Updates


Missing You

posted Feb 24, 2016, 5:53 AM by Fay Watson

I started this blog soon after you had the stroke that changed our lives forever.  People we know were looking for information and wanted to know your progress.  You were such a fighter, you wanted to come back and you worked hard at it.  Now you are gone and I didn't get to say goodbye.  it is the strangest things that make me incredibly sad, so I find myself avoiding them.

COFFEE CAN BE GOOD FOR YOU

posted Nov 21, 2015, 10:44 AM by David Watson

It is becoming something of a truism for a book lover like me that my most satisfying finds are often in the remainder or clearance bins.  It can also, though I’ll admit, rarely, be the case that the very best writers aren’t discovered (or in this case, discover themselves) until they are getting along in years.  Coffee is occasionally involved as well, at least for me.  Let me tell you briefly, then, about one such volume and author, and the role of coffee in a story of humility and redemption.

Michael Gates Gill was a high-powered executive with a New York City Advertizing Agency, one of the largest and most successful such firms in the world.  Michael had it all, or so it would have appeared to most of us.  He grew up living in a 35 room mansion in Connecticut, the only child of well-known New Yorker writer Brendan Gill. Michael graduated from Yale, and was essentially handed the good life.  Except that he fell from grace.  Although always well-paid in his career, the combination of losing his position in his early 50’s to younger (and therefore less expensive) talent and both poor money and career management choices, meant that Michael’s resources dwindled away at a shocking rate.  Add in the complication of an affair and an accompanying surprise love child, and this upper-class gentleman suddenly found himself divorced, alone, and nearly insolvent.

            Now here’s the part about humility and redemption.  Being a fan of Starbucks coffee, Michael spent much of the last of his savings sipping lattes variously at its locations around New York City, and lamenting his lot.  Almost as something of a joke, one day a young Starbucks store manager, Crystal, asked if he would like to interview for a position as a Barista (the name used by coffeehouses for those who serve coffee).  As their chat progressed, Michael realized that not only did he truly need a job, but that the company’s benefits were excellent (health insurance being something he very much wanted to be able to provide for his unexpected “extra” child).  Crystal actually did offer him a job, which he eagerly accepted.  Michael became Mike, and embarked on a crash course in both serving coffee and being humble. 

Mike’s late-in-life education taught him, among other lessons, that: 1) there really can be dignity in cleaning toilets; 2) everyone deserves respect, and excellence and intelligence are not the sole domain of the upper caste; and 3) diversity, inclusiveness, caring, and trust can combine to create a working environment where it does not matter so much who or where you are within the hierarchy, but rather how much and how well you contribute.

Because of his experiences (which included being older and of a different race than most of his co-workers), and since at the suggestion of his daughter he had kept a journal, Mike decided at age 63 to write a book about his epiphany.  Hence, my five dollar discovery in remainders pile, titled “How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else”.  Mike never saw himself as a writer, and certainly didn’t desire to compete with his famous father.  He also never envisioned serving anything to anyone, let alone coffee to the unwashed masses.  Strangely, though, by becoming introspective concerning his own life, and more open to the value that can (and so often is) added by others who are different from us, Mike, by his own reckoning, actually became happier.

Apparently it can happen.  Just a few days ago as I sat in a Starbucks writing on my little notebook computer, I observed first-hand the impact of reaching out.  The young barista manning the register simply radiated warmth and enthusiasm, which, amazingly, each customer gave back in turn when ordering.  Being open, positive, and accepting really can make all the difference.  Michael Gates Gill knows this, but you don’t have to wait until you’re 63 to discover it—you can read his sweet, simple, and empowering book instead.

BOOKS AND BIBLIOPHILES

posted Nov 19, 2015, 6:31 AM by David Watson

Of all of my influences as a child, possibly the most enduring one was my grandfather, McClellan Watson.  His was an uncompromising style that many considered, to put it kindly, eccentric.  He was at once a geologist, train engineer, TV: half of us say we watch too much of it (ironically, essentially the same percentage as those who read regularly); nation-wide, six million videos are rented each day, while only three million items are checked out of public libraries; and per year, our children spend on average 900 hours in school, but over 1000 in front of the tube.

