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.
December 6, 2013
I'm disappointed that much of the coverage of Nelson Mandela's life fails to note that throughout his imprisonment, the United States supported his captors. In fact, the United States government went so far as to label Mandela and his group (the African National Congress) as terrorists. The United States did not remove Mandela from its terrorist watch list until 2008.
This is not to discredit Mandela, whom history has vindicated as one of the greatest human beings of all time. But it should remind us that United States, its government, and its business leaders, sometimes stand on the wrong side of history. Good Americans shouldn't deny that. We should accept it, acknowledge it, and atone for it by no longer listening the voices of bigotry, greed, and selfishness that prod us toward that wrong side of history.
December 2, 2013
I wanted to let you know that I've just published a new book -- a guidebook to the Orlando-area theme parks.
Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 includes more than 200 pages of Theme Park Insider's reader ratings, tips, and advice for visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld. We've included a ton of fun trivia and stories in the book, along with tested, crowdsourced strategies for getting the most value from an Orlando-area visit. Even long-time visitors should find plenty in the book to help them learn more about the parks and how they work.
I hope that you'll consider "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" as holiday gift for your favorite theme park fan, or maybe just as a gift to yourself. And, as always, your good reviews of the book on Amazon are welcomed and highly valued, as is spreading the word to family and friends. "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" is available for Kindle (and Kindle apps) ($5.99, and £3.99 for UK readers) and in paperback ($9.95).
November 26, 2013
My son's eighth-grade math class has begun implementing the new national "Common Core" math standards, and the new education curriculum already has taught me something.
As my college roommate wrote on Facebook, "we've replaced 'No Child Left Behind' with 'Every Child Left in the Dust.'"
The idea behind Common Core was alluring, especially to those of us frustrated with hearing about states that have cheapened their education standards over the years, such as by trying to write evolution out of science standards in favor of various religious mythology. Or by replacing biologically accurate information abut human reproduction with "abstinence based" sex-ed programs that have been shown to increase teen pregnancy rates.
Under Common Core, the thinking was, states would adopt a common, national set of education standards, one that would be guided by education professionals and not hijacked by reactionary politicians in individual states.
Well, Common Core did deliver a national set of education standards. But many education professionals aren't happy with the result.
Looking at what my son's doing in his math class, it's easy for me to understand why.
October 31, 2013
If a group of wealthy children of college-education parents — kids who get homework help at home and tutoring on the weekends — score better on a test than a group of poor children of non-English speaking immigrants who can't provide help at home, what does that tell us? Does that tell us anything about the kids' schools, or their teachers? Or do those scores just tell us something about those kids themselves?
Is a school attended exclusively by the first group of kids a "better" school than one attended by the second group? What would happen if both groups switched schools for a year? Would the first group score worse on tests, and the second group better? Or would the results look pretty much the same? What if both groups went to the same school? Would that school be "good," or "bad"?
For too long, politicians and the public have judged schools — and our American public education system — simplistically, by looking at top-line test scores. We've looked at where students end up — completely ignoring where they started, and far they have come to get there. Then we give assign credit or blame to students, teachers, and schools with no consideration for where those students began when they first stepped into their schools.
I'm reminded of the late Molly Ivins' devastating line about George W. Bush: "He was born on third base, and thought he'd hit a triple."
For years here on Sensible Talk, I've been encouraging you to look beyond the top line of test scores, and to look instead at apples-to-apples comparisons of schools. Look at how children of similar economic backgrounds are performing. Once you do that, you find that the so-called "bad" schools in a community are really the poor schools. And that when poor and middle-class kids attend the same school, the middle-class kids end up scoring pretty much the same as the kids at exclusively middle-class schools.
And yet… we're in the middle of a national "education reform" movement that accepts as gospel the hypothesis that schools are failing. That test scores are declining, and that if we simply move kids in "bad" schools to charter or private schools, they will be better educated as a result.
But what happens when we actually test this hypothesis, instead of simply accepting and acting upon it?
It's not enough to look at those top-lines scores. Advocates for private and charter education are wise to this game, and routinely try to cherry-pick children from wealthy and well-educated families to help their schools present the highest scores and most academic awards possible. What happens when you control for economics and make an apples-to-apples comparison between types of schools, instead?
