How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?

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Freakonomics Radio

“How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?”: We’ve all gotten used to the thrill of customization — Pandora Radio lets anyone customize the music he or she wants to hear. Could a New York City pilot program called School of One do the same thing for education?

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We’ve just released the latest episode of our Freakonomics Radio podcast. It’s called “How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?” (You can download/ subscribe at iTunes here, get the RSS feed here, or listen live via the link at right.)

This episode is a full 30 minutes long, and it’s about what we call “the thrill of customization” — that is, how technology increasingly enables each of us to get what we want out of life, whether it’s a consumer experience or a religious experience. The main focus of the episode is a fascinating New York City Department of Education pilot program called School of One.

DESCRIPTIONAll photos Stephen J. Dubner Joel Rose, School of One
DESCRIPTIONChris Rush, School of One
DESCRIPTIONJoel Klein, New York City schools chancellor

You’ll hear from its founder, Joel Rose, as well as its co-founder and tech guru, Chris Rush; you’ll also hear from Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education (whom some of you may remember as the former head of Chicago Public Schools who worked with Levitt to get rid of cheating teachers).

And, because we tend to never follow a straight line in our podcasts, you’ll also hear some interesting stuff about Pandora Radio from its founder, Tim Westergren, who has just been named to the Time magazine list of 100 influentials (congrats!).

The School of One tries to take advantage of technology to essentially customize education for every kid in every classroom and help teachers do their job more effectively. That is of course a daunting task — and perhaps, some might argue, unnecessary — but the amount of thought and analysis that have so far gone into the program is impressive. Furthermore, the enthusiasm it has generated from people like Duncan and Klein make it a program to watch. And the early results are promising.

DESCRIPTIONLionel, a School of One student

You’ll hear about School of One’s conception, its potential pitfalls, and most of all how it works day-to-day. You’ll spend some time in a classroom in I.S. 339 in the Bronx, hearing from kids like Lionel (at right), whose daily “playlist” — in this case, his math lessons — are chosen in part by an algorithm that is designed to learn how Lionel learns best.

And you’ll hear how Chris Rush and others track and analyze the schoolwork that Lionel is doing to make sure he’s not just doodling away his time (like Levitt did in the third grade).

Below you’ll find some more images, including screen shots of the School of One software that helps handle the various analyses. Hope you enjoy the episode; it was an interesting one to make.

DESCRIPTIONSchool of One teacher Joyce Pulphus with students Tyesha Wilson and Frank Angel Montalvo.
DESCRIPTION School of One students learning via “virtual tutor”; that’s podcast producer Aimee Machado getting in there with the microphone.
DESCRIPTIONAfter the kids have gone home for the day, School of One teachers and administrators analyze their progress, one student at a time.
DESCRIPTIONAt School of One headquarters in the Dept. of Education building in Lower Manhattan, a dashboard lets the project’s administrators monitor each student’s progress across the entire skill list.
DESCRIPTIONEach student’s lesson is scheduled the night before, based on an optimization algorithm.
DESCRIPTIONEvery teacher has a set of skills he or she is assigned to teach throughout the program, and is given a “five-day forecast” to show which skills will likely be taught next.

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: You've been there: it's impossible to find a decent song on the radio.  When you do, and it ends, the next song stinks.  Wouldn't it be nice if the radio only played the songs you want to hear? The rest of the world has if figured out. Amazon does it.  Netflix does it.  Your airline does it, even your credit card company. Just go buy some baby diapers, see how long it takes before someone mails you a prospectus for a college-savings plan. If your personal data is like a fingerprint, then you've left big, greasy smudges all over the universe. The key is an algorithm, a formula to harness that data and customize the world for you. To give you the things you need to make you smarter, richer, happier. To give you only the songs you want to sing. There's actually a solution to that radio problem.  And it's so easy that even Steve Levitt can use it.

Steven D. LEVITT: About three years ago, on our blog -- the Freakonomics blog -- I admitted to people that I'm a Luddite and that I don't know anything about technology.  And I admitted to people that I'm a very late adopter when it comes to technology.  And I asked our blog readers, "Tell me what cutting edge technologies I should adopt in my life?”  I got a lot suggestions and I think the only one that stuck with me was Pandora.  

DUBNER: Levitt's my coauthor, an economist at the University of Chicago

LEVITT: And it was absolutely stunning to me that there was a technology where you could tell it the music you liked, and it would play other music you had never even heard of but would like, and it would do it all for free, and if you didn’t like a song, you’d say “don’t play that song ever again.” And it would just go away. I mean what an incredible invention that was.

