1.0a BIG DATA TAKES CONTROL: It was inevitable.
I was writing a piece of fiction recently as part of a series of true-to-life vignettes in the service of pitching a big-ticket arts education vision to people we think would be passionate about our concept. The vignettes, based on real students who I knew had life-changing experiences through the arts in schools, were meant to give people a human perspective on how their contributions might affect lives.
In one of the vignettes a highly rebellious and politically sophisticated teenager ranted about something I had him call Big Data: in the story, institutions were demanding such huge superstructures of statistical information that critics of this number-hunger began referring derogatorily to a huge conglomerate they called Big Data, sort of akin to Big Brother, but the enamored users of Big Data – profiteers, prognosticators, bean counters, marketers, start-up visionaries, educators, venture capitalists, spin doctors, the timid and the explosive, pompous CEOs of firms that produce things we often can’t figure out – were not deterred by a little satire from the peanut gallery. On the contrary, more and more off-shoot companies were claiming to specialize in Big Data, and it wasn’t only about profits – people believed in Big Data. It had elements of things they had wanted their whole lives – clarity, validation, proof, accountability, replicability, size – and conventional wisdom said we should all agree on it – I mean, who can argue with data? It’s sacred and unquestioned in most places.
I passed the story around to a few of my colleagues with whom I had formed a data study cohort, and we all had a good laugh about the Big Data concept – original, clever, prescient, bitingly satirical, right?
Except that it turned out to be real as well, not fiction, although the phrase Big Data was not exactly used as I had used it. And when you look into the details, it isn’t so funny. When something is its own satire that usually means trouble. Big Data is real: a whole mathematical movement popped up for me the first time I googled it on a whim. I learned that huge amounts of binary pulsations are amassing by the nano-second, without any human collection effort needed at all at this point. Big Data just grows on its own: the program is in charge; data-momentum follows one of those immutable physics laws: if nothing stops it, it keeps going. Data-obsessed businesses are working some people 18 hours a day to track trends and patterns that lead to profit and loss statements which require more data to manage and reinvest or make up the deficit – it’s an endless cycle of information and artifacts and response to events that leads one to believe data is everything, that to miss new or updated or reformatted data is to lag behind the world at large and put yourself and your enterprise on the road to irrelevance or extinction.
In the story, Big Data was an entity, a movement, imbued with a corporate-style control mentality. Big Data had its acolytes, a few hysterical zealots, and was a cult of sorts. The Big Data I see all the time now is not that organized: it’s just data set after data set of raw numbers waiting for the geniuses to put together the plan. But I get the distinct sense that Big Data is organizing organically and forming coalitions and that once it finds its sea legs it’s going to be tyrannical.
Remember in the early days of e-mail how easy it seemed, how efficient? Then it reached critical mass and beyond and we were overwhelmed; once people began expecting responses in real-time it became tyrannical, at some level inane, but it was too damaging and debilitating to be only inane. Don’t you worry when you’re away from a data device that e-mails are piling up and you’ll have to face the onslaught soon? (If this doesn’t describe you, great, hold on to it. But many of us are tyrannized.) In any case about a deade ago email became a nagging need that completely divorced you from everything else. People began imagining the pinging or buzzing of their phones even when no message came in, like the phantom limb syndrome. Watch people on dates these days – even first dates – the emails and the texts are accepted as necessary partners in the proceedings. It is the equivalent of me bringing, back in 1987, my day’s mail to a dinner date and opening it and reading it during the soup course. Just today I saw a couple, standing while waiting for a ride, both lost in their phone screens, but leaning into each other sweetly, holding each other up as it were, as romantic as anything I’d seen for a while. So it is still happening, this attraction thing, even with the lack of eye contact and the technology in the way.
The couple were looking at Little Data, I’m sure.
Big Data may be an actual agency waiting for its moment to emerge, or a loosely configured group of data start-ups who have formed a professional association, or something else, maybe just a couple of bloggers trying to promote the idea of Big Data, or maybe not, I can’t tell, it could just be a phrase, an unsupported idea: I can’t get a handle on its existence or its meaning. But I must have been googling it a lot because Big Data just showed up one day on my Facebook page and is now a regular feature in the sidebar ads. All they’re advertising is a blog, which features ads for techie things, but it’s all pretty small-scale. I can’t get rid of it, though. It slipped into my email too, and I keep getting asked if I was ever in dire need of data and didn’t have it.
That’s a personal question and I didn’t answer it. Here, I can tell you, the answer is no, as in I never needed it. At times data could have enhanced something I was already doing, or perhaps proven or disproven a point I was trying to make, but in the absence of data I could look up something online, or extrapolate from what I already knew, or even write about the issue of not having data – this latter is a great technique on many fronts, and tells you a lot about the value of the thing you are missing, and you can have fun with it.
By asking the question about needing data, they’re also playing on the fear factor, the equivalent of asking us to imagine going into a Board meeting and you lost your Power Point – what would you do? Of course, you could have Big Data on your side and still lose your Power Point, in fact it might be worse if Big Data had us even more addicted, so their logic in asking this question is not very strong, but the idea still rattles some people. Even thinking about data loss or separation can be traumatic – because maybe their Cloud product is the problem, and that would be devastating. The Cloud was supposed to have a fool-proof design, a full guarantee, so it’s scary to contemplate its fallibility. But they are making you believe in Big Data, and that’s the real logic, I guess.
Even passionate defenders of humanity’s intrinsic need to create and to shape that creation – artists would all say that this described them – are crying out for data to support their case for whatever they might need, because no one will believe them without data, and now of course for many it has to be Big Data.
I work in arts education in San Francisco, and I chair the California Arts Council, and I have a hugely ambivalent, or maybe complicated and conflicting, attitude toward data. The groupthink aspect of it scares me, as I think the arts should be spontaneous and at some level immeasurable, or given a reprieve from measurement – doesn’t something have to transcend data to keep us sane? – but I’m also guilty of pairing the arts with economic growth or mental health or community development to make sure we get maximum exposure and increase our base and ultimately our budget, pimpin’ the data the whole time. I’m guilty of everything I accuse everyone of here, but I’m also offering another view, so at least I’m not brainwashed. Opportunistic and a bit disingenuous at times, yes, but not brainwashed. Not by data anyway.
Examples of arts data include a record of sales of sheet music for a large chain of international music stores or classic art works in a gallery with a few branches; a detailed comparison of instrument mastery in children’s instrumental music courses aligned with their grades; before and after recidivist numbers to support or refute the claim that acting programs in prisons help prevent inmates from returning; an artist doing time-lapse photography of traffic data for visual effect, then turning his raw footage into a local police station who used it to support a stoplight at a dangerous intersection.
Put like this, data and the arts seem perfectly reasonable. Of course we should be able to turn a profit, prove our claims, see academic gains. But if we’re really trying to discover something new, and we’re asking these questions and demanding data this far along in the various processes we have entered into, we’ve already gone down the rabbit hole and become addled by the White Queen. That can be good and bad. We seem to be operating with mediocre versions of scientific rigor and magical thinking at the same time. Any claim of knowledge where data is the centerpiece can be challenged by alternative data statements just as the statements above have been countered by opponents of the arts (or the traffic light) – the increases in grades for arts kids are based on other factors (show me their mothers’ high school diploma rates, because data shows that’s the difference); recidivism rates are believed in many circles to be more closely attributable to family structure, economics, untreated illness. The traffic light is less filled with values-based minefields, but there are many who think 4-way stops are safer than traffic lights, based on expectation – meaning that at a stop sign you see the cars inching forward slowly, in measured and orderly intervals, and you come to your turn as you expect: progress is incremental and predictable. Since people are reckless, and for years at traffic lights we all have seen people speed through the yellow warning light, the consensus is that stop signs are safer. The actual facts place them about even, because there are middle-of-the-night speeding-thtough-stop-sign incidents that most of us don’t see. When it came to this, many people said they didn’t care what the data seemed to indicate about safety, they trusted their instinct. That slips out every once in a while, even among those who are screaming for more data, but they don’t acknowledge the contradiction. They want more data regardless.
