Notes from the College Search

Spent Friday with the Good Wife and Sixteen visiting a private liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington—not the one with the very good Division 1 basketball team. The one with a very good Division 3 basketball team.

My main objective was not to embarrass Second Born by not saying or doing anything to bring myself attention. I was doing really well until mid-day. Early on we learned about the “Three Littles” that every student strives to accomplish. . . 1) get hit by a frisbee; 2) accidentally break a dish in the cafeteria; and 3) catch a “virgin” pine cone—meaning one that hasn’t hit the ground. In the middle of the campus tour, I faked catching a pine cone by droping to the rear, picking one up of the ground, then exclaiming to a few peeps around me, “Look, I did it. I caught a virgin pine cone.” Turned out more than a few people heard. Everyone liked my head fake except Golden Locks.

Thought one. A prediction. Higher education, like every other institution, is changing and will continue to change. However, the pace of change will be slower than the “experts” anticipate. Online “education”, or the cynic in me prefers, “internet coursework”, will continue to challenge the traditional “brick and mortar” model of schooling. Hybrid programs will become more common. But based on Friday’s sample of one, private, read pricey, residential liberal arts education is alive and well. “Spokane” University is thriving despite a relatively small endowment. It’s becoming more selective, it’s improving its already nice facilities, and it feels like there is a lot of positive momentum.

Thought two. A paradox. Many private liberal arts colleges offer financial aid packages that average 30-40% of the tuition and room and board “list price”. This coupled with Washington State’s public universities having to increase tuition 15% annually into the foreseeable future, means many families of high achieving students will find privates more affordable going forward. “Spokane” University has four merit-based scholarship tiers. The higher your grade point average and SAT or ACT score, the greater your financial aid. The second tier is a 3.7 and 1880 on the SAT if I remember correctly. That’s worth something like $15,000 each year. Any high schooler planning on going to college should think long and hard about taking any part-time job that might negatively impact their grades. You’d have to scoop ice-cream part-time at Baskin Robins for five years to make $15,000.

Thought three. Confirmation of a core belief. I believe economic anxiety explains most behavior these days. Especially, but not exclusively, middle and upper middle class parents of K-12 students. One of the day’s events was a panel discussion with four “Spokane” University students answering questions. Of the dozen or so questions asked during the hour, eleven were asked by parents. The only explanation I could think of for that was deep seated anxiety about their children’s futures. I wanted to tell the lady with red hair, who asked a few different questions, to “shut the hell up,” but I had already embarrassed TSwift once. Incredibly aggravating. Free parenting advice—at least try letting your son, who looked like a grown man to me, find his own way.

I took one picture. No, not of the beavers I saw on my run along the edge of the over flowing Spokane River, not of the baby ducklings, and not of the loquacious woman with red hair.

Dig the smart mix-use design

Finally, most importantly, make sure whatever college you decide to attend has plexiglass backboards.

I’ll Never Be Mistaken for a Foodie, but. . .

. . . my culinary skills are slowly improving. At this rate, in a few years, I won’t completely suck.

This is how I’ve been starting the day—when we happen to have strawbs.

Can something this tasty really be good for you too?

I’ve been doing my own oatmeal thang for awhile, but I kicked it up a knotch thanks to this recipe/story/video. Whenever I begin working my oatmeal magic I’m hungry, meaning impatient, so I microwave it for two minutes instead of following the recommendation to cook it more slowly. Meanwhile, I gather the butter, brown sugar, strawbs, raisins, molasses. Given a blindfold test, I don’t think I could distinguish between microwaved and stove-top oatmeal. Thanks to Chef Bijou, sometimes I add a poached (or fried, improvising again) egg or two for extra protein. And once or twice I tried the recommended bananas, but I usually just go with raisins. I like my banana separate with peanut butter, usually between breakfast and lunch. Which is a nice segue to part two of this culinary tour de force—between meal grazing.