DUBNER: Now if you had never gotten on Pandora and were just doing it today, what’s a song you would say “God, this is the song I love and I want 100 more like it, and I don’t know where to find it. What’s the song you’d put in today?

LEVITT: So if I had to put in a song today I would put in a very obscure song, by a group called Iglu and Hartly, called “In This City.”

DUBNER: OK so to start this off we’ll play a song that exemplifies the musical style of Iglu and Hartly, which features basic rock song structures, call and answer vocal harmony, also known as antiphony, major key tonality, and a vocal-centric aesthetic and acoustic rhythm guitars. So that’s what you like.

LEVITT: I love – actually I love all of those things.

DUBNER: So the next time somebody asks you “Steve Levitt, what kind of music do you like?”

LEVITT: I'm going to say, "I like antiphony."

ANNOUNCER: Today, on FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the thrill of customization -- and a question: what does a bad radio station have in common with the public-school system? Here's your host Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Imagine you fell asleep 150 years ago, and you woke up today. There aren't many things you'd recognize. But one of them is a classroom -- one teacher in a box with 25 students. Why hasn't it changed?

Joel KLEIN: My name is Joel Klein and I'm the chancellor of the New York City public school system. In a prior life I used to represent the American Psychiatric Association, and it was during an era which there were a lot of light bulb jokes. My favorite light bulb joke ever was, how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is, only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.  And the answer to your question is, the school system does not want to change. It wants more resources.

DUBNER: Grades are up, graduation rates are up, but when you look across the board in New York City, when you look at the absolute numbers, not relative to where they were, but absolute, you can’t be too happy, right? You’re graduating about 59 percent of students now, so that’s still about 10 percent below national average.  I hope I’m right on that. So what’s the problem?  Are New York City kids dumb? Are the teachers who come here not good enough?

KLEIN: There’s a lot of questions there. So let me start with for example the graduation rates.  If you count August graduates, which I think we should count, we're at 63 percent, still below where we need to be.  But quite frankly, in the last four years alone that’s gone up about three points a year.  And that’s huge.  No other city, I think, has seen that kind of gain.  But, in the end two things, one has to be candid, looking at America generally, as you said, about 70 percent graduate high school.  So 30 percent don’t graduate high school.  Out of the 70 percent who graduate, probably 30, 35 percent of them are not prepared for college.  So, what’s the point?

DUBNER: The problem isn't only in New York City, of course. The national drop-out rate has been declining -- but still, nearly three out of 10 kids never finish high school. Test scores have essentially been flat for a couple decades; other countries are passing us by. I asked Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, how big a concern these numbers are.

Arne DUNCAN: This is a huge deal, Steve. We are very concerned that if we are going to remain economically competitive as a country, if we are going to give our children a chance to compete in a global economy we have to dramatically improve the quality of education. All of us as students want to be treated as individuals and we've had this sort of factory model of education in which everyone was treated the same. The best teachers are the ones that understand who you are, who find skills and abilities in yourself that you didn’t know you had in yourself. When it doesn’t work, those teachers are just relating to a mass of faces in front of them, they don’t know you as an individual, you get this sense that they don’t care about you quite frankly.

DUBNER: So that's how a classroom is like the radio -- a factory model, a big fat effort to pitch right down the middle. But things are changing in schools -- I mean, people have been talking about education reform forever -- but lately, things really are changing. There’s a proliferation of charter schools, some of them excellent. The Teach for America program. Parenting workshops and pre-school programs. In New York City, there's a small band of reformers pushing a gutsy program with a catchy name: it's called "School of One." They want to dump the factory model altogether. Secretary Duncan is wild about School of One, and Joel Klein's the man who gave it the go-ahead. Here's the program's founder, Joel Rose.

Joel ROSE: So in New York City, even before the recession we had six applicants for every teacher that we hired.  We have worked incredibly hard to that our highest performing teachers are rewarded for the work that they do. And we can tell you on a relative basis who our stronger teachers are and who our weaker teachers are.  But one of the things that I was interested in was looking at that information on an objective basis. In other words, if we picked a particular standard, like what percent of eighth grade math teachers in New York City get 80 percent of their students to proficiency by the end of the year, that number came in at 13 percent.

DUBNER: Thirteen percent!

ROSE: Right. And when we asked the question a little differently, what percent of eighth grade math teachers can get one years worth of growth out of 80 percent of students in the class that came in at 12 percent.

