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Sensible Talk is author Robert Niles' blog about... sensible things.

May 1, 2014

My final word on public education reform

Robert Niles
If we're going to improve public schools in America, we need three things: 1) The abolition of charter schools and voucher programs -- all public funds should be spent on schools under voter control. 2) A reaffirmation of neighborhood schools -- kids should be assigned to the schools nearest them (with options for kids with unique talent to go to other schools with specialized, audition- or application-based programs). 3) Aggressive new funding to support kids from poor families -- this includes restoring state funding for extracurricular activities as well as for lowering class sizes and paying for after-school and vacation-time tutoring and child care.

What we don't need? 1) More standardized testing -- let's better replicate "real life" by asking students to demonstrate their ability by creating projects in the subjects that interest them instead of taking tests that don't replicate any real job experience. 2) Tying school funding to test results -- that's a death spiral that chokes funding from schools serving poor kids, who are more likely to score poorly on standardized tests. 3) Changing work rules to leave teachers with lower pay, fewer pensions, and weaker job security -- if we want better even teachers, we need to offer better compensation, not worse.

Education suffers when we view it as something for "them" rather than something that is a cooperative effort by all of us. That's why charter schools and voucher programs are so corrosive. They reduce education to a consumer product, provided by organizations separate from community oversight and control. We need to restore community support for our local schools. Attacking the corporate-funded lies about American public education is just a first step. (When you account for differences in family income, American school test scores are rising, and rank among the top in the world, despite the public beating that our politicians have been administering to schools since the Reagan administration.) The next step is to quit making public schools behave like consumer products, and to allow them to once again focus on serving the kids in the neighborhoods nearest them.

The "education problem" in America isn't one of teachers, of curriculum, or of administration. It's the problem of child poverty, which has been growing for more than a generation as tax, trade and employment policies in America have worked to destroy our middle class. If we want to improve educational outcomes for all American children, we need to attack child poverty by helping their parents -- working men and women -- to get a larger share of the value that their work creates, rather than allowing so much of that value to be sucked upstream by owners and CEOs.

While we do that, we need to support the emerging majority of American students who come from families too poor to provide for their children without public support by providing that support. We need to spend more to provide more and better meals to ensure that students get the nutrition they need, and not simply empty calories that leave them overweight and undernourished. We need to spend more to restore state funding for a full range of extracurricular programs, to keep more students engaged in school by providing activities that awaken their passion for life. And we need to spend more for after-school and vacation-time tutoring to provide the help, guidance and engagement that children who can't count on getting that support at home. How will we get that money? Easy -- we grow the backbone to finally raise taxes on those owners and CEOs who have grown richer than ever.

Look: Public education is one of government's greatest expenditures, along with defense, health care, and retirement support. That's made it a juicy target for business people who want to get their hands of some of those billions of tax dollars. Like Harold Hill trying to convince the people of Iowa that they have a problem with their youth in order to sell them band instruments, these "reformers" have been trying to sell the American public on the idea that the nation's poverty problem really is just a problem with teachers and principals, and if we only just give our money to the business people instead, all our problems will go away.

Except that they don't. And won't. So let's try another approach. Let's turn away from charter schools, voucher programs, and standardized testing. Let's do away with all that corporate welfare and try spending money on the true education professionals -- the teachers, counselors, coaches, and principals in publicly-controlled schools who need our support, not our scorn, to help our children achieve their great potential.

April 21, 2014

School attendance zones should build, not break, communities

Robert Niles
The Pasadena Unified School District is asking for public input as it redraws the attendance boundaries for its elementary, middle and high schools. By redrawing its attendance zones, PUSD has an opportunity to fix one of the major problems that's been crippling the district in recent decades. But will the district take this opportunity, or let it slip away?