Most of the year I workout about 9-10 hours a week, meaning I’m always burning a lot of calories. As a result, I’m eating something about every two or three hours. Between meals, I throw open the kitchen pantry and start pillaging. If it’s sweets, like Costco chocolate chips, tortilla chips, or leftover cake, I can put on a few pounds pretty easily. If it’s healthy snizzle, like carrots (with a little Ranch, come on I’m not Michael Pollan), baked teriyaki almonds, hardboiled eggs, or a piece of fruit, I can snack to my hearts content and not gain weight. For the next four months I’ll be swimming, cycling, and running for more than 9-10 hours a week, so I can pretty much eat whatever I want without gaining weight.

What, upset I mentioned the most awesome snack in passing without further explanation? Recently, the Good Wife taught me how to bake and season almonds and so that’s now a part of my growing culinary repertoire. It’s really hard so pay attention. Spread almonds out on a cookie sheet or baking pan. I use a toaster oven. Bake them at 350 for 14 minutes. Fill a large bowl with a tablespoon or so of low sodium teriyaki sauce. After they’re done cooking, pour them into the bowl with the sauce. Mix them up well. Leave the bowl out for awhile and let them dry before putting them in a glass jar.

Snack goodness

Also, keep in mind, as Chris in the Morning once said on Northern Exposure, every day you have to do something bad to feel alive. That’s what these are for.

So few calories, go ahead, have a couple

And finally, some bonus pics. Here’s today’s lunch—an open faced leftover salmon sandwich.

Well, this was the START of my lunch. Add bagel, pistachios, tortilla chips, half a banana, you get the picture.

And remember how conflict-ridden my domestic life was a month ago. Smooth sailing this week. I took Sixteen to the Farmer’s Market last weekend and bought her a double scoop ice-cream cone. And then she helped me pick these out for the Good Wife. End result. . . smooth seas for the forseable future!

Note to self—buy flowers more often. No other investment has as good a return.

The Tourism Trap

Talked to an elderly couple at church about their recent adventure in China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I checked off the same spots during my first trip to China in 1997. And today I looked at a friend’s Facebook pics about a recent trip to China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Anyone that stays on the well worn, urban, tourist pathway of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, really can’t say they know much about China which is still largely rural and poor. As tourists, we lack creativity, independence, and a sense of adventure. Our collective lack of creativity, independence, and sense of adventure creates tourist traps—must see locations that make people feel like they understand a people and place far more than they really do.

Of course, in the U.S., foreign visitors have their checklists too. Here’s the Top Ten according to Forbes Traveler—1) Times Square; 2) The Las Vegas Strip; 3) D.C. and the National Mall and Monuments; 4) Faneuil Hall Marketplace; 5) Disney World; 6) Disney Land; 7) Fisherman’s Wharf/Golden Gate Bridge; 8) Niagara Falls; 9) Great Smoky Mountains; and 10) my birthplace NavyPier Chicago. If you’re an American citizen, what kind of feel would a foreign visitor get for your community if they went from one “Top Ten” site to another?

How does a sense of obligation to see standard tourist sites form, that if I’m traveling to Country A, B, or C, I have to see X, Y, and Z? Is it a fear that someone might ask upon returning, “Did you see the Great Wall? Did you see Times Square?” Are we defenseless in the midst of the iconic sites incessant, sophisticated, billion dollar marketing campaigns?

My most memorable travel experiences have been off the beaten trail. In China, a bicycle was indispensable to experiencing more of daily life. When abroad, I’ve learned the more still I sit, the more I listen and observe, the more I learn about different forms of daily life.  Lo and behold, many people live markedly differently than me and their unique ways of life work well for them. Once I learned what’s “normal” is culturally defined, I not only learned to appreciate foreign cultures, but cultural diversity in the U.S. as well.

International school visits have always been enlightening. The different architecture, curricula, teaching methods, teacher-student interactions, extracurricular activities, and feel in foreign schools always provides wonderful insights into the larger culture.

Think about a foreign tourist to the U.S. that spends a few days at the Grand Canyon and a week on the Vegas Strip. And another that spends ten days visiting private and public elementary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Which would learn more about life in the United States?