The difference between data and statistics in this context is worth noting. As I was researching this piece I came across an article that asked: What’s the difference between data and statistics? A little research shows that the numbers used in this piece are actually statistics, meaning raw data that has been stone-washed, so to speak, and is given a recognizable format that stays constant through all parts of the report, i.e. all % or all fractions, or all ranked 1-10, or at the very least it’s explained why they may have switched or used different columns with different formats. So data is raw; statistics are refined. I will continue to use the term “data,” although it may be that it is statistics we are studying. Big Stats may have its own champions soon, at this rate. And there is something in the sound of the word data that statistics doesn’t have – an inherent mystery, something vaguely sci-fi, cyber-cool, maybe even a touch of potential evil. Big Data just amplifies that – and while perhaps not evil, it feels like something could go wrong here, could spin dangerously out of control. Like the TV series Big Love. It was about Mormon polygamy and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time – this thing is going to blow. Data may already be out of our control, and yet people yearn for it. That’s not a good combination.
Big Data has many dimensions, and its analysis is becoming increasingly sophisticated and singular, in that everyone has a different idea about how to use data and how to relate it to the design of whatever they called data up in the first place to help with. The belief put out there is that data is necessary for anything to be designed well: if you don’t have data how do you know you’re taking action on something that is worthwhile? If I sit down to write a poem because it’s echoing in my head, and I’m ignoring the data showing that people are reading poetry less and less, aren’t I wasting my time? What good is an unread poem? goes that line of thought.
According to one of the Big Data websites, the corporate high-paid analysis comes through the lenses of Volume, Velocity, and Variety, later broken down by Variability and Viscosity – this latter dealing with the thickness, density and complexity of the data, rating it as you would a quart of motor oil. The difference between Variety and Variability is important: Variety means many types of similar things, like a variety in the types of dogs people can own; Variability is the unstable element in either the manufacturer or the consumer that makes chocolate taste different each time you indulge. Some people feel equally confused about Equity and Equality – this distinction can be political, as Progressives are constantly explaining to people what the difference is and why it’s important; Conservatives have an easy time spoofing the semantic issue and the Left’s myopic arguments over what words are used. Since I brought it up: Equality is giving everyone the same thing, whether the individual is a billionaire or a refugee; Equity attempts to mitigate historic and systemic differences between groups of people by distributing resources according to need.
Anything given this level of analysis has begun to exercise enormous influence on whatever it is addressing, just by the sheer amount of time spent on finding, sorting, organizing, compressing, discussing, storing, creating new math to configure it, new numbers even to count it. Are new numbers even possible? I admit to not knowing about zettabytes and yottabytes until recently but what’s beyond that? The numbers exist; it’s really only the names that we need to create. But yottabytes? And do we ever meed numbers that big?
The Big Data enthusiasts have dabbled in studies of who enters art galleries and why people attend openings and artist open houses, and the status of visual art on-line; and you can dig deeper into issues related to who makes art, who doesn’t, what trends are developing and from where they came. . . . . . . and once there is a main data point and all the various entities have been measured and input into the system there can be secondary and tertiary characteristics which allow the interested parties to sort and combine information in a range of ways. To what end, many haven’t decided, or even believe they need to decide. It is enough just to have the data, to be able look at it, massage it, to not have to ask someone else for it. In schools, data’s ultimate purpose, beyond helping us improve “achievement,” seems to be to have us ready for something that isn’t quite upon us yet and about which we know little, yet have been warned. We are prepared, just in case. But just in case of what? Something is being planned.
Do you see the slippage here? We no longer have a central point, a value, material or otherwise, at the center of our efforts. We have data, and God knows we have enough process -- so anything real that begins to intrude is gently pushed aside by process, with data slipping in to back up whatever the new world order will become, and with the categories equivalent in proportion as before, no one has the urge or the curiosity or the smarts to take a step back and check out the end result, to think about the content at the core of a strategic plan, for example -- no, the plan itself has unseated the messy reality of a core activity or result like raising grades or reducing absenteeism. Success is completing the plan and disseminating it, so when examination of the content reveals that it was not all that meaningful in the first place, or that we attacked only the most miniscule of sections of a problem, those analyses are treated like esoteric minutiae and the plan becomes the end result, the measure by which we consider success and failure.
I have heard it said that educational data is only worthwhile within the four walls of any classroom, that it really wasn’t meant for public consumption -- which would be easier than having to worry about families and administrators and accountability. I agree with this to an extent, and that’s a criticism, a whole system measuring something that matters only to itself, with everyone really putting us through hell about it. But I have not seen data in education at what I have heard is its best – data thoughtfully formed into statistics by the team that will use the statistics, so that they get what they need, and really understand what they are looking at – and then they use the refined data to study, analyze, hypothesize and take action – with an end result that should demonstrate achievement gains in areas that really matter. But in which system and to whom will it matter? And if my neighborhood undergoes a shift, if they build condos on an empty lot or a new marina is put in, and a new group of kids comes in to the local school, suddenly we have a great improvement, and everyone rejoices – it’s no accident we build Science/Tech schools near new developments, and the emperor is not quite naked but he's in borrowed, maybe even stolen, finery, but the data favored him today if you don't look too closely. . . . . the scores are a bit of hocus-pocus, but it was their hocus-pocus, and we didn 't want scores to drop, did we? -- the aggregate is looking good, maybe we're all safe .......... or maybe not.
– one year the school custodian asked me, after one of those demographic shifts –
Where did all these white kids come from? I never saw this many in one place.
Jose looked at me strangely and then smiled, like we were in a conspiracy, Did you bus them in for their test scores?
You think it’s that easy, Jose? Why would they give me the test score kids? No, I continued, deadpan, These kids sing and dance, they do musicals.
Like the Sound of Music? I’m taking my younger kids tomorrow, this Filipino group gets all dressed up like the Austria people. We can imitate anything, in Manila we got the Beatles better than the Beatles. I was nodding at him, waiting to to hear what he would say. He knows I’m up to something. He’s learned that much in the States, working in schools, that people like me always have an angle.
These kids score high, he says. I ask him how he knows. I’m in that study group, you know one Wednesday every month, we study, you know . . . . he’s talking about the District-wide briefing we had everyone receive that year, the idea being: Get the brilliant custodian who was a physics teacher in Turkmenistan or a bounty hunter from Uruguay involved: it takes a village.
Data! Jose remembers, the data tells me, I know your zip code, I know your scores, and these kids, maybe they sing and dance too, but they do tests.
Lay off the data for a while I tell Jose, it’s not good for you all the time. I bet Sound of Music doesn’t have any data associated with it.
Jose was thoughtful for a moment. I had known him for many years, and he was a sensitive man, deeply involved with his children, emotional if things went wrong. Once his oldest son Roberto had trouble in school (he went to a different public high school) and Jose started asking my advice about it but couldn’t finish the sentence. He sobbed a bit, tried again, became incoherent and then started hyperventilating. I got him some water and a paper bag, sat next to him across from my desk, watched him recover. He gave me permission to call the school and I got a counselor on the phone who knew me. ‘The boy was accused of cheating on a test but it’s all resolved now. He’s going to re-take a different version and the teacher is willing to let the new score stand. There was some confusion.’ I explained this to Jose, at the last second changed accused of cheating to he was involved in some confusion, but even that almost threw Jose into respiratory distress again, and I had to reaffirm that it was going to be fine as long as his son did well on the replacement exam. Jose was not fully convinced – there were still too many variables, but he did seem to think I fixed something.
On the day we had the conversation about test scores and zip codes, Jose said as we departed: ‘These kids in the musical. I wonder what their test scores are. I will ask them.’
‘Jose,’ I said kindly, ‘they won’t even know. They may not even know what you’re asking about.’
Jose didn’t know what I was talking about. Not know your test scores? He gave me a look of disbelief, or incomprehension. I was in a universe of champagne problems and data ambiguity; Jose saw a much different world out there, with success or failure hanging on every moment. All the more reason, as you’ll see later, that the test score millionaires should have gotten it right.