We've already seen the results for charter schools. On balance, students who attend charters do not score as well as students in traditional, voter-controlled schools. (And that's the real systemic difference between charter and public schools. Public schools answer to voters, through school boards and state legislatures. In many states, charters answer to no one. They're publicly-funded private schools where it can be difficult, even impossible, for voters to turn off the flow of money once it's started, should those schools underperform or fail.)
Now, thanks to University of Illinois researchers Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, we have the results for public vs. private schools, too. The professors looked at scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, and found that, when you look apples to apples, controlling for demographics, children in public schools score better than children in private schools.
September 25, 2013
Last month I wrote about the shrinking number of children living in the Pasadena Unified School District attendance area, and the ongoing enrollment decline that's resulted. Since my children are in the eighth and 11th grades now, that got me thinking about how PUSD high schools compare with other local public high schools for enrollment.
I used the State of California's STAR test reporting website to find the enrollment at each grade level for PUSD's four high schools, plus eight other public high schools that surround PUSD. High school seniors don't take the STAR tests, so I found data for grades 9-11. To make the numbers easier to understand, I averaged the enrollment for those three grades to get an average grade-level enrollment for each school.
With its declining enrollment split among four high schools, PUSD has three of the four smallest average grade-level enrollments among public high schools in the area. Here are the data, after the jump.
August 8, 2013
California's annual public school test scores are out, and scores dipped here in Pasadena in 2013, as well as around the state.
50 percent of PUSD students scored proficient or above in English Language Arts (ELA), down 2 percent from 2012 but an increase of 28 percent since 2003, the year the STAR tests became fully aligned with state standards. 45 percent of PUSD students scored proficient or above in math, a 1 percent decrease from 2012 and an 18 point jump from 2003 scores.
Pasadena Superintendent Jon R. Gundry blamed continuing state funding cuts for the decline. As he should. But there's an important part of the story missing, too. For the second year in a row, the percentage of students in the district who are poor has increased.
In 2003, "economically disadvantaged" students made up 63.8 percent of students tested in the Pasadena Unified School District. (According to the state, "economically disadvantaged" students are ones from families whose income is low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches.) Last spring, economically disadvantaged students made up 71.4 percent of students tested in the district. That's a 12 percent increase in the proportion of poor kids in the district over the past decade. Given that standardizes test scores track strongly with family income, that PUSD has managed to increase its test scores over that same period is nothing short of a miracle.
Photo from: Go Public: A Day in the Life of An American School District, filmed in PUSD
Let's look at the trends. In 2003, 17,117 students took the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests in PUSD. In 2013, just 13,242 students took those California state tests. That's an enrollment decline of 22.6 percent in grades 2-11 (the grades tested) over that period.
But let's also look at the how declines split among poor and non-poor students. The number of economically disadvantaged students in the district declined from 10,921 in 2003 to 9,455 in 2013 — a 13.4 percent drop. But the number of non-poor students in the district cratered, from 6,075 in 2003 to just 3,755 in 2013 — a 38.2 percent drop. PUSD lost middle-class and wealthy students at a rate nearly three times that which it lost poor students.
If you look at the numbers since 2008, the start of the global economic meltdown, the difference becomes even more extreme.
July 27, 2013
When my family drove around the country on summer vacations when I was a child, we'd inevitably end up stopping for lunch and dinner at chain restaurants, such as McDonald's. It's not that we loved McDonald's, but that was a brand name we knew. Rather than take our chances with a local, mom-and-pop restaurant we didn't know, we stuck with the consistency of the chains, even if that meant missing out on some really great local restaurants.
I grew up to study statistics in college, and my professors taught me this attitude was called being "risk averse." We'd rather settle for a mediocre experience than take the chance on finding a better one, if taking that chance meant we might get stuck with something worse. And we weren't alone. McDonald's and other fast-food chains — from Stuckey's in the 1970s to Starbucks in the 21st century — built national empires by appealing to travelers who simply wanted something familiar.
Today, when I drive across the country with my family, we never stop at McDonald's. After reading Eric Schlosser's excellent book, Fast Food Nation, I haven't eaten at a MickeyD's in more than 12 years. But we try to avoid other big fast-food chains, as well. It's not that I'm less risk averse than my parents, as much as my ego might lead me to want to believe that. Technology's changed the risk equation when it comes to dining on the road.
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