DUBNER: Yikes! How about reading?

ROSE: In reading, the numbers are about half that.

DUBNER: Half that!

ROSE: Right. Now, we have some incredibly hard working and talented teachers in New York City, and there are thousands of students who graduate college that would love to move to the city and work here.  This is not an issue of recruitment or even of talent.  It’s an issue of design. I mean, if you think about any other industry, if we create an objective standard of success and only 13 percent of a particular classification of employee was successful we would change the job.  We would never have that kind of conversation in education.

DUBNER: So you’re saying that if plumbers or IT designers or engineers, or writers, or presidents, performed at the level, at the objective level that New York City teachers did, we’d either get rid of all of them, or radically change the job?

ROSE: If we set the bar at how successful do we need plumbers to be, and that standard is a reasonable objective standard, and only 13 percent of plumbers can actually hit that standard, then we have to think differently about how we’re organizing the work of plumbing.

DUBNER: How should the work of teaching be organized? Rose started out as a classroom teacher, three years in a fifth grade in Houston, through Teach for America. He went to law school, then got back into education, with Edison Learning, the for-profit schools company. Eventually he landed in New York City's Department of Education. That's when he had a revelation: even the most talented teachers in New York were operating in the old 25-kids-in-a-box, factory mode; how well can one person possibly teach math to 25 different brains at the same time?

ROSE: So I’m originally from South Florida, and I was visiting my family in Miami.  I went to go see a friend who runs something called a New Horizons learning center.  This is a franchise that provides technical training to people on a particular area of technology. So if you want to be certified in something from Microsoft, or Cisco or something like that you go to one of these centers, you take a test, you get a certificate, and you  can use that to get a job. So I went to meet him for lunch and I walk into the office, and there’s a big sign right when you walk in and it says “choose your modality.”

DUBNER: Choose your modality?

ROSE: Choose your modality.

DUBNER: What’s that mean?

ROSE: That a student can choose to come and take live instruction from a teacher, they can choose to learn at their own pace at home online, or they can do what New Horizons calls mentored learning, which is a student can come in whenever they like and there is a teaching assistant type person that can help them as they work through the software.

DUBNER: So I can eat in, take out, or have delivery food?

ROSE: Exactly.

DUBNER: And did a gigantic light bulb flash off in your head?

ROSE: A gigantic light bulb flashed off in my head. What I immediately saw when I saw that sign is that is what we’ve been looking for in K-12 education, the introduction of other modalities.  That live, teacher-led instruction, the kind of instruction we’re all familiar with, that we all grew up with, is one way, it may be the best way, but it’s not the only way that kids can learn.

DUBNER: So Joel Rose thought: what if, instead of all 25 kids in a classroom trying to learn math from one teacher -- in one modality at a time -- what if you could take the classroom, divide it into smaller groups, and have each kid get her own playlist of different modalities every day, kind of like the playlists that Pandora makes for Steve Levitt? With Klein's blessing, School of One quickly moved into pilot phase. This spring, it's being used as an afterschool program in three New York City schools, teaching 6th grade math to 270 students. Let's go to one of these schools, I.S. 339 in the Bronx. Here's Kirsten Shy, from School of One.

Kirsten SHY: So what we see here on the screens, the first thing when a student walks in, they see their schedule for the day so right now it shows period 1. Kids are divided up by their homeroom teams and they can see which area of the room they are supposed to be in. So at this table they are doing virtual tutoring, at the far table over there, there’s kids that are working on a variety of different online math programs and at this closer table, there’s kids that are working on independent practice. Which is another modality that we have

DUBNER: Can you quickly name all the modalities for me?

KIRSTEN: Ooh! Quiz me. Large live instruction, small live instruction, virtual live instruction, which we call virtual tutoring, colloquially, independent practice, small group collaboration and independent virtual instruction.

DUBNER: So these guys are getting, these guys are doing math homework with headphones at a computer and there is somebody is on the other line. Who is that person and what are they teaching them?

KIRSTEN: The other person on the line is a virtual tutor. I’m not sure exactly where they are in the United States right now, and they are working on the individual skills that they need to be working on, so it could be any number of 5th or 6th grade math skills that a kid needs at that time.

STUDENT: I’m talking to the teacher and doing his work he's telling us, he's telling us to add any number with two in it.

TEACHER: Now your question is, add three to any number.

STUDENT: Add three to any number? Three plus forty.