The day after the incident with his son’s school, Jose handed me a thank you card from Roberto. Thank you Mr. Principal Harris, it read. Thank you for getting my teacher to give me the test again. Like many leaders, I get way too much credit for stuff I had nothing to do with, but there is also the blame heaped on me should a remote thing go wrong in the 7th iteration of something vaguely to do with the school. Any imbalance has been entirely in my favor, so I can’t complain. I tried to explain that it wasn’t me, but Jose waved that off and hugged me, and from that day forward I got periodic updates on Roberto, right up to his marriage and enlistment in the Marines. I never did find out what his standardized test scores were, or those of the Sound of Music cast, although I know that Roberto got an A- on the replacement exam, as Jose forced him to study every night for more than a week until the whole ordeal was over.
Long before Big Data, the lofty ideal that we would use data to improve student achievement was just that, an ideal, and once the extra pressure of massive data sets was pushed into the mix, it threatened to overwhelm us, and in fact there are already signs of data fatigue. The new California standardized testing package, 2015’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, has a scoring model that must have been done by someone who never had a discussion about test scores with a human being: each grade has a different scoring range, for example 3rd graders score between 2273-2556; 7th from 2380-2693 – counter-intuitive, overlapping, with no scale that draws you in the way the former California Academic Performance Index (API) 200-1000 point scale would. (I cannot believe I am using the API as an example of something logical. This is what too much data will do to you, even if you’re a skeptic.) The API was created to answer the challenge of NCLB for clear accountability measures, and – like much of NCLB, despite its rigidity and narrow focus, or maybe because of these rigid qualities – within its own paradigm (and that’s a big qualifier), it worked. We used to have our scores practically tattooed on our foreheads, and it was easy to understand what 811 points meant on that scale, or 723. But with Smarter Balanced, if my 3rd grader is at 2490 and my 5th grader comes in at 2617, I have no immediate indication of who is doing well and who isn’t. There is no common language or recognizable statistical model for these things, it is the Fahrenheit of test scores, and I don’t feel us warming to any approach to counteract it, so it may be that we will have to wait this one out.
But waiting something negative out is not a good strategy. Even in the short-term we have another emblematic problem: the embarrassment of the name with the dangling “d” in “Balanced.” This is what I meant about data fatigue. The scoring system is garbled and convoluted, and then we have the name problem. People are burning out and these two problems are an indication of that.
The way I heard the story – which I have not yet confirmed but it does make sense, has that ring of truth – well after everything was printed and ready to be distributed state-wide in the Fall of 2014, a food company with the name Smarter Balance came forward and proved that they had trademarked the name, and so for the testing authority and vendor the name underwent a quick and awkward addition of a letter to create a past tense that no one understood and no one asked about, but we all secretly wondered at first why that name sounded so strange and about what was really going on behind the hot lights and the Greatest Hits smiles and glitter of the proud and rich testing company. This was not a good look for a billion dollar company or a state that was pushing data as the answer to practically everything. Data is little bits of things; if you can’t put them together into a larger whole, you end up with nonsense, like “Smarter Balanced” as a proper noun. Or a war in Iraq looking for phantom WMDs against a dictator we installed for the same reasons we ran him into a ditch. But don’t put that nickel in yet.
My very first college class was Art History, and I became a born-again student, fresh knowledge and profound ideas sliding perfectly into my near-empty brain, which I had hardly worked in high school at all, or at least not on the academic offerings that came my way. The Renaissance was nothing more than a cute French word, and in that first semester Art History was a spirited and mind-expanding class for me because the teacher, Mr. Arthur Hill, erudite and elite-looking with a patrician face and a pinched, nasal voice, could really teach, he had that Socratic thing down where he asks questions and you know you’re about to be caught in a gilded verbal trap, and your mind races to figure out how he’s going to get you, and you can’t think as clearly as you’d like and it goes too fast and he does get you, a barb, a teasing insult, a silence thick with all you were not when you couldn’t grasp single-point perspective or compare the Baroque and Romantic eras. He thought of me, aged nineteen, as a crude working man, as he often referred to the factory job I held down then, processing mobile home parts on an assembly line – I had talked about it in the first class. I think he took pride in my interest, and that of others, as if he had converted the heathens.
But it was more than that: we had surprised him as he had surprised us. For the final exam he was explaining some multi-level, deeply structured essay question he had designed, and while explaining he caught himself being too pompous and overbearing and he stopped and simply looked at us and said, “Fuck it. Write what you know. We’ve been here 18 weeks. You tell me.” I bring this up to point out the absence of data, the reckless rush of inspiration that has a lifeling devotee of his subject tell a bunch of neophytes to carve their own path. And we did it, each in our own way – a great job, he was to tell us in the last class. I remember showing my father the essay and having him, over Chinese food, read my tracing of art history, in 3 1/2 hand-written pages, from the Middle Ages to Cubism, with a long and detailed passage about single-point persepctive and the genius of Brunelleschi and Masaccio. ‘Wow,’ my father said in a kind of shock (maybe it was the MSG?), ‘you really are a student.’
In today’s world, hardly anyone is giving the kind of freedom in learning that Arthur Hill gave us on that day, and it stuck with me, made me believe I was a learner, that I could figure this thing out. The data machine that has now taken form in Smarter Balanced will inspire no one to great heights, unless it’s the statistician who figures out how to revamp the scoring system and make sense for us. As for the content, the students don’t own it, they don’t have a chance to own it. It’s pre-packaged, everyone is doing the same thing and expected to give the same respsonses.
And people don’t say “fuck it” in classrooms or lecture halls anymore. Data’s puritanical first cousins, Accountable and Appropriate, put a stop to that shit.
In the mid-1990s with the standards movement, and by 2001 with the NCLB law, varying compliance agencies and consulting firms and service providers who formed the cottage industries of school support were given nominal approval to be paid with public funds, and these entities were able to fulfill a failing school’s intervention and professional development requirements. At some point almost every public school was a failing school; the data points were so precise and esoteric that you would eventually miss one; it is statistically impoaible to make gains ALL the time, every year, so it was a set-up to fail; you couldn’t cheat your way to success even if you wanted to. And the data kept shifting. One ethnic category not doing well doomed you, even one at a plateau could be a disqualifier,and then the new Multi-Ethnic category was introduced in 2011 and that gave statistics-watchers a whole new challenge: having to explain declining populations because the groups chose the new category, and the test scores of the group that migrated to the other designation went with them. You had no control over it, and whoever made the decision – the family, the student, on a whim, who knew? – was not thinking about the consistency of our high-stakes data; nor should they be. ‘How do you explain your declining black population?’ a Board Member challenged me publicly as I stood at the podium ready to speak on something else. ‘Well, Commissioner,’ I responded as the District lawyer gestured to me furtively, wanting me to cut it short, ‘all categories are declining since we introduced the Multi-Ethnic category.’ The entire Board looked at me as if I were insane. ‘We began using it a few years back,’ I explained, ‘after you voted to give that option to families. It didn’t catch on at first but now we have more people choosing it, so the other categories drop.’ The District lawyer said: ‘It’s true, now let’s move on, as there are legal ramifications to this discussion . . . . . . ‘ The Commissioners looked a bit green in the face, and I was allowed to discuss literature choices, or something like that.
Data Shift, the suddenly common phenomenon of categorical adjustment where statistics are messed up by reality, reached its zenith in 2010 with the shift from considering Hispanic as a race to considering it an ethnicity. Are you ready for this? Everyone’s eyes glaze over at first. Hispanics can be black or white or technically Asian (remember Albert Fujimori, the Peruvian president?). The term Hispanic or Latino is not a racial category, so technically, in the racial statistics that category disappears. The person from Dominican Republic or Chile now in the States answers “Yes” to Hispanic for a question in its own separate compartment; nothing else is treated in this way. By the time the racial question comes up, the individual has to choose between skin colors, basically. So the reports come out a few different ways: absent the Hispanic or Latino category, with that category but the numbers are well over 100% because Hispanics are counted twice, or a hybrid where everything is reported but separated and explained, and even with all of this you have the man standing before the form at the DMV refusing to count himself as White – ‘I’ve never been white, not my whole life,’ a 50+ year-old man told me once when forced to make a choice. ‘I ain’t gonna start now.’ He checked Decline to State and went on to pass his drivers’ test. ‘What about if you don’t know?’ I asked the clerk shortly after. ‘I mean, sometimes you are shuffled around as an infant and you end up with a family not your own.’ The clerk looked at me with a disdain that went way beyond my annoying question. ‘Get a blood test,’ he snapped, and then went to his desk, read an NRA magazine with Uzis on the cover, and steadfastly refused to see anyone for the next two hours. This data stuff can be stressful.
