August 24, 2008

A failed chancellorship, in scientific terms

One of the intellectual feats Tom Stoppard achieves in the best of his plays is how he juxtaposes virtual tectonic plates of human thought one upon the other.

He does this, for example, in Arcadia, which is at bare bones a love story about a couple of exceedingly clever young people, one a tutor of just about everything to the other. How Stoppard manages to flesh out these two delightful creatures against a background of Newtonian physics, thermodynamics, geometretrical equations, Chaos mathematics, Information Theory, archival research and scientific drone work, and cultural predilections of the past two centuries is as miraculous as it is inspiring.

And challenging. It’s made me want to throw some of all that up against what’s been happening in NYC schools under the chancellorship of Joel I. Klein.

I’m telling you right up front that I’m intending to riff on some loose analogies during the course of this blog. Just so you know.

A commentary on Arcadia that caught my attention this week (written by Paul Edwards, a professor of English at Bath Spa University: “Science in Hapgood and Arcadia,” 2001), led me to refresh whatever memory I ever had about the laws of thermodynamics.

The first one, relating to the conservation of energy, goes something like this:

It's about the two ways energy gets transferred in a closed system, by heating (or cooling) and by mechanical work, and is one of the most secure laws in all of science. It remains at this moment unquestioned.

If you’re a teacher, your mind may run at this point to the boundless energy, positive and negative, that young people bring into the classroom each period, not to mention the stamina it takes to get them on task for as long as you have them. That “closed” system mentioned above is analogous to a classroom, where changes in energy and work levels are expected. Whether the energy is exciting and productive or of the bad-ass kind, and regardless of how it any of it gets dispersed and transformed during the course of the period, one thing is for sure: none of it’s going anywhere until the bell rings.

I’ll extend this analogy even further, to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (really more of a theorem than an actual law):

In an isolated setting (which I admit is tighter than a closed one), once energy starts transforming, some of it will become “unavailable”: useless for the purpose of work, and unfortunately from our analogous perspective, unrecoverable. You can actually measure how much of it is unavailable. In fact, the unavailable amount tends to increase over time, and the only way you can get more energy into the setting is to inject it from the outside — which is the problem here in New York, and why I'm really getting ticked off by the misguided ideologies of this chancellor and mayor.

Physicists call the measurement of unavailable energy “entropy,” and if you can wrap your head around this, the higher the entropy, the less energy there is that can be used to good purpose.

(You can check out an artistic version of this concept later if you want, in the song "Use What I Got [to Get What I Need]".)

Carrying the analogy a bit further, a corresponding entropy has been discovered in the domain of Information Theory. Here, entropy is a measurement of Chaos and amounts to informational “confusion,” or “noise.” Chaos results from too many variables, missing information. Things are happening way too randomly, and the underlying patterns, structure, and order in things are not visible through this “noise.” You can’t make sense of things. Entropy is in this domain a measure of disorder: the higher it is, the more chaotic things feels.

This is not rocket science. Well, maybe it is, but I’m pressing on anyway.

Good teachers figure out in time how to regulate the energy in the room and turn as much of it as possible into the positive, usable kind, that can produce work. Low entropy is desirable.

Good teachers figure out how to streamline their lessons, explain things better, and turn confusion into quality thinking. There are way too many variables in our classrooms to be able to control them all: the kinds of families and cultures kids come from, their language, personalities, and how healthy or hungry they are. There’s the physical aspects of the classroom, intruders and unexpected observers, the weather, or even the bad sushi you ate last night acting up just at the wrong time. Tons of variables, and some you can eliminate, like making sure everyone has a desk and a chair, a piece of paper and something to write with. Again,
low entropy is desirable.

Both the mayor and the chancellor have notoriously and shamelessly sought to place the blame for ineffective education on teachers, but it seems to me that the essence of what has got in the way of productive learning here in New York boils down to two things:

1. What these two ed impersonators have been doing to keep entropy levels up so high, and

2. What they’re putting into the system to bring it back down.
As to the first issue, the BloomKlein team, which with little or no personal teaching experience of its own makes all the major legislative, executive and judicial decisions relating to education in this city, has managed to circumvent — and in some cases exacerbate — practically all the problems that leach good energy out of our classrooms. Their misguided directives have resulted in confusion and noise on a very grand scale.

Not only have they restructured the system ineffectively three times, class size has not been reduced enough to make a difference, state mandates are ignored, and specialist instruction and services to all kinds of kids (including those with special needs) are cut out. They've created an environment where incidents are best not reported, minimal effort is often rewarded (credit recovery), and kids are not only deprived of learning time by an inordinate call for high stakes tests, but judged with manipulated and otherwise flawed standards.

Klein’s minions at lower administrative levels play havoc with the contract, busing, supplies, and buildings. They’re allowed and maybe even encouraged to insist on procedures and methods that make little sense when applied across the board and don’t even necessarily work in restricted environments (e.g., the “no textbooks” directive, the trend towards illustrated and easy-read materials, the workshop model, wall clutter, and weird instructions on how to mark papers of all things). Principals write up template-like evaluations that are often less than truthful and sometimes illiterate.

Instead of being expansive places for the mind, many schools are incubators for the kinds of negative energy that can never produce good work. Parents and teachers have felt the brush-off, even the back side of BloomKlein's mean-spirited, untrained hands.

As for no.2 above, I can’t actually think of any programs this chancellor has initiated to nurture the talents of kids and teachers and bring the level of chaos down citywide. (I’m not including his cell phone project, because bribery is basically immoral. This plan is not only an inappropriate mechanism for bringing about academic success, but materialism itself is an unacceptable educational outcome.) Those that do come to mind, like such ancillary programs as robotics and arts programs, were in place in some form or other before Klein took the job. Even the small schools initiative began earlier: his own biography says he just expanded it. (Poorly, though. These schools not only service a selected portion of the population, but displace other schools in the vicinity and draw off too high a proportion of the funding.) Average kids from average families are not getting an education that will land them a good job. New, inexperienced and not fully licensed teachers-in-training man hundreds of classrooms, union-busting is a high priority. Everyone is being lied to, and a whole department of PR people are working 24/7 to make sure no one finds out. Destructive social engineering has reached catastrophic levels.

I’m glad to have re-read Arcadia this week and once again marvel at Stoppard’s erudition. (Love you, Tom!) But I’m even happier to have had the chance to revamp my disgust for this chancellorship and the mayor who gave him one very long green light.

Teachers have used megawatts of energy preparing for and executing their life’s work. Inner-city kids do the best they can to get by with the cards they’ve been dealt; if anyone thinks we could do any “better,” we haven’t really walked in their shoes, have we?

Joel Klein has only brought an already simmering pot up to the boil, and we stand by furious, watching all that energy everyone's bringing into school each day bubble up and out, to be rendered useless – irrevocably so – in a system full of plain hot air.


  1. Wow.
    I have to admit that I had to read a little bit of this, mull it over and process it, then read some more and repeat the process again.
    Lots to think about. As a person whose brain favors the right hemisphere, I struggle a bit with scientific concepts.
    Once I finished, I started reading about deliberate manipulation of high and low entropy, and although my understanding is somewhat simplified, it seems to me that BloomKlein are creating an atomic bomb.

  2. Welcome to the world of Tom Stoppard. Not that he would agree or disagree with any of the above, but that he is a master at playing with context.
    Am curious where you went with your further reading into deliberate manipulation.