What other, “off the radar” experiences—besides school visits, a farmers’ market visit, riding city busses, a homestay or two, attending religious services, a hospital visit, watching a youth sports tournament, visiting a courthouse and sitting in on a trial, attending a summer concert in a park—would you recommend to a foreign visitor who wanted to not just recreate, but learn as much as possible about life in the U.S.?

Here’s a travel challenge from Roman Krznaric, the author of the book I’m currently reading, The Wonderbox. This from a chapter titled “Empathy”:

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with ‘being good’. But experiential empathy should be really regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next holiday at an exotic resort or visiting museums. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives—and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, ‘Where can I go next?’, the question on our lips should be, ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’ 

Teaching Grit Continued

[Editors note: Please notice that in the right-hand margin I've moved my twitter feed up. My tweeting is just too genius to reside anywhere else.]

Thanks to last week’s comments, I’ve continued thinking about teaching and grit. The two primary questions I’ve been grapping with are: 1) What is grit? And 2) Should it be taught in public schools?

1) What is grit? We think it consists of courageous acts in the face of opposition. For example, a hiker survives for six days after an 800 pound boulder pins his arm. Eventually, he uses his pocket knife to self amputate his arm and somehow he survives the ordeal. The height of grittiness right? Or the marathoner who withstands 80+ degree temps and a series of surges to hang on and win.

But Duckworth and her colleagues define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The hiker wasn’t thinking long-term, he wanted to live to see the following week. The marathoner’s performance probably doesn’t qualify as gritty as his months and years of race prep. Is it possible that the elderly couple who have stayed married for sixty years despite personality differences, debilitating illnesses, and financial hardships are especially poignant examples of grit? Or the baseball player who breaks into the “bigs” in his mid 20’s after years of honing his craft in single, double, and triple A?

Or the alcoholic who has been sober for several months, years, or decades?

Or Jim Abbot, the one-handed former professional baseball player who I heard interviewed on a Seattle radio station this week. Abbot pitched at the University of Michigan, and in the 1988 Olympics, and in the “bigs” for a decade. His “grit quotient” has to be off the charts.

Or just read the opening of Michael J. Fox’s most recent book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, about what it’s like to get out of bed, shower, shave, and get dressed with advanced Parkinsons. Fox’s resolve in the face of daily challenges is inspiring, but I’m not sure it constitues grit since it doesn’t involve long-term goals. Clearly though, his grit is evident in the foundation he’s spent years building, a foundation that has radically improved the pace and prospects of Parkinsons research.

If my “grit quotient” was higher, I’d have published a book or two by now.

2) Should it be taught in public schools? Not as simple a question as it first appears. Seymour Sarason, in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, contrasts teachers with docs. Docs he says have been honest about how difficult it will be to cure cancer. He argues they’ve done a great job of managing expectations. They continually remind the public that there are genetic and environmental variables (like smoking and nutrition) that are outside their control. They repeatedly say any progress will be slow. As a result, the public appreciates the real progress that is being made.

On the other hand, teachers, too altruistic for their own good maybe, have taken on more and more intractable social problems—like hunger and poverty, teen pregnancy, racial reconciliation, and most recently, childhood obesity. And let’s not forget that business leaders, journalists, and politicians like Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and President Obama routinely, if somewhat indirectly, blame teachers for our slowing economy, for letting our lead slip in the global economy, and for our declining standard of living.

What should families be responsible for? What should “the community writ large” be responsible for, whether non-profits, religious youth groups, or civic associations? I anticipate one loyal PressingPause reader, a school counselor in a poor community, to protest, “But if families aren’t teaching grit, what are we supposed to do, just sit back and watch their children not accomplish meaningful long-term goals?” Fair question that highlights this is a real dilemma.

Back when Obama was smoking dope at Occidental (belated and weak 4/20 reference), and Nineteen was about to start kindergarten, the Good Wife and I had a meeting with her two teachers who wanted to know what we most wanted her to learn during the year. I suspect my answer was different than most. Growing up in a reading intensive home with two experienced educators as parents, I wasn’t worried about basic literacy. “I’d really appreciate if you’d help her develop a social conscience,” I said. “I want her to be in touch with her privilege and to be an empathetic person.”