            As I began looking through my new collection, it was obvious that not only had Grandpa managed to squirrel away this enormous stack of books, but based on notes I found in the margins, he had read and studied a great many of them as well.  As a boy I had often observed him sitting (inside or outside) quietly reading and marking on some book, newspaper, or article photocopied from the local library.  He got up early, read by the natural light of the sun, and had little use for television.  In retrospect, I appreciate that he possessed a great and unquenchable desire to learn, simply for its own sake—and if he could obtain the information at a bargain price (or for nothing) then so much the better.  Even today any time I manage to grab up a good book for a small price a little smile crosses my face as I think that the old boy would likely approve.  Now I get it, Gramps (but what exactly was that attraction to the National Enquirer?).

BUILDING CASTLES IN THE SAND

posted Nov 11, 2015, 2:44 PM by David Watson

Resources (at least the kind we tally up) are, by their very definition, scare.  Perhaps the most precious of all finite assets is our time, since none of us knows with certainty how much (or little) of it we really have.  This important point was reinforced for me just a few days ago by way of the most ephemeral of activities, the building of a sandcastle.  All four of my children are big fans of digging in the extra large pile of sand at Frankie Carter Randolph Park in far southeastern Harris County.  The kids (my two teenagers included) begin each time with a master plan for their construction, and never fail to create something elaborate and wonderful to behold.  As chauffeur and chaperone for the expeditions, I bring along my own parental goals and objectives, though I don’t share these with my charges.  More about this later.  Meanwhile, let’s briefly examine the state of parenting itself in America.

            A recent report by the independent, nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank “Child Trends” is entitled “Charting Parenthood: A Statistical Portrait of Fathers and Mothers in America”.  For the purposes of this whitepaper, a parent is defined either genetically (ever having produced an offspring) and practically (currently living with a child under age 18, whether a biological parent or not).  The report provides basic demographic information, e.g. that by age 45 approximately 85 % of us (men and women) will have produced one or more biological children.  Gaps in biological parenting appear between males and females, however, when subgroups of the population are considered.  Women in poverty are much more likely to be biological parents that are men, as are unmarried women, women under the age of 24 years, women with less than a high school education, and women who are unemployed.  It is much more frequent for married adults than for singles to be living with children under 18 years of age.  Men more commonly live with their own children if they have graduated from college than if they did not finish high school; this difference does not apply to mothers.

            What are the implications of these facts?  The Child Trends study also showed that if a father lives with his children he will regularly participate with them in leisure or play activities.  Moreover, greater than six in ten of these dads report being involved in setting limits on their children’s activities.  Among fathers who do not live with their progeny, four out ten have no contact with their kids.  Another recent report, this one from the National Center for Education Statistics, clearly demonstrates that both poverty and the absence of one or both parents strongly correlate with decreased academic achievement, and therefore with lesser success later in life.  The bottom line is that having an involved father in the home matters very much to children.

            This past Saturday morning dawned sunny and reasonably warm, a combination sure to bring my six year old bounding down the stairs bright and early, and with a bounty of ideas for outdoor activities.  It did.  I, on the other hand, had visions of an extra hour or two of sleep, given that Zack’s mom was off to her annual PTA convention.  My little buddy, together with his ten-year-old henchman (i.e. his brother) made their case and I agreed; it was indeed a nice day and a good idea.  A quick round of rousing the dead (i.e. the teens) and we were off to the park.  The main goal of these sand-rearranging forays is to turn the entire roughly 75 square feet of box into a single, contiguous “world” as they refer to it.  Such a feat requires agreement on a vision for the finished product, coordinated action, abundant goodwill (for those times when the inevitable misstep knocks over a bridge or a tower), and roughly two of those precious hours I referred to above.  Our rules are that only sand, sticks, and leaves can be used as building materials, and that nothing other than hands or plastic beach toys can be used for digging and shaping.  How did we do?  It depends on your perspective.  The kids were well pleased with their creation of an island city (complete with a suspension bridge and watch towers at each promontory) surrounded by two branches of a mighty river flowing from one end of the enclosure to the other.  My point of view was slightly different; objectively, I measured the success of the outing by the fact that four children of different ages and cognitive and fine motor development collaborated to accomplish a shared goal.  Oh yes, I also achieved a fabulous return on the investment of two hours of my time; not one paid in dollars, or even in educational achievement, but rather in lasting memories of what truly is for me life’s greatest joy--raising children.