So in this new environment we were sent to training sessions on school finance, trends in the wider economy, emerging fiancial patterns, advanced fiscal data analysis, non-profit strategies, ratio fidelity – all sorts of mysterious statistical poetry. I would master something one week, ony to have it change or disappear the next. The names were often misleading. Gap funding was not about a gap; deferments made no sense at all; encumbrance was an odd way to label a willful set aside of money, as if it were a burden to the system.
As a young Assistant Principal (possibly the hardest job in education, after overnight field trip supervisor), the seasoned school secretary who had watched me bumble through a few financial missteps (like the time I approved a $1200 conference attendance request for one teacher out of 100+ when the whole budget was $3000) commented within earshot of a Department Head, “You really don’t know much abut school finance, do you?”
The department head shot back, “That’s because he speaks English, and has half-a-brain.” Later that evening I received an apologetic email from her. I didn’t mean you had only a half-a-brain, I meant even someone with half-a-brain would recognize that the school finance system is a joke.
Contrast that with two decades later, when I was departing a school and moving on to another, and worked diligently all summer to set up the personnel hires and salaries for the new teachers, many of whom had been student teachers and volunteers at the school and had ties to their master teachers and the kids and families. It was one of the worst years of school cuts, the per student rate for high schools was under $7000 (contrast with Connecticut at $17,000 per and factor in the salaries we must pay to meet Bay Area prices, and you get an idea how challening this is), and many schools were cutting staff. We didn’t have to because we had a waiting list and I would ask teachers to pack their classes with extra students to save jobs, and they would, and we talk about it to this day. Ten (10) kids = One (1) teacher was the mantra, but inevitably someone would ask, “Why do my classes have 40 then?” (The cost ratio and the body count are two different forumlas.) Parents would accuse us of commodifying their child, decry the new mercenary qualities of school principals, and then ask for $10,000 for a graduation party.
In the year of my departure, with a ton of work to do at my new school, I spent two hours a day for month to get the staffing right at the former school. I called in every favor I had ever earned with the HR folks who barely helped me when I was an employee, and now I wanted them to take chances for me as I was halfway out the door. Old friends in HR were avoiding me so I hid the identifying number on my telephone, or called from places they wouldn’t recognize, until that became my identifier, “unknown” coming up where the phone number would be.
I pulled every trick in the “Underground Unspoken Renegade Principal’s Handbook” – finding a hidden credential possessed by a teacher, I crafted a schedule for an English/History/Algebra teacher so that only one teacher could fill it, the one I wanted, even though they would have quit rather than teach math.
The most extreme case was the position of a beloved teacher who had passed away over the summer. I’m not sure if I’m proud of this, ashamed, if I should hide it . . . . . but it’s too rich to leave out, I decided. I was very close to the teacher who had passed. She was funny, brilliant, a complete original. A group of us went out that summer to celebrate my first Arts Schoool principalship we ended up dancing on tabletops in a South American restaurant near the Bay, owned by the family of an arts school graduate. Her husband was a teacher at the school as well, one of the icons of the institution, part of the founding group and the kind of man we all went to for advice or common sense when it was in short supply. Does this makes what follows worse? Is it heresy?
I was naturally going to fill the position with someone holding her subject credential. While I was awaiting applicants for that position, HR called to tell me they had a position for one of my laid-off teachers, who could take a full-time gig at a different school. “He has 15 minutes to accept it,” I was told curtly. They really were sick of me. The laid off/maybe rehired teacher happened to be just outside my office, ready to take his things home. Let’s call him Carl and the deceased teacher Carla.
“Carl,” I said. ‘Take it. It’s full time, you’ll get tenure, and you’ll be a hero at that school.” We were in the back office by then, with other teachers around and the end-of-the-year bustle adding a poignancy to the decision.
“Nope,” said Carl. “I teach here or nowhere. I’ll go wait tables.”
He wasn’t calling my bluff. There was no bluff to call. He just wanted to be creative and teach theater and he would wait until that came around again. We were on the clock.
I sat at my large conference table, my head in my hands. This was a gifted, inspired teacher, a tireless worker and team player. He was in drag on Halloween and had been the MC for the annual holiday party. Through my fingers I could see my staffing list, the slightly blurred list of names. I just kept staring at it, almost in a trance. I removed my hands from my face, saw Carl about to leave with his box of personal items. ‘Sit down,’ I said, more harshly than I intended. ‘What?’ he asked sitting. ‘Don’t say a word,’ I commanded. ‘Not a word. Ever. To anyone.’ He sat, confused. ‘I guess you’re still my boss,’ he said. ‘Until 4pm.’ I dialed the phone, waited, finally someone picked up. ‘Position 14753,’ I rattled. ‘Will go to Carl, who was pink-slipped from here.’ The officious clerk named the subject that the deceased teacher had taught. ‘Does he have that credential?’ the clerk asked. ‘No, the position is switched, it’s now Theater and Health. He can do those.’ The pause was not pleasant. ‘Hold on,’ the woman said. The supervisor, let’s call her Adela, came on in seconds. She was shrieking: ‘Oh no you don’t. Now you’ve gone too far. We have a perfectly good – ‘ I interrupted her. ‘Adela, please. I’ll work out the exact subjects later. This is important. It’s people’s lives we’re talking about.’ She had a good come back: ‘It’s their deaths too, Donn. This is outrageous. I’ll go to the superintendent.’ I let that sit and she said: ‘Oh,’ very meekly. We were in between superintendents, and she realized she had nowhere to go. ‘Dios mio,’ she intoned. ‘Disculpe.’ Forgive me, she had said after saying My God. Carl looked at once grateful and mortified. Years later, if Carl and I were together, whenever a certain type of situation arose involving bureaucracy and strange choices, one or the other would say, Remember Carla, and we would make the Sign of the Cross. Carla did well by Carl: he ended up being a fantastic teacher and artist, winning awards, affecting lives, turning into a leader of other teachers. Rest in peace, Carla. We covered your classes too. We figured it out. You saved a good man.
That was how the summer started. As I stated, I worked all summer to get the 8 or so teachers into permanent positions. We had various funding streams: the General Fund, State Arts Fund, State Facilities Fund, Consent Decree desegregation money, the whole morass of Special Education, and I mixed and matched how I funded teachers salaries, especially at the end, when I was dealing with what in Sacramento they call budget dust. The last teacher, who taught Theater Tech and Dramaturgy, could get a lot out of a little, I funded it like this: General Fund 64%, State Arts Grant 17% Consent Decree 14%, PTA 3% SF Beautification Club 2%.
After June 30, there was no one around to receive my calls who could make sense out of this product, so I just kept putting in the hiring forms and the budget forms and I checked with a Web Analyst before the end of the summer who assured me that the documents had gone through and I happily went off to my new gig in Oakland with a sense of accomplishment.
About mid-September one of the clerks from the former school, call her Elaine, called me in Oakland and said: “Your replacement looked at the budget and said it was unworkable or non-compliant or something. He told me to rework the whole thing. I don’t know how to do that. But I don’t think we have to. I added it all up and it works. And each budget has enough money. “
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
She couldn’t quite explain and I kept probing her. The closest I could get was that you could not have a .19 FTE employee or a .23 FTE employee, they had to be in increments of .05 or .1o.”But these are full-time employees,” I insisted. “It’s just the way they are funded. That’s really different from their position allocation. The system accepted those figures. Tell them that.” But she was despairing. “Are all the employees OK?” I asked. “No one lost their job?” She told me not yet, but that threat was in the air. “Carl?” I panicked. “Is Carl OK?