That was a private Quaker kindergarten which I grant is a little different animal, but one wonders, should public schools teachers be held responsible for young people who don’t have a social conscience? Do public school teachers set themselves up for failure by taking on way more than literacy and numeracy? Does their seeming willingness to take on a never-ending list of social problems partially explain why the “powers that be” are so dissatisfied with their performance and are pressing to evaluate and pay them based upon their students’ test scores even though the problems with those proposals are painfully obvious?

Despite Sarason’s insight, I believe the study of grit, it’s absence and presence, can most definitely be taught in the context of reading and writing instruction. Student have to read and write about something. Why use innocuous, fictional reading material when they could be introduced to stories that prompt discussion about perseverance, long-term goals, and grit? If Sarason were still alive I wonder if he’d see any harm in that.

If a grit curriculum doesn't fire you up, what about a grits curriculum?

Irrational Frugality

Before a gaggle of dudes lost their jobs, I couldn’t get enough of the Secret Service-Columbia prostitute story mostly because the primary agents’ irrational frugality makes me feel better about my own litany of dumb-ass money saving moves. Allegedly, the prostitute, I mean escort, wanted $800 for spending the night with the Secret Service agent. He offered $30. For $770 several Secret Service careers are over. In the still-to-be-built Irrational Frugality Hall of Shame that “misunderstanding” should be front and center.

Take-away. Always pay your escort the agreed upon price.

One example of my irrational frugality took place in Chengdu, China in 2003, in a Carrefour store, a gigantic, French-owned, everything store. I bought some socks on sale. They probably cost $1.00 originally, but were on sale for 60 cents. While being rung up, I realized I didn’t get the sale price, so I politely pointed that out. After getting blown off, I persisted, and asked if I could talk to a manager. They found my sense of efficacy oddly entertaining and soon, the cashier, manager, and I were engaged in a mangled Chinglish conversation over forty cents.

Like most imbeciles in similar situations always say, it was the principle. After about 20 minutes, I got the 3 yuan owed to me. So my time is worth about $1.20 an hour. But then again, it’s not everyday Big Red gets to stick it to Red China.

"Escorts" not hookers

Points to Ponder

• From Jonathan Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis-Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomPleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.

• From The Atlantic: Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant. [strong counter argument]

• From Sports IllustratedIt’s hard to come up with any measure sufficient to characterize the strength of the Kenyan marathon army, but try this: Sixteen American men in history have run faster than 2:10 (a 4:58 per mile pace); 38 Kenyan men did it in October.

Grit follow up. In Monday’s Boston Marathon, the dude on the far left, Michel Butter, from the Nederlands, was hangin with the Kenyans. Pre-race, the Dutch track federation told him if he finished in the top ten they’d put him on the Olympic team. He finished seventh because of training sessions like this one.

Correction from the exceptional The Science of Sport blog: Michel Butter’s requirement was either to run 2:10, or finish in the top 8 with a 2:12 or faster. He ran 2:16:38 for 7th. So he got the place, but missed the time, and hence the Olympic spot. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, because as I mentioned earlier, the elite men were 7.8% slower than last year’s times, and about 5% slower than their typical race times. Butter missed the target time by 5.1% (the 2:12 standard). Bearing this mind, and that Boston is typically a slower course than the flat races of Rotterdam, London, Berlin etc, I would use discretion and pick him anyway…

Can Grit Be Taught?

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology prof, studies “grit” which she defines as  “perseverance and passion for long-term goals“. In this 18 minute-long TED talk titled, “True Grit: Can perseverance be taught?” she summarizes her research without really answering the question.

Her premise, I assume, jives with most everyone’s life experience—achievement involves far more than natural intelligence. An impassioned, focused, single-minded person who perseveres in the face of obstacles almost always accomplishes more than the really smart person who switches from project to project and quits when things don’t go smoothly.

