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Robert Niles

Robert Niles

to Robert Niles.

Robert Niles is the author of How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online and Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

Robert is a native of Los Angeles, and today lives in nearby Pasadena, California. He graduated from Northwestern University, where he majored in the school's program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences as well as in Political Science. He also holds a master's degree in journalism from another university.

Along the way, Robert has worked as a Pirate of the Caribbean (at Walt Disney World) as well as a reporter, editor and/or columnist for the (Bloomington, Indiana) Herald-Times, the Omaha World-Herald, the Rocky Mountain News, the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California.

Today, Robert Niles runs, and (with his wife, Laurie)

January 21, 2015

There's No 'Standard' Solution to Improving Education

When I graduated high school in Indiana in the 1980s, there was no requirement to take a class in the arts. As someone who spent his elective classes in show choir, that wouldn't have been an issue for me. But my daughter faces many more requirements to get her high school diploma than people my age — and older — did. It's not just an arts class — it's exit exams, and extra classes in math, science, history, and other core subjects.

And we're still adding to the requirements. The Pasadena Unified School District has approved yet another increase in high school graduation requirements, one that follows state models to create multiple tracks for students to follow toward their diplomas. In most tracks, students are left with fewer electives as they must complete the additional track requirements.


I suspect that most people would agree without hesitation that tougher graduation requirements are a good thing. After all, the world is getting more competitive, and don't we want to prepare our young people to be able to compete?

As I just wrote, though, we've been raising requirements for years. We've been preparing more and better educated high school graduates than ever. Perhaps we should take a moment to ask ourselves: Has it worked?

Here is the answer, and it is one that none of us want to hear: No.
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August 28, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Work That Even God Cannot Do

The senior minister my church, the Rev. Jim Nelson at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, holds a "Preacher in You" class each year to teach church members how to write a sermon and conduct a church service. It's a fascinating look into another form of public speaking, so I took the class this year. And in the summer, the class participants run the service for a Sunday while the regular ministers are away. Here is my sermon from last Sunday. Prefer to listen than to read? Here's the audio of the sermon.

I loved Jay Ward cartoons: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Peabody's Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. How can you not love a show that name checks The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through a story about Bullwinkle the talking moose finding on the shore of a local pond a model boat encrusted with red jewels? That's right -- a ruby yacht. For a youngster struggling with his teachers' attempts to impose strange rules of grammar and syntax, I loved watching Jay Ward's characters gleefully blow up the conventions of language and of history and rearranging the debris for the sole purpose of making me laugh. I didn't understand most of the references. Heck, I was deep into my teens before I got that Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam joke. But I did learn an appreciation for the power of irreverence.
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May 1, 2014

My final word on public education reform

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.
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April 21, 2014

School attendance zones should build, not break, communities

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.
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March 6, 2014

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

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
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February 26, 2014

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

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.
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January 24, 2014

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

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.
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