TEACHER: Suppose you wrote any number as 40, I could write it as 35…

DUBNER: Small-group instruction? Independent practice? A virtual tutor? It isn't what these kids are used to. Here's Patrona Hudson, 12 years old.

Patrona HUDSON: I was failing math because I didn’t understand it. Nobody sat down with me and helped me like work. Like, my teacher - her name is Ms McKiff – and if you ask her for help, she be like, that you have to do it on our own, try to figure it out. She'll explain it like once and if you don’t understand it, she'll quit. She’ll be like, oh, I give up, like too bad.

LIONEL: My name is Lionel, and I’m 11.

DUBNER: And what are you doing here in the School of One?

LIONEL: Math

DUBNER: What about the kids who are in your class in math who don’t come to school of one? Do you feel like you’re brushing past them?

LIONEL: Yes, cause I’m learning a lot more than what they’re learning. They’re probably at home playing video games.

DUBNER: Every lesson, every quiz, every keystroke -- it's all fed into the School of One algorithm. Here's Joel Rose again.

ROSE: At the end of every day, each kid takes a test. Now the algorithm can learn what the kid learned today.  Which lessons stuck, which topics need more attention, how each kid learns the best. Every day, as the kid gets a little smarter, the algorithm does too.

DUBNER: Far from I.S. 339 in The Bronx, all the way down in Lower Manhattan, in the old Tweed Courthouse, the School of One team sits in a big, open room.  There are laptops, whiteboards on wheels, an iPad that everyone's been testing out, smudged with  a million fingerprints. Chris Rush is a co-founder of the project. If Joel Rose is the education-theory guy for School of One, Rush is the tech savant. In some ways, He’s the algorithm. He's sitting in front of two computer screens.

Chris RUSH: OK, so what I’m doing is looking at the results from the entire week, and I have a grid here that has every student and has every skill that they could be learning: a skill such as adding fractions of circumference of a circle.  I can see how many lessons they’ve had on each skill.  I can see how fast they’re moving through those skills.  So what I’m monitoring is, I’m looking through those skills where kids are getting stuck so we can target those to improve the program around adding fractions or circumference of a circle.  And I can also make sure that any kids that are getting stuck get the proper attention that they need.  So I tally how fast kids are moving through the skills and give them a rating, sort of like par in golf.  If they’re beating par, the average, or they’re ahead of it, and we take the kids that are falling behind, and we say what’s happening here, how can we do something better for them, and update our algorithm, and pull them out to make sure they’re getting the proper attention.

DUBNER: OK so we talked to a pretty enthusiastic boy name Lionel who was happy to be in the program, who was so happy that he was telling his friends they should stop going home after school and playing video games and should start coming here to play math computer games, he’s successfully recruited one or two kids. So let’s look at Lionel. Tell us what he’s been doing, how he’s been doing, what direction he’s moving in.

RUSH: So I’m going to pull up Lionel here, and what I really see, Lionel is one of those great case studies actually.  The nice story about Lionel is that Lionel was really struggling in the month of March, it was taking him ten exposures, twelve exposures to learn certain skills, and now Lionel is moving through certain things with two exposures, three exposures.  That’s really exciting, that’s what we want to see--not just learning the skills, but he’s learning how to learn the skill faster. We have one skill here that’s on hold, because Lionel needs to come back to it, and that’s dealing with, this particular skill has to do with algebraic expressions, and that seems to be where he’s having more trouble.  Where geometry seems to be something that he’s doing much better in.

DUBNER: So what do you do with that information?  Where does that steer you to help steer him?

RUSH: So we’d look a little bit more closely.  Is it geometry that he’s doing well with, or is it the way that we’re teaching him geometry? And in this particular case it looks like we were actually teaching him geometry a bit differently than we were teaching him how to deal with algebraic expressions.  The first thing we would do is try to take the methods that we taught him geometry and try to apply those to how we taught him algebraic expressions.

DUBNER: So the idea I’m guessing is that you will find out which approach works best for each kid and that you will end up with a manageable mix, because if everybody needs the live teacher instruction then you’re back to 28 kids in a box, yeah?

RUSH: Correct. It’s very much like the Pandora music service online, where you enter in a song name, or an artist and it tries to guess the next best song for you.  And maybe it guesses right the first time, but two or three songs in, it got something wrong. Basically it works the same way here. If a student tries small group collaboration and they don’t do well that day, we give that a thumbs-down. If they do small group collaboration and they do well, we give it a thumbs up. So we can rate our schedules everyday for each student so we get smarter and smarter at choosing the next days schedule for each student.