From wikipedia: Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.

I think “resilience” is synonymous with “grit”. So can resilience or grit be taught? If not, why not? If so, how?

A lot of especially resilient or gritty people seem to have tough childhoods in common. Yet, there are a lot of people who had tough childhoods who aren’t particularly resilient or gritty. So does genetics or “nature” play a part? Probably, but that doesn’t mean one’s environment is irrelevant. I suspect one’s environment is more influential than one’s DNA.

So what kind of environments cultivate resilience or grit? This recent essay titled “Even Happiness Has a Downside” provides insight into family settings that are unlikely to cultivate resilience or grit—most contemporary ones where the parenting default is to remove obstacles from children’s lives. An excerpt: “. . . being happy, being satisfied, saps the will to strive, to create. It’s why we don’t usually expect trust-fund babies to be cracker-jack entrepreneurs. For all our happiness talk, we actually cultivate dissatisfaction. We don’t want to hog-wallow in the useless sort of contentment that H.L. Mencken derided as “the dull, idiotic happiness of the barnyard.” 

Of the cuff, in her TED talk, Duckworth uses a  related phrase that may be the ultimate target for those interested in cultivating resilience or grit—”intestinal fortitude”. Related question. If a young person is to learn “intestinal fortitude” are they more likely to learn it in school, through a curriculum designed to cultivate it or at home or in their community by observing adults who model it? I would enjoy the opportunity to design a resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude curriculum, but when it comes to cultivating those things in young people, outside of school modeling probably holds far more promise.

Young people are unlikely to develop resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude given the extreme child-centeredness that characterizes contemporary parenting. That doesn’t mean families should intentionally accentuate dysfunction, but they shouldn’t shield their children from the inevitable headwinds every family faces either.

I’ve enjoyed coaching girls high school swimming from time-to-time the last few years. The swimmers are wonderful young people, but few of them show much resilience or grittiness. When practice is most difficult they suddenly have to go to the bathroom or stretch their shoulders. They’re unaccustomed to being truly fatigued and they’re mentally unable to push through temporary physical pain. They have a lot of great personal attributes, but for most of them, intestinal fortitude is not among them.

At dinner tonight (Sunday the 15th), the Good Wife suggested we watch Mad Men tonight after it airs (to avoid commercials) instead of Monday or Tuesday night as has been our recent habit. Why? So that Sixteen can watch her show uninterrupted Monday night. Some context. Sixteen is a great kid, works exceptionally hard at school, and looks forward to chilling in front of the t.v. for an hour at the end of several hours of homework (with some Facebook mixed in for good measure). The Good Wife’s intentions are understandable, it’s a well deserved dessert, but I ask you Dear Reader, how gritty is our next generation likely to be if they’re not even expected to share a television from time to time?

[Postscript—Thanks Kris for the Duckworth link.]

Here’s an Idea—A Weekly Sports SparkNote

SparkNotes motto is “When your teachers and books don’t make sense, we do.” SparkNotes provides written and video summaries of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and every other book commonly read in U.S. high schools. Why read the whole book when someone else will do it for you?

No, this isn’t a philosophical discussion on whether SparkNotes is symbolic of national decline. It’s an embracing of the idea of delegating work to others. And of appearing smarter than you actually are.

Imagine how bitchin your life would be if every Monday morning a Sports SparkNote was waiting for you in your email inbox. Think of all the people who could benefit personally or professionally from being in the “sports know”, but aren’t about to take time from their weekend to follow athletic events firsthand? Sometimes I amaze myself. Brilliant, huh? My best idea since half-off, recycled, afternoon newspaper redelivery. Any venture capitalists want to front me?

Imagine the value of a weekly Sports SparkNote to the middle aged mom whose teenage son or daughter thinks she’s hopelessly out of touch because she doesn’t know who Dwight Howard or Lionel Messi is? Or imagine the value to an employee who wants to bond with his or her more sports-minded colleagues Monday morning at the water cooler. Or imagine the value to any man or woman with a sports-centered partner normally forced to fly solo.