“No!” she exclaimed. “He had a fight with the principal and now he’s only teaching English, no theater.” She assured me it wasn’t a budget problem and that Carl was not being ousted or transferred. She asked: “What about Carla’s position? What happened to it?” I told her about the new part-time teacher who was handling the bulk of what Carla had put her life’s work into, but Elaine said no, that person was in position X, a whole different number. “The old number must’ve gotten dissolved,” I reasoned. “It’s embedded in there somewhere.” I was forming an idea. I didn’t want to do the school’s work for them but I said: “Tell them that Laurie Egan should look at it and she can call me.”
Laurie Egan (alias) was a technology and systems trouble-shooter, an odd case in that she seemed to switch departments every year as people competed for her services, and since salaries were set by collective bargaining I am not sure what they offered her to get her to switch. On a few occasions I think she just transferred herself by signing into the HR system at a level high enough to make that happen, and then she would stake out an empty desk over the summer or pick up a second-hand piece of furniture and place it strategically in her new department and for the year her desk would be buzzing with visitors and people stymied by technology wanting help and top-ten brass with secret projects only she could understand: a good choice to validate my decisions.
A week later Elaine called me and said Laurie had vehemently defended the funding, finally getting through that the decimalization was permitted, if in the end you had a numerically compliant position. Elaine said: “After I started doing the calculations and saw that it was all coming out to the penny, I was thinking, how did he do this? Who would figure this out? Wow. And there’s not a penny left on the table.”
That was encouraging, and two days later I received a handwritten note from Laurie Egan that sealed the deal. Laurie had a degenerative muscular condition that seemed to be worsening, and her handwriting was cramped and uneven, and the note was not short. She wrote it out as she did often when she wanted to make her message more meaningful:
Mr. Harris: When the school year opened I heard that Harris had f ----d up the arts school budget and it was a mess and even worse because of all the new hires and some may not stay on. Adela from HR and that new Asst. Principal at your old school, also the woman who handles money there, Doreen, they were talking, I heard them, they wanted to control the budget changes. So I did this:
I wrote this to the Budget Analyst who is in on the case:
The reason this isn’t understood is because no one has real budget skills to cope with all these new procedures. This is a very skillful approach to communty ed, basic ed, secondary ed, etc. by splitting up many positions so that people are responsible for ALL school outcomes. All the numbers add up as Mr. Harris had them and there is enough money in each account. The teachers can keep their current positions and everyone should stop squawking. All the money is spent how it should be, right down to the job description matching the goals of multiple programs. Mr. Harris should be teaching this to people, not defending himself. This is very complicated but when kit works, it works.. Laurie
Vindication. The data don’t lie. Six of the eight teachers are still teaching at that school today.
Around this time, small schools became popular, as someone realized we should know who kids are, as in the huge comprehensive schools students were often faceless, but small school data had to be modified with a mysterious qualifier that evened out regression analyses, which had been hurt in the other adjustments, and so a qualifier was created to rectify that. The elimination of the first adjustment seemed like a more authentic solution, but then, I was told, as if I were a child who didn’t really get how serious data was, that the first adjustment was made for a reason, and it was working, until it didn’t, but it still held out hope, and so the second qualifier was created to even out the erratic tesselations that the first qualifier had solved, but then didn’t. Anyway, one of the rules of the Big Data era: You never go backwards, once you crete something it’s there for good. You grow, you do not shrink. (See my 2015 paper, The Theory of More.) This kind of “it is almost working but not quite” was also a problem for Albert Einstein: he created a qualifier to balance the General Theory of Relativity when he could find no other way. The mathematcal deus ex machina for Relativity was known as the Cosmological Constant, but it was not universally accepted. Creating magic blocks of spacetime was not the usual method of scientific problem-solving. It also had the unintended effect of introducing the science world to the possibilities for spontaneous creation that the arts had always embraced, employing a fluid, divergent mentality that could conjure and postulate a placeholder so powerful that it held the world up, at least theoretically. To many it wasn’t science – but it was data, granted that it was untethered, rooted in nothing but other data, the type of closed system hocus pocus that I criticize all the time, effective in that it made other data effective but still . . . . I mean, we’ve gone this far down the path anyway, so . . . why not? Do we want not to have the General Theory of Relativity? You don’t get to be Time Magazine’s Man of the 20th Century by playing it safe. And I have to admit, this last little bit of mystery . . . . . why do we need this little helper? What is the one thing we’re not quite getting?
My father was an avid reader of St. Thomas Aquinas, who tried to use logic, pure sequential and supported thought, to prove the existence of God as in a geoemetry proof. Did we reach the limit of that in Relativity, coming at it from another angle, only to find that we were just a little bit short, we came right up to the edge of ultimate truth and it seemed like we were missing a part. If it were a desk from Ikea, it was as if there were something missing when we tried to finish it, to put the top on. The undergirding was built, the legs were solidly connected to a frame, which sat nicely balanced on the floor, awaiting the final piece. The desk top was in our hands and when we went to put it in place, it was clear that there was a gap between the underside of the desktop and the frame. We could see that it was supposed to be connected to the frame by the metal slats that pushed upward from the middle of the structure, but just connected to those slats the top was wobbly and unstable, like a colt on spindly legs. The top itself was substantial, a thick piece of oak, and there was no way that it was meant to work without a stabilizer. A block of some kind sitting under the desktop, connected to another part of the frame, would complete the task. The instructions were in graphic form, no text as is often the case with the Swedish company’s international products. There seemed to be a piece connected to Part D that would hold the top in place, but the Part D we had, already integrated into the frame, did not rise up to meet the desktop as it appeared was the intent. Yet it wasn’t a separate part, and how would we go back to Ikea, explain the missing part of a part – would we open another box, look for a different Part D, hope it held what we needed? Online research was inconclusive. Chat rooms took us down some bad rabbit holes. We bought that desk for a reason, and hours later we still were unable to do what we needed to do. We were staring at the unfinished monstrosity and we could see just what was missing. So we started rooting around in the garage and came upon some components of stereo shelving that looked promising, and with a little tinkering and a few spacers were able at least to get the desktop to sit upon solid matter, and a little adhesive bound the oak to the steel and we had a writing surface now, and when you sat in a chair and placed books and writing implements in familiar places and began to work, the whole thing held up and in fact was really comfortable and practical and the work was flowing nicely. Still nagged a bit by something, I woke up at 3am, took out a little epoxy and some paint, further reinforced the desktop to frame connection, added a few cosmetic flourishes that helped integrate the foreign part to the whole (the stereo shelving was from Sony, a Japanese company) and went back to sleep, somewhat at ease. The next day I began to work and an hour in was hardly thinking about the secret solution at all. As time went on the occasional memory popped into my head, and I wondered what the deal really was, but all I could do was shrug, accept the mystery, and get back to work. It was holding up just fine, and it was my little secret, me and the universe. I had a working desk. That was all I could ask. Is that where we were? Did we have a Theory of General Relativity that functioned just fine, consistent and steady, the little helper like a spacer that held the one renegade part in place?
And what about Thomas Aquinas – did his proof work? Does God exist? Some people say that by asking the question, you’re admitting that there is a God. Now that’s a fallacious trap that infuriates me – just because you come up with something preposterous and force me to name it as I refute it does not allow you to claim my use of the name makes it real. If we’re going to operate like that, all gloves are off. But about Aquinas – it’a a lot like that measurement conundrum where we can’t constantly halve fractions and get to zero. So Aquinas takes the leap somewhere in there from pure logic to the thing they call faith, it’s clever and grabs you, but it’s a very advanced version of you either have it or you don’t, which leaves us where we started, on that subject anyway.
Look at the Relativity challenge another way: you've got a tight, elegant new formula that can determine the oxygen levels existent at certain altitudes, latitudes, and longitudes. It bears out almost precisely everywhere it's been tried, from China to Argentina, and it saves lives as dehydration, hypothermia and other related explorer’s hazards can be better predicted and precautions can be precise and targeted. There's only one glitch: the formula works if you use 2000 ft. as your base, but if you try to work from sea level, you can’t get alignment or ratio fidelity with the various numbers and you try to reach 2000’ with the numbers being the same as the flat line you know works – but you can’t get there. You’ve exhausted all possibilities.