WHY JOHNNY CAN READ (IF HE WANTS TO)

posted Jan 5, 2013, 10:51 AM by David Watson

Why Johnny Can Read (If He Wants To)

By David A. Watson, Ph.D.

 

            At the stroke of midnight on July16th, 206I know exactly where I, was, and my entire family, will be, and what we’ll be doing.  We’ll be holding our places in line to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at the big-box bookstore on Bay Area.  I’m well aware that there are many things to do on a Friday night at midnight besides queuing up to purchase a book (sleep, for example).  The fact is, it’s been on our calendar for months, and my kids (and many others here and elsewhere) wouldn’t miss it for the world.  For any new release to generate such excitement, and especially a book that actually stimulates pre-adolescents to read, is truly remarkable.  Here’s why.

            Last summer, the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the United States Census Bureau, released a much-publicized survey of American reading habits.  The results were dismaying to bibliophiles everywhere.  The report, entitled “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” and dubbed “Why Johnny Won’t Read” by the Washington Post and others, documented a substantial drop in reading by people of all ages, educational attainment, and socioeconomic level.  The survey showed that less than half of us (47 %) read “literature” (poetry, plays, and fiction), and in 2002 only 57 % of Americans read any book at all.  Put another way, fully 90 million of us read no book of any kind in 2002, with the numbers being worst for adult males, and for young people generally.  In a separate study, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that young people (male or female) read, on average no more than eight minutes per day.  Indeed, testing suggests that only about a third of fourth-graders nationwide are proficient readers.  Another study indicates that greater than 10 % of entering college freshmen require remedial instruction in reading.  Other data show that our kids watch some three to five hours of television per day, such that by the time they graduate from high school (if they do), they’ve spent more time in front of the tube than in class (more, in fact, than engaged in any other activity except sleep).

            The culprit for the decline, according to some pundits, is that books chosen to be read by our kids in schools are best characterized as “earnest” and “dull.”  Others blame it on a move toward literature that addresses the types of problems faced by teens today (e.g. drug abuse, pregnancy, and divorce), and away from adventure stories and biographies.  This, argue Mark Bauerlein (Director of Research, National Endowment for the Arts) and Sandra Stotsky (Steering Committee Member, Reading Assessment Framework, National Assessment of Educational Progress), has affected the interest of boys in reading even more than that of girls. 

            What can we do?  Among other ideas for increasing time spent by our children in reading, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests: setting limits on children’s TV time; turning on the television only to watch specific programs; providing other options for kids besides TV; and possibly most importantly, practicing what we preach (i.e. don’t be a couch potato, unless that is what you want your child to be also).  The RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) organization offers reasons why our children don’t read, including: it’s boring; there isn’t enough time; it’s too hard; it isn’t important; and it’s not fun.  RIF says that nagging, bribing, judging, and criticizing are all recipes for failure in getting our kids to read.  Instead, they offer 20 ways to encourage reading, at www.rif.org.  A few of these include: finding and making available to kids a variety of interesting reading material; reading aloud to them, either as a family, or as older to younger siblings; and again, turning off the TV and showing your kids by your example that you are a reader. 

            I remember clearly the last Harry Potter release party two years ago.  We took a nap in our hotel room, our entire family, then we went downstairs, out to a bookstore on San Antonio’s Riverwalk, and stood in line to claim our copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Not satisfied merely to purchase the book, however, my boys insisted we begin reading it.  So, over the next two hours we proceeded to knock out the first three chapters.  This late-night celebration of the written word made the next day’s conference in a darkened (and too-warm) meeting room seem endless, yet it was worth the price to see my children’s faces as we began a new adventure in reading.  We’re now 2,715 pages into the Harry Potter series, and the truth is I’m just as excited to read the next two books aloud to my boys as they were for me to read to them the first five.  In fact, my son Jon is fond of saying (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that while the Harry Potter movies are okay, the special effects are much better in the books!

WHY JOHNNY CAN READ (IF HE WANTS TO)

posted Jan 2, 2013, 3:02 PM by David Watson

Why Johnny Can Read (If He Wants To)

By David A. Watson, Ph.D.