PUSD attendance zones

Currently, PUSD breaks up its elementary classes, scattering kids from the same elementary to multiple middle schools. The same thing happens when children move from middle school to high school. The district's attendance zones for secondary schools cross the attendance zones for the various elementary schools, instead of overlaying them neatly. Throw in an elementary school, a K-8 school and a 6-12 school with no geographic zones — where students are selected for attendance by random lottery — and it's nearly impossible that a child entering a PUSD school in kindergarten will find the majority of his or her classmates attending the same school with him or her in high school.

Here's the problem with that: When the district breaks up elementary school communities, it doesn't just separate kids. The district separates parent communities, too. Active parent communities are vital in raising money and providing volunteers to support field trips, sports teams, performing arts programs, and many other student activities. When a district breaks up the networks that parents form during their first six years in the district, that makes the challenge of moving up to middle school even more difficult. And when parents don't see a functioning parent support community at the secondary school where they've been assigned, if they have the resources to leave the district, there's a strong chance that they will.

Unfortunately for all Pasadena-area kids, the parents with those resources are the ones most needed to lead and cultivate those school support networks.

Breaking up school communities also changes the way that secondary schools look at and work with elementary schools in the district. Under the current system, secondary school teachers, coaches, and directors don't know which students they'll be getting into their programs. So their focus becomes one of marketing, trying to attract students and parents to select their schools. With better-defined assignment zones, people at the district's secondary schools will know which elementary programs will feed into their school, and that they will be getting all the kids from that school.

That changes the relationship from marketing to kids to cultivating them instead. Instead of trying to "sell" to everyone in the district, secondary schools can begin to refocus on building stronger relationships with their designated feeder schools and their teachers. Secondary-level music, drama, science and sports programs can develop better feeder programs at the elementary level, working with parent support communities and creating a situation where more kids get engaged at an earlier level, encouraging more students to stay in school and to stay in the district.

Right now, the lack of defined feeder schools stands in the way of building the relationships that can cultivate and sustain these programs, keeping PUSD from offering many of the extra- and co-curricular activities available in neighboring districts.

PUSD can stop shooting itself in the foot by stopping its insane practice of breaking up elementary and middle school communities when students advance to the next level. It's time for the district to redraw its attendance zones so that all kids from one elementary feed into the same middle school, and all kids from the same middle school feed into the same high school.

That won't be easy, but that's no excuse for not doing right by Pasadena's kids. Take a look at the numbers, and you'll see that they don't line up easily, as you try to imagine how to assign elementary schools to specific secondary schools:

  • 15 K-5 elementary schools
  • 3 K-8 schools
  • 3 6-8 middle schools
  • 2 6-12 secondary schools
  • 2 9-12 high schools

But this is not impossible. I looked up a district map, and tried to assign the district's elementary schools to their nearest middle school facility, and then to do the same for middle and high schools. Here's a plan that I would like to propose to the district, as a way to keep student and parent communities together in the transition from one school to another.

After each school, I've listed its current attendance, according to published district data. In parenthesis is the average number of students per grade level at that school. For the secondary schools, I've posted a third number, in italics, that is the sum of the average number of kids per grade level at the schools that would feed into the secondary school under my plan. Under each high school, I've listed the secondary schools that would feed into it, and then each elementary school that would feed into that school.

Pasadena High School 2028 (507) 513

  • Sierra Madre K-8 School 1079 (120)
  • Wilson Middle School 667 (222) 393
    • Don Benito* 638 (107)
    • Field 514 (86)
    • Hamilton 558 (93)
    • Willard 644 (107)

Marshall Fundamental School 1848 (284) 266

  • Marshall Fundamental School
    • Webster 511 (85)
  • Norma Coombs K-8 School 414 (46)
  • McKinley K-8 School 1217 (135)

Muir High School 1112 (278) 334

  • Eliot Middle School 665 (222) 334
    • Altadena 346 (58)
    • Franklin 340 (57)
    • Jackson 316 (53)
    • Jefferson 471 (79)
    • Longfellow 520 (87)

Blair School 1153 (165) 337

  • Blair School
    • San Rafael 381 (64)
  • Washington Middle School 499 (166) 273
    • Cleveland 252 (42)
    • Madison 471 (79)
    • Roosevelt 259 (43)
    • Washington 654 (109)

The schools noted with an asterisk currently do not have a geographic attendance zone, but would need one under this plan. You'll see that for all but Marshall, my plan would assign more kids per grade than the district's high schools currently enroll. That shows the existing "leakage" of students from elementary to high school, due to drop outs and kids moving out of the district, usually to private schools.