What do you do?
- Persevere until every mathematician and/or atmospheric scientist in the world has weighed in.
- Use 2000’ feet and below as a buffer zone, forgetting about it. There are no altitude problems beneath 2000’ feet anyway. Use it like you would any formula once you’re above the buffer zone.
- Dump the formula; it just doesn’t hold up. Relativity becomes a noble failure.
- Hire an artist to give you some visual or poetic angles to shake things up.
So we’ve got three pretty damn good metaphors here if I may say so: the desk that required one more piece; the altitude/oxygen equation starting at 2000’ elevation in order to correctly calculate the needed data, and the felonious baritone who brings the choir to perfection. They all work for me, and there is a mathematical dimension to each, so they are each mission-related, which is often the difference between a great metaphor and a mundane one. The desk is the most hands-on and practical, the altitude needing a “buffer zone” is probably the closest to the actual Cosmological Constant, but I have to confess that I favor the musical analogy. Not being a musician, for me there is always mystery in how sound works, in how certain ranges of sonic output align and blend, in how they synthesize and bring one-dimensional aural data into a polytonal realm that literally pushes us beyond words. And as we reach higher and higher to get at more and more delicate and intricate musical and spiritual and scientific truths, as we are thrilled and elevated by what the human voice can do in all these realms, it is not surprising that we run across challenges that are not solvable by traditional or expected means. We were right there, and if all it takes is putting one devilish rascal among the angels and the innocents – come on now, what did you think, we were never going to face the hard choices and the touch of evil we know is here? We’re not strong enough to transform our newest member, the sinner, when there are 99 of us and one of him?
This is a true story:
Right after a special audition for a kid who got kicked out of a religious school, the choir director came to me and said – man, he’s got the pipes, he takes the whole thing to some new place – BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH HIM! HE’LL OVERPOWER THE CHOIR! I looked the man in the eye and said: I know what to do with him, and we took him in and he gave us a few years of sublime music and performance and the sky did not fall.
So Relativity is still holding up as we await the Unifying Theory, which promises to eliminate the Cosmological Constant, because some people never let their resentment go. And if they get us to some higher unifying place, there’s a very good chance that we will still face a last-hour paradox that will require a brilliant stroke of creative inspiration, which some people will call trickery and the process will begin again. And by that time the baritone would have either succumbed to the sheer weight of normalcy and joined a chorus somewhere, or imploded, and would be out of the performance game completely. As it turned out, nether was true – it was a little bit of everything. He managed to hang on for one year in a college choir, and then disappeared. He resurfaced a few years later on Facebook with a nickname taken from a violent movie, and no one knows where he is exactly.
If you measure progress toward a point and you’re halfway there, then a quarter, an eighth, a thirty-second and 1/128 and you’ve only used up 8 seconds to get to within an atom’s length of the target, how is it possible that you will never get there? I know why, and it’s the greatest lesson of all: you can’t measure your way into reality. The world is NOT incremental. You can measure and refine and inch forward and measure some more and you can data-pimp yourself into some netherworld of infinitesimal calculations – but to reach a goal you have to take a leap, you have to transcend the binary and the increment and go whoooosh – Evel Knievel soaring above the rocky chasm of death to a landing on the other side. And if your belief system is all about the measurement and you grind your self into dust getting to that last one-one-trillionth of a unit and it’s then that you finally give in and admit you have to jump or get out of the way – well, you’re too worn out by then, and you can’t take the leap from that close anyway, you need a running start, you need momentum, so you’re not going to leap, but you’re not sure others should either, so you just stand there, trying to figure out some other way to explain it and people in the crowd yelling Get out of the way, I have to rev up and jump – all three of them! – so you assign someone to take care of them while you call a meeting, argue endlessly over an agenda item’s allotted time, and schedule the meeting around the participant with the least availability. By that time three wild voices have turned into five, but one of them quits and another is distracted by a new cause, so it’s only three again and you’ve learned how to manage three, and the canyon is closed off for safety reasons, and now even the three voices are tired, the echoes are there but little else. And maybe the meeting takes place and maybe it doesn’t, because the whole thing has been solved and those who fought to the bitter end for that one-one trillionth threshold figure the universe took care of them and it was never proven that the leap would have sealed the deal anyway.
Which means the next time some renegade says Hey sister, we gotta jump, somebody will remind them, the jump didn’t work last time and they would be right, sort of, it didn’t work because it was never tried, and it was never tried because the conditions were off, but they are always off if you are looking for perfection. So the blame is diffused by all the conditional clauses and the universe did take care of those who never wanted the presentation to begin with, in a way, because inertia is a powerful, powerful tendency, it takes enormous effort to get something to change course and by the time you gather up and use that much energy . . . . the system will have adapted to the threat, grown stronger itself or simply moved on and outpaced the faltering challenger. And we’re right back where we started, except the mythology is that the action-oriented solution somehow failed.
If you have trouble understanding this, it’s because you have at least a half-brain, and most of the time your world makes sense. To simplify it, I would say: no one wants to take a chance and give information beyond their inner circle, however potentially valuable, that is partial or mutable. And there are many inadvertent stall tactics that solve most people’s concerns. We tried, goes the mantra, but the ____ didn’t mesh with the ____ . The data isn’t out there, you held the fort on that one and all your colleagues support the embargo, and you have a tidy explanation. So we’re still on hold, which is far different than saying something has failed. And someone at some point simply has to ask for data, demand it even, and assure people that a change or a slight inaccuracy has to be accepted the way we ask children these days to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, in fact we are proud that education has advanced to this point. Because think about this: the world has been set up where people believe data is essential and they won’t let you get anywhere without it, without a statistical bedrock to support whatever assertion you are making, but then the same character trait that weds them to data also makes them withhold data, because it’s not 100% accurate yet, you may get the wrong impression about the art class out at Sunset Elementary, it’s really 40 minutes long, not 30, and there could be some fallout from that. That’s OK, I would say, I’ll take that heat about the 10 minutes, but please give me the data, the public thinks we’re hiding something. I could only wrestle that one away on crumpled pages with a huge DRAFT written all over it, an electronic copy was not going to happen. Never underestimate the power of the system to close in on itself and find a way to protect its main arteries. Edicts so powerful that you would think there was no way to distort or avoid the outcome can get sidetracked in a hot minute by a few questions, or the introduction of a process that everyone agrees must be in place in order to proceed. That the edict (from the boss, the district, even from the governor) insisted upon an immediate result, and the process (a strategic plan, a special study) looked like a half-year at the least, does not seem to trouble people for whom the edict was too rash anyway. They believe that if the top dog were here, he or she would go along with the direction, how can you argue with a strategic plan? And anyway that’s how we do it, we plan, we strategize, we are thoughtful, and all in due time. All what in due time? There’s no subject in that sentence. Carl would not have gotten his job in due time. In fact he almost lost it anyway with the argument with the principal.
In the real world, the governor still wants XXX to happen and a month from now when he calls to ask, What is the status of the item I needed handled? And I tell him, oh, good news, we discovered we need a strategic plan, we’re a month into a 6-month process, you’re probably looking at March or so, we’ve targeted the spring equinox, do you think he’s going to say, Oh, thank heavens you discovered we needed a strategic plan, where would we be if someone hadn’t covered me with that? He is NOT going to say that. He’s more likely to say rather forcefully, ‘I’m your strategic plan, and my data tells you the action needs to be taken NOW.’ And you know, even with Edict 2.0, two years later only half of what he asked for is complete, and the last time I talked with him about it, even his urgency was dampened. They had worn him down and he didn’t recall the initial power of his direction. ‘There’s still a million dollars left, they tell me that’s a good thing, the first million was spent too rashly anyway.’ That was me they were talking about, and I said, measuring my words and cadence: ‘The music people wouldn’t call it rash. They have a new wing that increased the quality of their work overnight, they helped to design the space, and we may have gained years of loyalty and continuity because they are happy and fulfilled in their professional environment. Rapid and efficient does not mean rash,’ I concluded, and the governor took a beat and told me: ‘Yes, but it makes the Board happy to act prudently and put their mark on it. Sometimes that’s the way it’s done.’