 

            At the stroke of midnight on July16th, I know exactly where I, and my entire family, will be, and what we’ll be doing.  We’ll be holding our places in line to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at the big-box bookstore on Bay Area.  I’m well aware that there are many things to do on a Friday night at midnight besides queuing up to purchase a book (sleep, for example).  The fact is, it’s been on our calendar for months, and my kids (and many others here and elsewhere) wouldn’t miss it for the world.  For any new release to generate such excitement, and especially a book that actually stimulates pre-adolescents to read, is truly remarkable.  Here’s why.

            Last summer, the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the United States Census Bureau, released a much-publicized survey of American reading habits.  The results were dismaying to bibliophiles everywhere.  The report, entitled “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” and dubbed “Why Johnny Won’t Read” by the Washington Post and others, documented a substantial drop in reading by people of all ages, educational attainment, and socioeconomic level.  The survey showed that less than half of us (47 %) read “literature” (poetry, plays, and fiction), and in 2002 only 57 % of Americans read any book at all.  Put another way, fully 90 million of us read no book of any kind in 2002, with the numbers being worst for adult males, and for young people generally.  In a separate study, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that young people (male or female) read, on average no more than eight minutes per day.  Indeed, testing suggests that only about a third of fourth-graders nationwide are proficient readers.  Another study indicates that greater than 10 % of entering college freshmen require remedial instruction in reading.  Other data show that our kids watch some three to five hours of television per day, such that by the time they graduate from high school (if they do), they’ve spent more time in front of the tube than in class (more, in fact, than engaged in any other activity except sleep).

            The culprit for the decline, according to some pundits, is that books chosen to be read by our kids in schools are best characterized as “earnest” and “dull.”  Others blame it on a move toward literature that addresses the types of problems faced by teens today (e.g. drug abuse, pregnancy, and divorce), and away from adventure stories and biographies.  This, argue Mark Bauerlein (Director of Research, National Endowment for the Arts) and Sandra Stotsky (Steering Committee Member, Reading Assessment Framework, National Assessment of Educational Progress), has affected the interest of boys in reading even more than that of girls. 

            What can we do?  Among other ideas for increasing time spent by our children in reading, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests: setting limits on children’s TV time; turning on the television only to watch specific programs; providing other options for kids besides TV; and possibly most importantly, practicing what we preach (i.e. don’t be a couch potato, unless that is what you want your child to be also).  The RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) organization offers reasons why our children don’t read, including: it’s boring; there isn’t enough time; it’s too hard; it isn’t important; and it’s not fun.  RIF says that nagging, bribing, judging, and criticizing are all recipes for failure in getting our kids to read.  Instead, they offer 20 ways to encourage reading, at www.rif.org.  A few of these include: finding and making available to kids a variety of interesting reading material; reading aloud to them, either as a family, or as older to younger siblings; and again, turning off the TV and showing your kids by your example that you are a reader. 

            I remember clearly the last Harry Potter release party two years ago.  We took a nap in our hotel room, our entire family, then we went downstairs, out to a bookstore on San Antonio’s Riverwalk, and stood in line to claim our copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Not satisfied merely to purchase the book, however, my boys insisted we begin reading it.  So, over the next two hours we proceeded to knock out the first three chapters.  This late-night celebration of the written word made the next day’s conference in a darkened (and too-warm) meeting room seem endless, yet it was worth the price to see my children’s faces as we began a new adventure in reading.  We’re now 2,715 pages into the Harry Potter series, and the truth is I’m just as excited to read the next two books aloud to my boys as they were for me to read to them the first five.  In fact, my son Jon is fond of saying (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that while the Harry Potter movies are okay, the special effects are much better in the books!

BUBBLEGUM AND BAND-AIDS

posted Dec 30, 2012, 11:40 AM by David Watson

Bubblegum and Band-aids

By David A. Watson, Ph.D.

