Noise and Ecosystems

Inwood Hill Park
Inwood Hill Park

Research suggests noise can rattle an ecosystem. Birds, for example, rely on their voices to woo mates, size up rivals, scrounge for dinner. Horn blasts and engine revs can scramble auditory cues. Birds try singing louder, singing at a higher frequency, singing at night. Some abandon their nests altogether. This can trigger an ecological cascade, one that extends even to vegetation; noise can scare away some birds that would normally scatter seeds.

—Ashley Powers, “Preserving the Quietest Places” in The California Sunday Magazine

More on sound and noise:

 

EdBuild Report: Can the US overcome the ‘fault lines’ of segregation?

EdBuild has released a damning indictment of economic segregation in the United States. The report and interactive sheds much-needed light upon an illogical system that ensures poor kids are kept segregated by arbitrary district lines and confined to poorly resourced schools.

I urge you to read EdBuild’s full report. There’s a scathing resonance to the sentences that helps to convey how cruelly unjust and unnecessary school district lines are. Here’s one example:

“The fact, too seldom acknowledged, is that district boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer. In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”

And:

“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control’.”

Reading this report, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to the current political battle on NYC’s Upper West Side over potential rezoning of a school district. The rezoning would place a well-off segregated school in the same zone as a segregated school that serves the projects just down the street.

Some well-off Upper West Side parents have made statements such as:

“It’ll take thousands, maybe a hundred thousand dollars off the value of my apartment.”

Or:

“We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”

Is this what a public school has become? A status symbol of the property value of a neighborhood?

Even “progressive” NYC Mayor De Blasio has defended the rights of private property owners to their own segregated public schools:

“. . . families who have made a decision to live in a certain area . . . made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

Our public schools have become de facto private schools for those with money and means. Such parents can “invest” in the property that allows them to live within the district boundaries of their chosen school. They then can rely upon hale and hardy school district boundaries to keep less fortunate kids out. In this dismal reality of the US education system, instead of a Game of Thrones, it’s the Game of School Zones. This cut throat game determines the fate of our nation, and we play it with our children.

What does a public school really stand for in this country?

Must providing a quality education for some students mean denying a quality education to others?

Does ownership of property entitle you to be relieved of any commitment to the common good?

We have decided to let our cities (and schools) decay

By UpstateNYer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. . . . Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too.”

–Philip Kennicot, “We caused the Metro shutdown when we decided to let our cities decay” on Washington Post

The Luxury of Efficiency

By Crops for the Future (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, in which he examines traditional societies and compares them to modern state societies, and I came across a passage which lends an interesting perspective to a word Will brought up recently: efficiency.

Diamond describes a traditional form of planting that has greatly perplexed modern minds: field scattering. Why are these ignorant peasants and tribal peoples wasting their energy in planting and tilling and traveling between many small plots, rather than consolidating their yields? “To modern economic historians, that was “obviously” a bad idea.”

It turns out that it has a lot to do with managing complexity in the face of immediate needs.

“In any given year there are big differences between yields of different fields, but a peasant can’t predict which particular field is going to produce well in any particular year,” Diamond states of the Cuyo Cuyo farmer.

So in the face of the unknown, the peasant scatters his potential yield. This decreases his overall yield, and ensures he will rarely have a great abundance (which he wouldn’t be able to store for long anyway), but also ensures that he will rarely starve.

“If your time-averaged yield is marvelously high as a result of the combination of nine great years and one year of crop failure, you will still starve to death in that one year of crop failure before you can look back to congratulate yourself on your great time-averaged yield.”

Thus, “through long experience, and without using statistics or mathematical analyses, Goland’s Andean peasants had figured out how to scatter their land just enough to buffer them against the risk of starvation from unpredictable local variation in food yields.”

I wonder what lessons there may be in this for schools.

In the face of stark accountability (“starvation”) and potential closure, a school may strategically “scatter” its efforts to meet its immediate needs, rather than “efficiently” investing in more coherent and systematic measures that will, over time, accrue in more lasting impacts and yields.

After all, when you are facing starvation, your primary concern is not to starve. But when you already have a buffer of wealth, you can take greater risks.

We often talk about how much money America spends on education in comparison to other countries, with little to show for it. Yet school funding is often on a perpetual cycle where schools are encouraged to scatter their money willy-nilly on immediate needs, rather than take bigger risks and strategically invest in longer-term investments.

I’ll stop there, as I’m probably pushing the analogy too far. But it’s interesting to consider how the concept of “efficiency” can be considered as a product of luxury.

Defining "Waste" in Public Education

One of the most common criticisms of public school systems is that they are filled with waste and inefficiency. Certainly, few who have worked for the Department of Education would describe it as “efficient.” But efficiency, as I pointed out in a recent article for Jacobin, is not an absolute concept. Neither is “waste”: one man’s trash, as we know, is another man’s treasure.

So what is “waste,” from a Schools as Ecosystems perspective? Certainly, I think we have a lot of ideas about what waste isn’t. Waste is not offering courses in arts, foreign languages, music or other “nonessential” subjects, though many cities have drastically cut such offerings. Waste is not employing support staff to help teachers and administrators with book distribution, event supervision, test administration, and other essential school functions, yet again, school districts across the country have laid off thousands of support staff in recent years. Extracurricular programs, special education paraprofessionals, teacher reimbursement for necessary school supplies: none of these are waste, from our perspective, yet all of these appear to be waste as far as the Department of Education is concerned.

I know what wasted time is. When a native Spanish speaker has to take high school Spanish because her school doesn’t have the resources to provide any other foreign languages, that’s waste. When high school seniors have a free period in the middle of the day because the funding for their Advanced Placement class was cut, that’s waste. It’s waste when a student with a speech impairment hides in the back of the class, afraid to talk, because her district fails to provide a speech therapist.

Whatever waste is or isn’t, it’s pretty clear that this is an area where we need clarity. Much of what policy-makers treat as waste, educators view as essential resources. So, how would you define waste?