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.
The most instructive part of any new job I've had isn't the formal training. It's all the stories that your new co-workers tell you about the job you're starting. When I began working at Walt Disney World -- many, many years ago -- one person told me what remains my favorite story about theme park visitors.
It's probably apocryphal, but I want it to be true, so I keep telling it. A group of employees are in the park on their day off, since they get in free. It's a busy day, and there are lines everywhere. As a joke, they decided to form a line in front of one of the fake doors on the colonial street facade around the corner from the Hall of Presidents show. Sure enough, within a minute, a family walks up to them.
"What are you in line for," the father asks.
"I don't know," the employee nearest the door responds. "But I'm first!"
So the family stops, and starts waiting behind them.
People who've read my blogs will know the answer: It's the parents. Kids who come from families with parents who have money and education outscore and outperform kids who don't. Period. Everything you read in newspapers and online that claim to report about the "quality" of various schools and districts ultimately just comes down to the demographics of the children in those schools. Have a lot of poor kids of undereducated parents, and your test scores and other indicators suffer. Fill the schools with rich kids whose parents went to college, and "oh my goodness, isn't it amazing" what those children can do?
So what can schools do? How can schools help students who are not blessed with wealthy, or even middle class, parents achieve as much as their classmates who do?
Here is the tough, tough answer: Not much.
So who are these candidates running for school board? It turns out to be a very interesting question, in the case of District 6 in the Pasadena Unified School District, which includes Sierra Madre, East Pasadena, Chapman Woods, and my neighborhood, an area of unincorporated Los Angeles County between Pasadena and San Marino. Two candidates are running to replace the retiring Tom Selinske for our district's seat.
Larry Torres is National Board Certified Teacher with 29 years' experience teaching in public schools. He's served for 14 years on PUSD school site councils and holds a master's degree in education from Harvard. He has a campaign website and has appeared at multiple local candidate forums, providing district residents with plenty of opportunities to get to know him and his positions.
Torres' opponent is Sandra Siraganian, a Sierra Madre real estate agent. Siraganian doesn't have a campaign website, and she's not bothered to show up for any candidate forums yet, making it hard to get any sense of what she thinks about education or what kind of board member she would be. We do know that the Pasadena Foothills Association of Realtors has endorsed Torres for the seat. Why would Siraganian's own co-workers endorse her opponent?
When I was teaching journalism at USC, I told my students that the best way to get to know a candidate is to learn about the people donating money to that candidate. The City of Pasadena publishes campaign contribution reports from candidates for the PUSD board. It's still early, but Siraganian has submitted one contribution report already.
And it's a biggie — $1,000 from Frederick "Fritz" Hitchcock, who was listed with a Las Vegas address on the contribution report. Despite the Vegas address, Hitchcock is the chairman of California Chamber of Commerce and lives most of the year in the Ritz Carlton Residences at L.A. Live, according to an interview published on the chamber website. He's a major player in Republican politics, having contributed more than $142,000 to federal and California state candidates and campaign committees alone just last year.
Why is a high-roller GOP player from Vegas and downtown LA dropping a grand on a Pasadena school board candidate? Let's take a look at Siraganian's own campaign contributions to get a better picture of her political beliefs.
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.
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.
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.