 

            Each year at the beginning of the holiday season, I take a few minutes to reflect on what I am most thankful for.  As you know by now if you peruse this space regularly, my wife and I have four healthy and happy young children.  Although in many ways raising children has never been easy, much of the anxiety and uncertainty related to their health has disappeared in just this century thanks to the miracle of modern medicine.  The widespread availability of antibiotics and vaccines have all but defeated serious infectious diseases of childhood—in the developed world, at least.  No longer do we lose large numbers of children to measles, diphtheria, rubella, or a host of other vaccine-preventable diseases.  Of course, better nutrition and clean water matter a great deal as well, but within just the past 50 years (certainly within the lifespan of many individuals still alive today) antimicrobial usage has become common and vaccination of children is nearly universal.

            A world free from serious infections of childhood is a wonderful utopian vision; the reality, however, is that any declaration of victory over them is almost certainly premature.  I say this since somewhere along the way to being eradicated from the planet, the microbes rebelled.  They started becoming resistant to the miracle antibiotics discovered not so very long ago.  How did this happen, and what can be done?  First, some information, then some bad and good news.

            Microbes, or germs if you prefer, are actually a very heterogeneous group of living organisms, really sharing little more than small size.  Viruses are generally the most common causes of infection, and while such infections may lead to considerable misery, they are often self-limited (although not always, as in the case of e.g. the Human Immunodeficiency Virus-HIV).  They are usually extremely small, so tiny in fact that most cannot be seen using a light microscope, and are parasites that carry miniscule amounts of genetic information.  Viruses are very different from bacteria, the other major culprit in infectious disease processes.  Bacteria are much larger, and can be visualized using most microscopes.  The great majority of antibiotic compounds have been developed for use against bacteria (although a small number of antiviral drugs are now available).

            Resistance to antibiotics by microbes, mostly bacteria (but also by HIV against antiviral drugs), has resulted simply because bacteria follow the dictates of nature.  That is, the appearance of large concentrations of antibiotics in the environment has presented what biologists call “selection pressure.”  The microbes either adapt or die.  Overwhelmingly, they die.  A few survive, not because they choose to, but simply due to the randomness of mutations (changes) in their genetic information.  These mutant forms proliferate and are no longer vulnerable to the drug.  This is not the only mechanism of development of resistance, but it serves to illustrate the resilience of bacteria.  Where have the antibiotics come from and why has there been such an increase in resistance over the past decade?  The blame is ours.  Antibiotic usage has climbed steadily for two decades.  Very often antibiotics are prescribed for what are in reality viral infections, against which antibiotics are not effective.  The bad news is that superbugs are beginning to show up that defy treatment with almost every available antibiotic.  We may see a time when we are again no better off than the pre-antibiotic era with regard to certain types of bacteria.  The good news is that when antibiotics are used with greater restraint, there is apparently a return to lower levels of resistance. 

            So…I’m thankful: for liquid antibiotics that taste like bubblegum because it made convincing our 12 year old to take her medicine when she was small almost as easy as giving candy to a baby; that our nine year old set up a howl that filled the doctor’s office one day over an inoculation, because it means vaccination is a part of his young life that my wife and I take for granted; that our five year old underwent surgery, because it meant his inflamed ear canals could properly drain a chronic infection; and, that our two year old had to wear band-aids on both of his chubby little thighs for a day following a round of vaccination, because it means he won’t be one of the thousands of kids who used to fall victim to acquired mental retardation resulting from complications of bacterial meningitis.  Have a happy and safe holiday season!

WHAT I LEARNED ON MY CHRISTMAS VACATION

posted Dec 27, 2012, 12:36 PM by David Watson

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...”

--John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, September 12th, 1962.

 

            The morning after the big paper-ripping extravaganza my wife and I mobilized.  We got up, drank our obligatory java, and headed out to buy provisions—sodas, pretzels, cheese crackers, and the like.  We came home, woke the teens, rounded up the pre-teens, and organized our team to pack the family minivan with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew.  Then it was off to the races, or at least over the hills and through the woods to grandmother's house.  We don't go every year, and certainly not often enough, but when we do, I can count on an earful; about research, healthcare, public education, and government spending in general.  Folks up in "fly-over" country are eager to tell me what, how, and why this or that should (or should not) be done by the federales in Washington to “fix this mess”.   As I’m something of a bureaucrat myself these days, my opinion is considered biased—so mostly I listen.  Though it isn’t my mission specifically to uncover such information during trips to the farm, I generally find out anyway, what it is that those hearty, tax-paying souls think about their government’s Research and Development spending (and especially that which is near and dear to us in Southeast Texas—namely, NASA).  First, though, let's look at some facts relating to Federal R&D expenditures, and about our space program in particular.