So it worked itself out, I suppose, and I know I have been in a similar spot, where my intensity was tempered by forces that I eventually acknowledged had a legitimate stake in the process or the outcome. But can’t anything be prioritized, aren’t some things more important than others? It seems like that’s no longer the case. Much of the “5th Floor” experience I have garnered this past year is eerily reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial: the higher you go in the institution, the more removed from actual events you become, so by the time you’re on the “5th Floor” (in fact the directory opens with a section called “5th Floor,” the number putting it first alphabetically, a random selection of people not assigned to a regular department, with weird titles like “Decree Coordinator” and “Compliance Arbitrator”), the abstract discussions would give the uninitiated listener no idea what core issue was in play, or even what field we were in or what topic was at the root – it becomes a process analysis that quickly slips into the endless loop of who is in need of consultation, where things fit within a committee or task force structure, how little do we have to reveal and how long can we keep things quiet, and who needs to be included in the next meeting. As for data, we have what we have, wherever it is by the next meeting we will still be fighting to squash it anyway, so what difference does it make?
Crazy as this sounds, there is more: my mathematical theory of decision-making, an algorithm of probability that may be the most subtle and refined expression of everything the prior passages hint at, where rash has been parsed out of the equation so effectively that we have one less distraction or concern.
Albert Einstein was an accomplished violin player, trained in the ancient beauty of Bach’s ethereal fugues and the orchestral Viennese classics, able to improvise within intricate musical structures. Einstein could lose himself in a piece, enter that realm where his ideas lived. The arts may have been involved, then, iArtsCenter – in part a byproduct of SFUSD’s current strategic plan, Transforming Learning, Transforming Lives, its companion document Vision 2025, and the SFUSD Arts Education Master Plan, which will be Susan Stauter’s and Antigone Trimis’ inspired legacy – can counter much of this for our youth. Creativity will trump privilege; humanity and compassion will trump arbitrary displays of power. There seems to be a motif here: the district’s previous strategic plan, Beyond the Talk, featured Jimi Hendrix as its symbol, selected by a past superintendent. Could Jimi Hendrix as a symbol in schools happen anywhere other than San Francisco? If Hendrix is our symbol, and one of our core values is Fearlessness, then a lot will be expected of us, and no one will be let off easily; we need to be up to this challenge.f not solely responsible, for one of the greatest thought experiments of our age. In some ways Einstein’s thought patterns are reminiscent of the logic of music. Don't guitarists use this bar that tunes their instrument to a different key, so they are starting out in "C", for example? And the music still sounds melodic, harmonic, coherent, right? When things are proportional, don't we agree that tripling them or taking any action that keeps the proportionality intact is legitimate, and doesn't fundamentally alter the numbers or the truths we have drawn from them? In the school finance academy I attended, they called that ratio fidelity. Stretch that idea a bit and you have the Einstein solution to Relativity’s playing hard to get.
I have joked, inasmuch as I ever joke, that the world is divided into two kinds of people: the first did not have an arts education, and they tend towards rules-based environments, are vexed by any deviation from their perceived norm, a norm which may be theirs alone, and their vocabulary is peppered with words and phrases like setting an example and due diligence; the second group had an arts education, have quick, analytic, unique minds, could have attended an arts school, but maybe got their arts education elsewhere, yet flow in the world like the artist would, curious, flexible, irreverent, observant, using phrases like flipping the paradigm and cultural relevance. Albert Einstein, the embodiment of the scientist, had an arts education. We can use phrases like the rational scientist to describe him, but I wouldn’t define Einstein that way. He was poetic, quasi-mystical, used the word God often, saw beauty in mundane things, and if the Cosmological Constant was rational, it was certainly at the far end of rationality, where it is ready to give way to ambiguity and mystery. As for data, Einstein’s biography revealed that his famous thought experiments were conducted independent of data, or unsullied by data, which was pulled in later to operationalize theory. But data’s place at the table was limited, and was rarely missed when it wasn’t around. Einstein was a profound thinker who used rationality and chaos as tools toward a higher end, and through both calculation and inspiration got us within an angstrom or two of the ultimate truth. But what an angstrom that is: worlds explode over it.
A decade back, we were trying hard to get some answers for our problems in schools, even embracing new-old ideas like the one known as block scheduling, doubling the length of the periods, and meeting every other day. In 100 minutes teachers are forced to stretch out their lessons and hope that student curiosity would drive the train and they would explore deeper facets of the topic and the teacher could act as guide and facilitator. Except that there had been so many facts to learn and the test score mania prevented too much curiosity from overshadowing the standards, and that was going to be very hard to change. Data in educaton was beginning to become important around the millennium, primarily test score analysis, and there were sub-categories of curriculum called content strands which stimulated discussions about the teaching units, with a data-emphasis on areas that seemed to be weak and the various software systems that helped you track achievement data. It wasn’t yet Big Data, but we were on our way.
That last piece, the software systems, may have been the beginning of the end for us: some of these systems, with their numerical precision and their color coding and their supremely dense and confident look – those columns of red scores left no doubt what and who were below standard – gave many educators the hunger for more, and if you used the data to pinpoint weaknesses and by the next year saw gains, which generally did happen the first two years of any program, the gains attributable to the fact that people were paying attention to it, that attention alone has been shown to have temporary powers regardless of method or content. These so-called gains gave one’s hunger a justification, and if your school was at risk of intervention or closure, those two years of increases felt pretty good – and the subsequent flat years usually didn’t dissuade the believer, so the rut was established. And if there weren’t further increases for a bit after that and the pressure returned, Big Data seemed like a good way to go. That was the problem, many thought as Big Data made its debut, we just weren’t big enough data-wise, we needed more data. But by that time we were on to a new testing system and it took us three years to establish a baseline from which to draw up plans, and so many of the theories were never tested. For some Big Data remains a tantalizing solution to champagne problems that will be sure to rear their head again.
But this began with a piece of fiction, and we ended up in numero-scientific limbo. We have been living with a debilitating contradiction for at least 15 years now – our stated philosophical belief that children are not mechanistic and that their inner states must be nurtured and their learning stewarded carefully against the systemic limitations of measurement, judgment and shallow action, of which we are all guilty. We have let the system run away from us and it’s too big now to control, and so even the most clear-headed among us clinged to the numbers and when that wasn’t enough we came up with Big Data and it is already its own master.
This is the the arts, I’m reminding us. When they start to look and feel like everything else they are not the arts any more or at least they won’t be fulfilling the function we really need them to fulfill – that of a meta-reflection on this swirling ball of rock and ice and confusion, a way to step back and contextualize our impassioned energies, the wide dynamic range of our emotional surges and the complexity and unintended consequences of many of our collective social artifacts – all of these both thrill and confound, and we need them to be rendered artistically, creatively, and with soul-deep fidelity for us to make any sense out of them at all, and ultimately to make any sense out of ourselves. I think it can be done; I believe we are capable of it; but there is so much clutter in our way.
So let Big Data have the limelight for now. While we regroup and create something new and organic, while we live for a while in the shadows through an era that already, barely weeks old in February 2017, threatens to become the world we had worked all of our lives to prevent, we need to be careful in our rage that we don’t turn into the monsters we fought not that long ago. Today on Facebook I saw someone I have respected for decades questioning why we were defending the civil liberties of bigots and xenophobes; we should never question that. Loving your enemy is still the best of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic lessons, no matter what else fools and zealots have done to the compassionate words of Abraham and Christ and to Mohammed’s inspired exhortations celebrating pluralism and tolerance: people must be allowed to open their mouths to speak. At least we must begin there: if it’s hate speech, we deal with it. But first it has to be speech.