Yes, close readers, that was a not so subtle reference to the Good Wife who knows just enough about sports to be dangerous. In hindsight, I should have kept track of her most epic sports faux paus for your reading pleasure. Here’s a sample drop in the bucket, “How are the Sonics doing this year?” Let’s just say I’m comping her a free newsletter.

Here’s a sample issue, in two different sizes, for the investors among you with especially deep pockets. Remember, Instagram was only worth $30m a few months ago. Don’t pass up on this opportunity to get in on the ground floor.

April 9, 2012—Full-meal deal.

• Dwight Howard, a star National Basketball Association (NBA or “The Association”) player for the Orlando Magic said he wanted the team to fire his coach. Then when the coach confirmed that had happened, Howard denied it. This after Howard spent the whole season saying he wanted to be traded, then changed his mind, then said he wanted to be traded, then changed his mind right before the trading deadline. Then he went out and scored 22 points, grabbed 20 boards (rebounds) and all was forgiven. When this story comes up, throw this out there, “Is it a coincidence that most of the NBA drama comes from knuckleheads who skipped college?” Then slowly moonwalk away from the water cooler, and silently thank “Sports SparkNotes” for your enhanced status.

• In the National Football League (NFL), Gregg Williams, the former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator has been indefinitely suspended by the league as a result of paying his players under the table to injure opposing players. The scandal is termed “Bounty Gate”. An audio tape was released of one of Williams’ pre-game “pep talks” which shocked even the most fanatical NFL acolytes. He used lots of naughty words and repeatedly implored his players to go after the knees and heads of opposing players. This is especially problematic right now since the NFL is catching up to the science that shows repeated concussions seriously compromise players long-term well being. Some claim the NFL has known that for awhile, but is only serious about protecting players now because an increasing number of retired players with cognitive problems are suing the league. Water cooler one liner, “Guys like Williams give new meaning to the No Fun League.”

• Late last week, 51 year-old Bobby Petrino, the very successful University of Arkansas football coach crashed his motorcycle. He then told the “U” he was riding alone only to find out later a 25 year-old woman who he hired to oversee recruiting paperwork was also with him. She was engaged to another employee in the athletic department who has apparently broken it off. Now she’s in seclusion. No word yet what the coach’s wife or four kids think of his indiscretion. Smart-ass water cooler quip, “When is it okay to cheat on your wife, lie to your Athletic Director, and become ‘Sports SparkNotes’ fodder? When you win 11 games. [update—Petrino has been canned]

• Bubba Watson, a lefty from the U. S. of A., who played his college golf at the University of Georgia, is the first professional golfer never to have taken a lesson. Sunday he won the Masters, the year’s first (of four) golf majors at Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia. Bubba hit a miraculous shot from out of the trees to win on the second sudden death playoff hole over Louis Oosthuizen from South Africa. Bubba recently bought the Dukes of Hazard car, The General Lee, for $110,000; and with his wife, just adopted a baby boy. Water cooler lines of choice: 1) “I hooked my wedge 40 yards once too, but I wasn’t trying.” 2) Nice weekend to be a Bulldog (Georgia’s mascot).

April 9, 2012—Low-fat alternative.

• A star National Basketball Association (NBA or “The Association”) player for the Orlando Magic said he wanted the team to fire his coach. Then when the coach confirmed that had happened, he denied it. Water cooler line—”Is it a coincidence that most of the NBA drama comes from knuckleheads who skipped college?”

• A former National Football League (NFL) coach has been indefinitely suspended by the league as a result of paying his players under the table to injure opposing players in what’s known as “Bounty Gate”. The NFL is catching up to the science that shows repeated concussions seriously compromise players long-term well being. Water cooler line, “That screed gives new meaning to the No Fun League.”

