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

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!

February 26, 2014

Let's get some real data on community support for new programs in PUSD

Robert Niles
What courses and activities would you like to see offered in the Pasadena Unified School District? As part of a state-mandated "Local Control Accountability Plan," the district has been looking for community input to "describe the school district’s overall vision for students." Advisory committees and community forums are nice components to that effort, but wouldn't it be nice to include some hard data from the entire local community, as well?

I'm talking about a community survey. In college, I was appointed by Northwestern University's then-president Arnold Weber as one of five student members to a 24-member student and faculty "Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience." We were charged with doing for Northwestern what the LCAP is supposed to do now for PUSD — to create a vision for the future of the institution, along with a plan for getting there.

At our first meeting, the university's Vice President for Student Affairs, Jim Carleton, insisted that the Task Force was doomed to irrelevance if we relied on our personal opinions and anecdotal "evidence" from others. We needed real data, he said, proposing a random-sample survey of the students and faculty, to discover what they thought and were doing, and to document their reactions to some of the issues we'd been charged with considering.

As a major in Northwestern's "Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences" program (try writing that into a little blank for "major" on a paper job application!), I was tapped to work with Jim in designing the survey, which ultimately was conducted by the university's Public Opinion and Survey Lab. We need something similar for Pasadena Unified now.

My daughter has attended Pasadena High School, and said that the school has surveyed students about what courses they'd like to see added to the school's curriculum. (It looks like there's a big demand for adding an AP Psychology class, she said.) But that captures only the opinions of people already in the district. PUSD needs to reach out to families with school-aged children who are not now attending PUSD schools if it is to increase its appeal to all members of the Pasadena-area community.

In addition, PUSD needs to reach out to the broader community to search for potential support for additional programs in the district. Like many public school districts in California, PUSD doesn't have the extra cash to hire additional teachers and coaches to add new programs "on spec." With two-thirds of the district's students coming from poor households (and needing extra support from the district as a result), a dwindling local population of school-aged children, and a huge number of retirees needing ever-more-expensive health care, the district's more likely to be looking for cuts than additions to the curriculum. The only programs the district's been able to add in recent years are ones that deliver new sources of funding to the district, such as ROP [Regional Occupation Program] efforts, including the vocational "academies" we now see at all PUSD high schools.

If we as parents in the Pasadena area want PUSD to offer new programs, we're ultimately going to have to come up with the cash to support them. That's why it is vital that PUSD, or some organization working on the district's behalf, do some solid community research to determine which new programs would have the student demand and community support for the district to offer without having to undercut some other, existing program in return.

Here's an idea: A community survey, mailed to every residential postal customer in the Pasadena, Altadena, and Sierra Madre zip codes. Each survey could be identified with a unique code, so that the recipient household could complete it online instead of filling in the paper form and mailing it back. (That would help support a higher return rate.) The survey should ask if the household includes any school-aged or younger children, then if they attend PUSD schools or not.

I'd propose that the district consider consider only responses from households with children when quantifying potential student demand for new programs. But I suspect it would be far less expensive to simply mail the survey to everyone than trying to create a database of mailing addresses of local households with children. In addition, many "empty nest" households without children might be willing to provide financial and volunteer support for new programs in the school, and the survey should solicit that support.

The survey could list courses and extracurricular activities currently offered at least one public high school in the area (PUSD, South Pasadena, San Marino, La Cañada, Glendale, Arcadia, etc.), but not now offered at all four PUSD high schools. Recipients could be asked to "bubble in" one of three options for each course:

  • A - This is a "must-have." The family won't attend the school if it isn't available
  • B - The family would consider this, if offered
  • C - The family doesn't care and probably wouldn't participate in this

Here are a few such activities that could be included on the survey (these are off the top of my head. I haven't yet done the full research on this.) Households without school-aged children would be asked to skip this section.


  • Chinese
  • French

Performing Arts

  • Marching Band
  • Show Choir
  • Orchestra
  • Theater - annual drama
  • Theater - annual comedy
  • Theater - annual musical
  • Dance


  • Speech/Debate teams

(This list is far from complete, by the way.)