            A brochure available from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS; one of the component institutions of the National Institutes of Health) is entitled "Why Do Basic Research?"  This is a valid question when resources are scare (and they always are).  The answer offered in the NIGMS report is that there is simply a great deal we do not yet know; indeed, for some diseases, too little is understood to even begin to consider options for either prevention or treatment.  Quoting from the NIGMS document: "Too many efforts to direct untargeted (basic) research toward specific goals may reduce the chance that something really interesting will emerge."  The essayist and biologist Lewis Thomas said "It is hard to predict how science is going to turn out, and if it is really good science it is impossible to predict."  David Hounshell, a historian of science, points out that the giant DuPont Corporation once took a retrospective look at its ability to ascertain which of its technologies under development would pay off (and which wouldn't).  DuPont discovered that it clearly could make no such predictions. 

How then should the costs of basic research be weighed against the benefits it provides?  The distinguished Chairperson of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Alan Greenspan, has said "...the phenomenal performance of the U.S. economy, with its strong growth, low inflation, low unemployment, and high business profits, is due in large part to technological innovations that have caused productivity growth to accelerate."  President Bush has recently stated that "Science and technology have never been more essential to the defense of the nation and the health of our economy."  During a speech at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the President's assistant for Economic Policy, Mr. Larry Lindsey, offered that the average annual return on R&D investment by corporations is roughly 9%, but the rate for Federal investment in basic research is nearly 30%, or more than triple the return.  Mr. Lindsey further pointed out that NASA's share of the funding pie during the glory days of the moon race was on the order of $80 billion per year in current dollars.  This figure is greater than five times the current NASA budget.  By way of turning these spending numbers back around, it is a fact that in excess of 70% of publications cited in U.S. industry patents result from public support. 

What is the public’s mood regarding investment in research?  Polls consistently indicate that nine out ten Americans favor dedicating more dollars to medical research, and more than 60% would support a doubling of such expenditures over five years.  More than 85% of our fellow citizens consider it “very important” for the United States to keep up our role as the world leader in research.  Recent polls indicating only modest enthusiasm for a new plan to send humans outside low earth orbit need close scrutiny; it is among the oldest political tricks in the book to make us choose between two alternatives, both of which are very important to us (e.g. space exploration or domestic programs and security), rather than allowing for both and eliminating another choice we as the taxpayers dislike.

Here’s what I learned from John Q. Taxpayer (i.e. my Dad).  We should never forget from where we come, and why we willingly render unto Caesar.  That is to say that the ongoing purpose of basic research, even of the vaunted National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is and should ever be the betterment of our country (and our world) for all its people.  This ought to include enhancing our quality of life and continuously pursuing full employment.  It should be oriented toward increasing our safety and health, and aimed at creating a fair and equitable society for all of us.  Wise and worthy insights from "flyover" country.

 

"Ad Astra Per Aspera. Semper Exploro"

(Translated from the Latin, it reads "To the Stars, Despite Adversity. Always Explore")

                                                                                                                                                                                              --From the logo memorializing the crew of Columbia and to my dad Richard M. “Dick” Watson

EDUCATING BLUEBERRIES

posted Dec 27, 2012, 10:24 AM by David Watson

Note: I will put blog entries I wrote as columns for news papers, magazines, when I was School President for Pearland ISD)

 

 

Educating Blueberries

                                                                                                   By David A. Watson, Ph.D.

 

Have you ever heard the blueberry story?  That was the question recently put to several thousand school board members from around the state of Texas by Jamie Vollmer, luncheon speaker and former ice cream company CEO.  Short of retelling his wonderful tale, I’ll briefly summarize for you.  As Mr. Vollmer recounted it, he found himself on one occasion speaking to a group of public school teachers, and delivering what was at that time his standard homily on the topic of education; namely, that it really ought to be managed like a business.  At the conclusion of his remarks, a veteran teacher challenged Jamie by asking him what his approach would be were he to receive an inferior batch of blueberries for use in his acclaimed ice cream.  Mr. Vollmer replied straightaway that he would most assuredly send them back.  The teacher’s unstinting rebuttal was that educators never reject the blueberries.  They teach them all--large, small, gifted, physically challenged.  None are turned away.  Hence, the difference between a business and a school.  What is the state of public education in Texas and where are we headed?  Let’s briefly examine a few of the facts.