Many of us were part of a sweeping international movement in the 1960s that was a true Renaissance, a rebirth of humanism and natural processes and individual freedoms and unbridled creativity. We were short on planning, high on spontaneity, and some things were beyond analysis. Each day we thought of six impossible things before breakfast, especially if we had been up all night. There was an ethical core embedded in that movement telling us that war was off the table, that with compasionate intelligence and inner grace peace was possible; human life mattered, the planet mattered, we were all in this together. If the mid-70s began to see the erosion of that through selfishness and narcissism, through governmental corruption and the sins of the father coming home to haunt the now-grown children, then we have to take responsibility for not pulling it back to a better place then. The weakened fabric of the Camelot days was barely more than a decade old when the ‘80s dawned and America drew inward and dismantled the last of the era that defines this city of St. Francis, our patron saint the ascetic animal whisperer, more than any other: if Haight Street symbolized the ‘60s, the ‘80s counterpart was Wall Street. Vietnam didn’t teach us enough to stay out of Nicaragua and El Salvador. The irony of San Francisco’s cherished identity as the quintessential ‘60s Renaissance city, now a sanctuary city for immigrants and the undocumented, the irony that our prophets and poets told us to . . . . .
Truly and clearly see, and become
an understanding molecule in evolution, a conscious tool of the universe
or that we should
tear down the walls, motherfucker
. . . . . . . this irony is not lost on us who hear that walls will be built and squads of murders will seize land and oil and the words of a lunatic at a podium turn into threats and missile inventories are analyzed and the world’s leaders confer to respond . . . . . . to more ravings from a posse of lunatics who think it’s a game of lacrosse . . . . .
. . . . . . maybe we were distracted by Big Data; maybe we lost our souls a little bit in the spreadsheets and the treacherous office politics and the indulgent mental obsessions we play out in rage toward those who we believe have wronged us.
So where are we?
With careful attention to the elusive reality of this age, The Random Age, where the truth looks like a scatter plot and there is so much that makes no sense on any level, we can hope that this too shall pass, as everything passes. I have the data to prove that it will, and even the exception that proves the rule: it happened yesterday, when the Republican governor of Utah posted a picture of Utahns welcoming a Pakisatni refugee family to their state – there’s your exception. It took a group of Mormons to break our current national character and do something human. They had to: it wouldn’t have happened on its own. In San Francisco in 2017, with a man in power who we rejected to the tune of 84%-8%-8% (these last are write-ins, a bunch of unknowns and people’s dogs got as many votes as the Republican party candidate, our current president), while the unstoppable data keeps piling up telling us which country is going to hate us next, we are in a strange and crowded exile, claiming sanctuary in our own city.
. . . . . . we are in a strange and crowded exile, claiming sanctuary in our own city, screaming bloody murder that some mistake has been made, forming protest groups and hoping for the best when in this arena the worst has already happened.
I don’t blame Big Data for the 2016 national election or America 2017, but it’s all of a piece, and it was inevitable that the forces of binary thinking got their moment on the stage. Their attitudes and policies can calcify quickly; things could be sealed up in a minute (we’re still dealing with imperialistic global attitudes and economic fall-out from the 1980s), so we better be careful. This is more than just limitations in imagination or deficits of compassion, which are bad enough. This is aggressive and hostile, reckless and egocentric, even megalomaniacal, the dehumanization of whole swaths of people, people who now come here because they are in danger in their home countries, thrown into a world they didn’t ask for, because perhaps they belong to a different ethnic group than the one with the guns, or a subset of a group, indistinguishable to us but undergoing spot tests at armed checkpoints to ferret out the nuances of Islam with their lives at stake; or perhaps their tribe has always been marginalized and now it’s open season; ISIS may be a different mutation altogether, but many of the regimes that created this misery we installed and/or supported, and not just in the Middle East: Hussein, Noriega, Ibn-Saudi, Assad, Pahlavi, Somoza, Khadafi, Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe, Ferdinand Marcos, Batista, Trujillo, Duvalier, Zia-Ul-Haq, Suharto, Francisco Franco – our darlings, all of whom we eventually turned on, and once that happens the original support is no longer mentioned, it’s heresy to even acknowledge it, unpatriotic and dangerous, as any deviation from the “new” facts now believed by all is considered a rejection of this country. You will not be shot for political opposition in the U.S. but you will be labeled, misquoted, ridiculed and shunned as the country races into the next minute with the same ideas and the same allegiances and with the same level of inflexibilty they had a minute before, but maybe not 10 minutes before.
Is this hate? Not exclusively. Hate may be an element in the larger context. What I see is a studied, purposeful xenophobia, with an element of the automatic in it but carefully measured and justified. Our enemies look like these people, so they are all our enemies. ISIS has breached the borders of sovereign nations. Sovereign? Didn’t the lines get drawn by England and France after WWI and their favorites installed? The Iranian election of 1951 brought Mohammad Mosaddegh to power; by 1953 he was toppled by the CIA and the Britsh Secret Service, who wanted the oil fields back. That doesn’t seem very sovereign to me, or if it is we didn’t respect it either. The Pahlavis took over after that, the same family that produced the Shah who was exiled in 1979 when the American Embassy in Teheran was seized. It was at that moment the new enemy was crowned, and it escalated quickly into a generational rite of passage, a radicalization of unemployed, poverty-stricken young adult men that is one of the strongest human forces on the planet. Forbidden from sexual contact until marriage, economically unable to support a family, colonized or exploited for their natural resources, its colonizers backing if not outright puppeteering the brutal leadership of corrupt regimes that behave like infidels with their western cronies – it’s a powderkeg anyone with a half-brain can see – if you cared to look. Now we exacerbate it daily.
I was in Iceland when the hostages were taken in Teheran in 1979, a member of the US Air Force, stationed on a tiny peninsula in the southeast of the island and working as an early warning radar operator to prevent hostile aircraft from crossing into NATO territory. I actually had something I now know as data to work with then: the radar computers calculated speed and direction and created an avatar that followed the plane around if I programmed it correctly. We were 100 guys on the small base, no women, and the testosterone ran high. Men I thought of as reasonable and open-minded were suddenly fierce and warlike super-patriots, ready to lay down their lives to defend freedom, as they called it, against the entirety of the Middle East; the rescue helicopter crash of April 1980, on almost the exact date I returned to the United States and was discharged, sealed Jimmy Carter’s fate in the upcoming election, and the America I returned to was ready for war, economically precarious, with gas prices doubling in the year and spurring double digit inflation across the board. The slick Norman Rockwell investment and Morning in America PR scheme came in with the new president in 1981, a trained and successful actor who knew how to stay on script and hit his marks. We have no data obsession at this point – we were far from it. There was no Internet, of course. After my discharge from Ft. Dix in New Jersey in late April 1980 I flew down to Tampa, Florida to visit with my friend and eat strawberries for a few days before hopping in his Oldsmobile 88 and taking I-10 to Phoenix and then Los Angeles, where I grew a beard, got a bartending job, re-enrolled in college, and tried to be a civilian again. At Cal State LA I declared as a Theater major and was cast in my first play, Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead, an extended one-act drama with an anti-war theme. I played Private Driscoll, an enraged grave digger who spoke for everyone about the futility of war and the gutless puppets at the top. I hadn’t heard of data yet, but it was coming. Looking back, I think I recall hearing the war drums beating and the clik-clak of acrylic fingernails on a keyboard, the insistent rhythm of data entry and the future behind all of it.
Donn K. Harris has chaired the California Arts Council, the state’s grant-making arts agency that distributes over $20 million annually to non-profits throughout the state, since his selection in January 2015, and is now on his third term. In January 2018 he will become the national Arts Schools Network President. Formerly the Director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Oakland School for the Arts, Harris now serves the San Francisco Unified School District as its Executive Director for Creativity and the Arts, in which capacity he is leading the effort to build out the District’s renowned Van Ness campus to include an arts high school, a citywide ArtsCenter, and various performing arts spaces. He has sent more than 1500 arts graduates out into the world, including his two daughters, a writer and a Taiko drummer. ‘Throughout the country, this is the best in public education,’ Harris affirms. ‘It’s rigorous, creative, and the whole community gets involved.’ As for this epic version of the abridged Big Data piece that appeared in LinkedIn during February 2017, he states: ‘I have an artist’s view of data. I took Physics for Poets and Astronomy for Artists in college, so I figure it’s OK to treat them like art forms. Isn’t that why we have colleges of Arts and Science?’