve worthwhile goals. Far too many capable students transfer from challenging courses because they require too much effort or the courses take away from their free time. As a high school math teacher, I am saddened every time bright, intelligent, capable students drop an advanced class in which they could succeed with effort.

These initiatives will not cost a great deal of money, but they will require a fundamental change in our culture. We need to return to a time when an education was valued as a way to improve our future, when we were willing to do whatever it took to achieve.

Allen Barney is a mathematics teacher at Alta High School and an adjunct faculty member at Salt Lake Community College.


In the past year, a hot debate ensued over public funding of private school vouchers. The arguments, pro and con, were waged articulately and with great passion. I admire the dedication of those who are pro-voucher. These are good citizens, earnestly frustrated with the status quo, convinced that vouchers will improve the quality of education for their children. But for one nagging personal principle, I could join them: I believe quality education is a right that should be administered publicly and freely to all. If we don’t educate everyone at least to the point of self-reliance and responsibility, society itself will be the ultimate loser.

Ironically, the spotlight on private school vouchers has created a rare opportunity to truly address our significant problems in public education. Political leaders at all levels have a keen awareness that a substantial majority of the electorate is more than concerned and willing to commit resources.

The opportunity sits squarely in front of us, and we must act.

We have a responsibility to prepare today’s youths to flourish rather than fail in a dramatically changing world. I am not talking about the timid lip service of the past, throwing a few million dollars for teacher raises and a few more books. This issue calls for nothing less than major commitment in a new direction. It demands bold action affecting major improvement in all educational measures. It will take dedication, sacrifice and focus. But the future of our ideals and way of life demand it.

Those who came before us knew the importance of education and did not fail our future. My parents, their parents and their peers invested in education; it was important to them. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Ogden. There were eight of us in a four-bedroom, one-bath house. We went on vacation rarely and modestly. We had one family car.

Most of our neighbors were exactly the same, existing happily with little by today’s standards. Yet when it came to funding the building of schools, the quality of instruction and the depth and breadth of programs offered, there was never a question. I look back with wonder at the quality of the education that I received in all areas that were important to my success. In addition to the basics of English, math and science, I could choose from stellar programs in Latin, foreign languages, debate, music, art and more. My personal education was public, free (paid for collectively by society) and very, very good.

Our generation, blessed with comparatively plenty — and even abundance — needs to show the same priority and resolve for the benefit of present and future generations of youths.

There are five things we need to do right now. They will not be easy or cheap.

First, we need to start earlier, making quality preschool a permanent part of free public education statewide.

Second, we need to increase funding to reduce classroom size by one-third in grades kindergarten through four, based on growing class-size projections.

Third, we should make available up to two additional years of free vocational and technical education at our community colleges and applied technology colleges. Years ago a high school degree was enough to get a job and get by; not anymore.

Fourth, we should bring back programs that promote the humanities and the arts that teach discipline and the value of thought.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we need to improve the quality of some teachers and make sure the curricula are relevant.

Many of our teachers are stars and we are forever in their debt; others lack passion, ability and temperament. Utah’s voters have expressed confidence in the Utah Education Association and other teacher organizations. The UEA needs to show it is willing to participate in and even initiate programs that reward great teachers and help those not fully suited to find other livelihood.

These initiatives will cost money and lots of it. We have the resources but will need to make this a focus and priority above all others. Utah’s population is willing to commit them. It is time to boldly enhance public education for the benefit of all.

Dave Thomas chairs the board of trustees at Salt Lake Community College and is a former Democratic Party nominee for Congress.

4 Responses to Low-cost solutions to some education problems

  1. eyeingtenure says:

    There should be higher tax break incentives for companies who donate time, personnel or resources than for companies who donate cash. This encourages a community effort to improve the school, rather than a detached monetary write-off.

    But that costs tax dollars.

    Here’s one from the New York Times, which advocates starting — and ending — school later in the morning:



  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Anyone else? At the last two schools I’ve worked, there were serious efforts to restrict announcements like that. Once a day as scheduled, no more, was the rule.

    The school before that? Yeah, the PA was a major discipline problem.


  3. flatlander100 says:

    Many many moons ago, I taught summer classes for teachers in the Bayou State… it was a program instituted by then Gov. H. Edwin Edwards [since a resident of a federal prison in Texas, I believe] which raised teacher pay for taking enhancement courses in their fields over the summer. I was teaching an American history course, four hours a day for five days a week for three weeks. One of those. We broke for coffee, decompression and chat mid-way through the morning, of course. Lots of the teachers in the class had been in the trenches a long time. One day, I asked them, during the break, this: “If you could make one change in your school… just one… that would not cost any money, but would improve the teaching you do, what would that change be?”

    With skipping so much as a heartbeat, one of them, a woman in her late fifties who’d been a teacher all her working life [HS] shot back: “Tear out the god-damned PA system.” And the rest of them began applauding. There followed story after story of classes ruined by the PA system suddenly coming to life, to announce that this afternoon’s pep rally for the track team would be postponed for fifteen minutes, and such like. All too often, the announcements came just as the teacher had brought the class to some dramatic point, some key moment in the less. When suddenly, The Voice came on, the moment was lost.

    I don’t deal much with classroom teachers any more. Wonder if that’s still true.


  4. eyeingtenure says:

    It’s too bad that realistic solutions are never the ones that win votes. Educators have been saying this for years, but the paradigm of teacher-student accountibility still remains dominant.

    It’s not like students and teachers aren’t already trying.



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