This plan also assumes no school closures. But you can see from the attendance data that PUSD has some seriously underutilized school buildings. And we've talked before about the community's struggle to support four high schools, when compared with the level of community support enjoyed by high schools in neighboring districts. However, I've created scenarios involving several possible secondary school closures, and this process still works. PUSD can create an attendance zone map where secondary schools zones do not break up elementary school zones.

The question remains as to how to draw the elementary boundaries. I would hope that the district would start with a simple concept of assigning each home to the nearest elementary school, then moving those lines as needed to balance attendance levels. Perhaps that leads some families to be assigned not to the nearest elementary school, but to the next nearest one. In no case, however, should the district gerrymander attendance zones to send kids past two other PUSD elementary schools to get to a third, or further school.

The current zoning situation with Blair, for example, is crazy. My home is assigned to Blair for high school, even though three other public high schools are closer to my home than Blair. (In order from nearest to farthest, they are San Marino, then PHS, then Marshall, then Blair.) Everyone who lives south of Colorado Boulevard is assigned to Blair, even though almost no families with high school students in that area east of Lake actually go to Blair, according to people I've spoken with in the district who've looked at that data. Everyone I know personally who lives near us and have sent their kids to PUSD schools chose the nearer PHS or Marshall in open enrollment. Those who got in usually stayed in the district. Those who didn't, left.

I suspect that not only would the plan I propose help keep grade-level communities together, and promote stronger relationships between secondary and elementary schools, it might just help the district to retain families by reducing the need to rely upon open enrollment for families to get into the schools they want their kids to attend. Even if that doesn't happen, though, retaining and strengthening relationships among students, teachers, parents and administrators within the district can only help improve the district and make it a more attractive system for everyone in the community.

Again, let's stop letting PUSD shoot itself in the foot with its crazy attendance map. It's possible to draw a map that doesn't destroy communities. So let's insist that the district do that.

March 6, 2014

Classical music fans: ' Interviews' now available in paperback and for Kindle

Robert Niles
We are pleased to announce the publication of our next book! Laurie's Interviews: Volume 1 is now available from, in paperback ($19.95) and for Kindle ($9.95). The 300-page collection includes more than two dozen interviews with top violinists that Laurie has done for over the past six years, including ones with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and David Garrett. Interviews: Volume 1Two-time Grammy Award-winner Hilary Hahn wrote a lovely foreword for the book. "Laurie addresses topics that are comfortable but all-consuming, such as current projects, and delves into the delicate nuances of creativity. She captures specific moments in time. I love that. In this collection, you can observe her at work, but you will also travel along with her interview subjects," she wrote.

If you buy a paperback copy of the book through Amazon, you soon will be able to add a Kindle version for just $2.95, under Amazon's Kindle Matchbook program. (It takes about a week after initial publication for that option to become active. In the meantime, if you visit that link, Amazon will suggest Kindle versions that you can buy now at a discounted price, of print books you've already bought from Amazon.)

We're planning a book launch party in Pasadena, as well as some other promotions for the book. In the meantime, we appreciate all the support from our friends and readers in buying the book and rating it highly on Your purchases and recommendations encourage Amazon to suggest the book to other customers, helping expose Laurie's work to more potential readers. (And if you'd like to "like" the book on Facebook, the official page is at

You can find links to all of our books on, and, as always, you can find Laurie's latest blog posts on Thanks for reading!

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