• The very successful University of Arkansas football coach crashed his motorcycle. Turns out a 25 year-old woman who he hired was also with him. No word yet what the coach’s wife or four kids think of his indiscretion. Water cooler rhetorical question, “When is it okay to cheat on your wife, lie to your Athletic Director, and become ‘Sports SparkNotes’ fodder? When you win 11 games.” [update—Petrino has been canned]

• Bubba Watson, who played his college golf at the University of Georgia, won the Masters, the year’s first (of four) golf majors at Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia. Bubba hit a miraculous shot from out of the trees to win a playoff. Water cooler lines of choice: 1) “I hooked my wedge 40 yards once too, but I wasn’t trying.” 2) Nice weekend to be a Bulldog (Georgia’s mascot).

Which of these weekly Sports SparkNotes, the “full meal deal” or the “low-fat alternative” would change your life more? And what’s a fair price for your changed life? You spend the weekend sleeping in, reading, hiking, cleaning the garage, working in the yard, dining with family and friends, watching non-sports related films, and I devote myself to your sports (and cultural) literacy. One dollar?

What Explains Differences in Student Achievement?

Researchers commonly associate family income with student achievement. However, a contrarian, Harvard’s Paul Peterson, argues teacher quality, school accountability, and school choice have bigger causal impacts than family income.

Peterson’s analysis challenges the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) to educational reform that has been advanced by a group of education scholars, teacher union leaders, and non-profit groups. The BBA recommends that proposals to enhance teacher quality, school accountability, and student choice be dropped in favor of policies that would redistribute income and provide support services to families outside the regular school day.

BBA advocates state, “Weakening the link between income and achievement is the fundamental challenge facing America’s education policy makers.” Peterson acknowledges the connection between income and student performance, but claims most of it is not causal, but due to other factors. He cites a study by Julia Isaacs and Katherine Magnuson (Brookings Institution, 2011), that examines an array of family characteristics – such as race, mother’s and father’s education, single parent or two-parent family, smoking during pregnancy – on school readiness and achievement. The Brookings study finds that the distinctive impact of family income is just 6.4 percent of a standard deviation, generally regarded as a small effect. Peterson also calls attention to earlier research by Susan Mayer, former dean of the Harris School at the University of Chicago, which also found that the direct relationship between family income and education success for children varied between negligible and small.

Peterson says, “A better case can be made that any increase in the achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is more the result of changing family structure than of inadequate medical services or preschool education.” In 1969, 85 percent of children under the age of 18 were living with two married parents; by 2010, that percentage had declined to 65 percent.  The median income level of a single-parent family is just over $27,000 (using 1992 dollars), compared to more than $61,000 for a two-parent family; and the risk of dropping out of high school increases from 11 percent to 28 percent if a white student comes from a single-parent family instead of a two-parent family.  For blacks, the increment is from 17 percent to 30 percent, and for Hispanics, the risk rises from 25 percent to 49 percent.

Peterson claims that BBA proposals such as expanded social services, preschool, and summer programs, ignore the many hours children spend at school and amount to a “potpourri of non-educational services (that) have never been shown to have more than modest effects on student achievement.” He argues that merit pay, school vouchers, and student and school accountability have been shown to have had equivalent or larger impacts. For example, school accountability initiatives have raised student performance by 8 percent of a standard deviation. Initiatives to improve teacher quality have the potential of raising student performance by 10 to 20 percent of a standard deviation.

Peterson is probably cherry-picking studies whose findings align with his conservative political ideology. Those of us on the left do that to our detriment at times. For lack of a shorter, catchier term, call it “selective perception for findings that affirm our preconceived beliefs.”

Except for his emphasis on teacher quality, I’m not buying what Peterson is selling. Among other research challenges, it’s next to impossible to isolate the variables he values most—merit pay, school vouchers, and student and school accountability. It’s possible that the BBA-ers’ analysis, which I’m more sympathetic to, is similarly compromised by political ideology. This isn’t a sexy debate, but it’s a very important one because public resources are increasingly scarce and the outcome impacts all of us directly or indirectly.

Most likely, this is a case of the truth being somewhere in the middle—just like it’s “nature and nurture” not “nature versus nuture,” inside and outside-of-school factors combine to explain significant differences in student achievement.