Although much room remains for improvement, public education is arguably better now than it has been in the past.  SAT scores are higher, with a larger and more diverse group of students now taking the test.  Dropout rates are down as well.  In a recent Gallup poll, greater than 70 % of parents awarded their child’s school a grade of A or B.  Another recent survey indicates that nearly 90 % of Americans believe a college degree is now as important as a high school diploma used to be; moreover, the value placed on completing college is inversely related to socioeconomic status.  That is, the least affluent among us value education the highest.  It would therefore appear that the dream of climbing the ladder of success in America by way of education remains alive and well.  At the same time, it is clear that the nature of our economy itself is changing.  No less a luminary than Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers has said that “…value derives less in physical assets and more in knowledge than it did a decade or two decades ago.”

Texans, however, are facing changes in the mechanisms for funding public education, not only K-12, but also higher education.  This is ironic, since Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Strayhorn wrote some time ago in a special report titled The Impact of the State Higher Education System on the Texas Economy that “Every dollar invested in our state’s higher education system pumps more than five dollars into our Texas economy.  It is a remarkable return on our money for Texans today and a vital stake in the future for successful generations of Texans tomorrow…[yet] state higher education funding is losing ground to other services…spending on public safety and corrections increased 256 percent in the last 15 years, while real higher education expenditures grew only 31 percent during the same period.”  The impact of this investment in teaching and learning is (at least) two-fold.  First, many of those dollars entering our economy come from outside the state, thereby injecting new monies into Texas.  Second, and more important, is the major long-term effect of a better-educated workforce, namely increased productivity.  A study by economists at Ohio State University examining the impact of spending for a variety of improvements to that state’s infrastructure (education, road improvements, healthcare services, police and fire protection, and water and sewer physical plants) found that the only infusion of capital that led to measurable growth in the Gross State Product was in fact education.  The state of Kentucky has instituted a marketing campaign known as “Education Pays” in an attempt to change minds about the importance of education.  Their promotional materials point out that nearly 60 % of the surfeit in per capita income of Kentuckians relative to residents of other states can be explained simply by the state’s dismal level of educational attainment.

The question put before us by our political leaders in Texas is whether we can afford to spend for education.  Indeed, the rationale for the changes to education funding being pondering in Austin even as I write this is that there simply isn’t enough revenue to pay for all those budget line items that are worthy of consideration.  We have been assured that the goal is to provide the citizenry with “government at a price we can afford,” or to state it another way, only that amount of government that the current revenue stream will purchase (this too is ironic, since Ms. Strayhorn also reports we have the second-lowest per capita state tax burden in the nation).  Part of the reasoning for not utilizing reserve, or “rainy day,” funds for education is that some of this stockpile needed to be used to create the “Texas Enterprise Fund” for the purpose of economic development.  Given that no clear data point to a better return on investment for funds invested in such a way compared to Ms. Strayhorn’s figure of five dollars returned for each dollar invested in education, maybe the better question is whether we can afford not to fully fund public and higher education in Texas.  It may well turn out that educating all those precious little blueberries isn’t just the right thing to do--perhaps its good business besides.

THE LITTLE ORNAMENT THAT COULD: A CROSS-STITCH TALE

posted Dec 26, 2012, 10:56 AM by David Watson

THE LITTLE ORNAMENT THAT COULD: A CROSS-STITCH TALE

By David A. Watson, Ph.D.

 

            Each holiday season, as we unpack the ornaments for our Christmas tree, there is one I look forward to finding above all others.  Of course it isn’t the only one that holds memories for me.  My little pink plastic bell, for example, chipped and with its clapper long gone, is a favorite, evoking as it does memories of my earliest childhood.  Yet there is one that means even more to me.  It was nearly Christmas in 1982 when my pretty, petite, and yes, young, girlfriend, to whom I had just proposed marriage, presented me with a simple hand-made gift.  I could not know then that this small and apparently insubstantial bit of cloth and stitching would come to encapsulate the very essence of my academic and professional aspirations over the next several years.  More about this tiny token momentarily.  Let me first offer a few insights from an intriguing recent survey and analysis of factors important (or not) to college graduation.