The next section of the survey would repeat this list of activities, but with checkboxes next to them that recipients could be asked to check if the household would be willing to provide financial or volunteer help to support this program. All recipients would be asked to complete this section.

Finally, the recipient would be asked to provide a name, email address and phone number if s/he checked any boxes in the support section, so that the district could make contact should their activities be added in the district. If there's no contact information provided here, the answers in the support section should be ignored, and all activities should be counted as unchecked.

Percentages don't matter when analyzing this survey. What we need are the raw numbers — the numbers of families would consider each potential activity a "must have" and the number of households that have pledged to support those activities, backed up with contact information for the district. Those numbers will tell PUSD leadership which activities have the broadest demand and support in the community. If these results are run in crosstab with families with children not in the district, they would suggest which programs have the greatest potential to help increase district enrollment, too.

With that real data in hand, PUSD's leadership can make a more informed decision about which programs have support in the community, and begin to build more relationships with community members who are willing to help support our schools.

Would you like to see this survey happen? Let's start a conversation with the Pasadena Educational Foundation, local businesses, churches and community organizations that might be able to provide financial and logistical support to conduct the survey. Heaven knows PUSD doesn't have the extra money sitting around to do it. I've forwarded this post to PEF. If you'd like to support this effort, email me at and tell me how you can help I'll pass along your name to PEF as well. Thanks.

January 24, 2014

Here's the real problem with America's education system

Robert Niles
Want to know the real problem with America's education system? Here it is:

When I was a kid...

Millions of American graduates are discovering that their education isn't paying off with the middle-class (or, for top students, better) lifestyle that they envisioned when they were working so hard in class. One report says that there are seven job seekers for every position that pays above a living wage of $15 per hour. And if you think that 15 bucks an hour is a lot compared to when you graduated college, may I introduce you to the inflation calculator? Use it to see what your first post-college job paid in today's dollars.

As a result, millions of college graduates are stuck with jobs that don't actually require a college education. Nearly half of the low-wage workers in America have a college degree.

College has become the new high school. Instead of providing a ticket into the middle and upper classes, an expensive college degree too often merely helps you hang on to the menial jobs a previous generation filled with high school graduates and drop-outs.

Think this is a problem with the quality of today's college graduates? Let's put it this way: companies moving jobs to the Third World aren't doing it because they can find more college graduates abroad. We're producing a glut of college graduates not because our economy demands them, but because college provides a convenient place to store excess labor. Our economy doesn't have jobs for young workers, so we send them off to college instead.

That would be no-harm, no-foul for today's students if college were part of those students' free public education. But it isn't. And with college costs growing much faster than inflation, not to mention people's ability to pay, we're burdening our young people with billions of dollars in debt that they'll need to pay off while working in low-wage jobs that couldn't support themselves and a family anyway. Wall Street pockets the profits from today's increasingly productive workers while making even more money off the young people steered to college in pursuit of jobs that don't actually exist.

And people really wonder why our economy remains stagnant? Talk about "takers" sucking money from the "makers" in our economy!

The problem with our education system isn't to be found in our schools, after all. It's a problem with an economy that's not producing jobs. It's a problem with an economy that creates poverty as a byproduct of corporate profits. Education suffers when students' parents don't have enough income to support their children's education with adequate food, shelter, security, and attention.

It's not like our economy lacks the cash to pay its workers. Heck, Walmart could raise its workers pay to nearly $15 an hour without raising prices one cent, simply by using the money it's now spending on propping up its stock price. Corporate profits are near all-time highs, while effective tax rates on corporations and the wealthiest Americans are at the lowest rate in a generation.

But education suffers most when students see through the scam. Talk with college and high school students. They know that the job market stinks. Many of them are beginning to question why they should work so hard within a system that won't reward that effort in the end. There's no hope for education if students aren't even motivated to make an effort.

Yes, we have an education problem in America today. But the problem isn't with our schools, or with our teachers. Our problem is an economy that won't support young people or their educations anymore. Maybe instead of wasting time and money on Wall Street's attempts at "education reform" we should be demanding that our elected leaders reform Wall Street and our economy, instead.

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