            Not long ago, the United States Department of Education published “The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College” (www.ed.gov/pubs).  This represents the government’s second iteration of a study designed to identify factors that either do or do not impact college degree completion; the first was of a national cohort of students all of whom graduated from high school in 1982 (followed through 1993), while this newer effort looked at 1992 graduates (who were followed through 2000).  Because large-scale changes were made to public education during the decade of the 1980s (the now-famous “A Nation at Risk” report was published in 1983) it was felt that a follow-up study might shed new light on whether these alternations have indeed resulted in improvements.  This follow-on report makes the case that the “path to degree completion” is increasingly complex, with students attending multiple institutions, making more and better use of community colleges, and including dual-credit, credit-by-examination, and summer classes as contributors to finishing their degrees.

            What then, are the factors the study identified as important in attaining the goal of completing what is increasingly viewed (and well-supported by economic data) as the essential price of admission to the good life; namely, a college degree?  What matters early in high school is the “academic intensity” of the coursework a student takes on.  For example, successful completion of mathematics courses through at least Algebra II is considered to be an important “tipping point” in finishing a bachelor’s-level degree.  Enrolling in, and passing, certain “gateway” courses in high school constitute strong predictors of later college success; e.g. among students who finished a course in American literature the ratio of those who later completed degrees to those who did not was 6:1, and for a course in chemistry, 4:1. 

All of this argues persuasively, for me at least, that support of advanced academics (i.e. academic rigor) by school boards, senior education administrators, and most importantly by parents and taxpayers is critically important to the future well-being of our children and indeed our country.  By rigor, I mean additional Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, continued brisk development and implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, and other innovations in teaching and learning.

            Once a young person has matriculated into college, then, a number of other indicators clearly predict degree attainment.  Not earning at least 20 credits after 12 months of college enrollment portends a poor outcome.  Similarly, it is important that students enter college as soon after high school graduation as possible; the longer the delay in beginning postsecondary studies, the less likely the individual is to complete a degree.  Greater than 60 percent of students now take courses during summer terms; earning four or more credits during summer is strongly correlated with degree completion, especially among minority students.  The Dept. of Education report also found that dropping into “part-time” status as a student (defined as 12 credit hours in a given semester) proved “hazardous” to obtaining a college diploma.  Even so, being continuously enrolled, at whatever level of effort, was plainly the most important factor in degree completion.  Formal transfer from a community college to a four-year college, as opposed to simply moving back and forth (“swirling” in the vernacular of the report), is important as well.  Lastly, a first year grade-point average in the top 40% for all college students entering in a given year, as well as a GPA that trends upward over the longer-term, both strongly predict success.  AP and dual-credit courses now enable earning of college credit while still in high school, and in some school districts completing an IB diploma is now counted as the equivalent of a community college degree.

What do not matter, at least to the same extent, are factors such as the following: student expectations of success (its one thing to believe in success; it takes hard work and dedication to actually achieve it); grants and work-study programs (yes, financial aid is often necessary, as it absolutely was for me, but dollars alone won’t lead to success); socioeconomic status (gentleman’s C’s notwithstanding, for the most part parents can’t attend class or take tests for their children); and lastly, changing one’s major (which is, in fact, not negatively correlated with success in college).

            The little cross-stitched ornament read simply “Dr. Davey ‘82” in red and green thread.  I liked it immediately because she had so obviously created it herself.  As I pondered it after opening the small package, however, it quickly occurred to me that she believed in me and in my goal to complete my doctoral degree (though it would be another eight-plus years before I could truly call myself doctor).  Every year at this time I am reminded of her personal and hand-crafted vote of confidence in her spouse-to-be, and that Christmas 1982 was the year I gained the partner who helped me achieve my goal.  I needed a partner then, and our kids do now.  Supporting advanced academics will benefit our children and our country, likely far down the road when we are no longer here.  Merry Christmas to all (and most especially to my once, and still, favorite cross-stitcher, Fay)!

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