DUBNER: Ok so Tim you’ve let me hijack your Pandora account. Were listening to the Pandora account of the Pandora guy. We’re on Ben Folds Radio, that’s your station here.

Tim WESTERGREN: That’s the heart of my genome

DUBNER: Is that right?

WESTERGREN: Yeah, I dig all that stuff.

DUBNER: And how popular are you?

WESTERGREN: We have a little over 50,000,000 listeners in the US.

DUBNER: Fifty million listeners!  That’s one out of every six human beings in the United States.

WESTERGREN: That’s right, it’s grown like a weed.

DUBNER: Wow, so more people are Pandora listeners than are let’s say users of Reynolds Wrap probably.

WESTERGREN: Not the first correlation I would have thought of, but that may be true.  You know, we’ve had fifty million people who have registered and created stations.  That translates into a little bit north of twenty million people come each month.  So, it’s not a full fifty million every day.

DUBNER: OK, but that’s still a lot of Reynolds Wrap.

WESTERGREN: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.

DUBNER: So what Pandora does is you customize a radio station for anyone who asks you for as many radio stations, as they want.  So, do you feel a bit like we’ve entered a new world where essentially everything is customizable?

WESTERGREN: Yeah, I think that’s basically true.  I think what the web did at first was made everything available. That was kind of the first phase of the web.  And the second phase is to kind of repair that and make all that stuff that’s so voluminous actually navigable.  And I think that’s where Pandora sits.  You know, we look at music and say you’ve got a tyranny of choice on the web, like walking into a record store and you’ve got eighty thousand CDs to choose from and you need to figure out where to start.  We’re trying to do that with music, and the music genome project’s sort of purpose is to make that easy for someone.

DUBNER: Our public schools are longing for a tyranny of choice -- the misery that comes from having TOO MANY options. Is School of One the answer? Right now, it's just an experiment. If it works, it'll go into more New York City schools -- and if it works REALLY well, maybe it'll spread further. Maybe it'll even be a big moneymaker for New York, exporting customized education around the country, around the world! Now if and when education is customized, there'll be fortunes made, and maybe lost. There'll be competition among technology vendors and content providers and a million others; there'll be turf wars with teachers unions. Already, Joel Klein has said he wants to cut the number of teachers in New York City by 30 percent -- and pay teachers 30 percent more. But would School of One require fewer teachers -- or maybe more? Less money -- or more? Joel Rose says it's simply too early to know that. What we DO know is that a future with something like School of One will be different. Very different. Technology, instead of being discouraged in schools, would move to the head of the class. Teachers would have to be trained differently. Here's Blair Hyser, the math department chair at I.S. 339 and a teacher at School of One.

Blair HYSER: The fear of School of One is just that students might get lost, given that there isn’t that traditional 25 kids, one teacher and that teacher works with those students every day. So I think that is the one hesitation or fear, it’s different, it’s new, its something that hasn't really happened before. As a teacher, if you’ve taught fifteen years or twenty years in one way, it’s very challenging to kind of think outside the box in terms of your instruction.

DUBNER: Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, thinks that most of what's happened in the past isn't worth hanging onto.

DUNCAN: I think our Department of Education has been part of the problem historically.  I’ve been very honest about that. And as hard as we’re pushing everybody else to move outside their comfort zone and do more, I promise you that we’re trying to be very self critical, look ourselves in the mirror every single day.  And historically, we’ve been this compliance driven, big bureaucracy.  And we are fundamentally trying to change what we do from being this big bureaucracy to be this engine of innovation and scaling up what works.

DUBNER: So far, the School of One numbers look good. Here's Joel Rose.

ROSE: Before the program began, every student took a pretest that was aligned to the skills on their playlist. The average score was 42 percent. At the end of the program, roughly 50-60 hours of instruction later, they took a post-test on the same skills. Post-test scores average 70 percent. We asked the DOE research and policy team, is that good? Is that not good? How do we contextualize that? They did an analysis and found that these gains were, depending on what we consider a control, 4-8 times the gains we would see in traditional schools in roughly a third the time.

DUBNER: But let's not get too excited. A lot of experiments look good in the lab. New York City has 1.1 million schoolchildren: can they really be taught one at a time? Can an algorithm, a playlist, help teachers do their jobs better? Can that algorithm really help a kid, like Lionel, find his own music? The odds seem long -- but just think how long the odds must have seemed 10 years ago flailing around at the radio dial, hoping to find JUST the right song.

DUBNER: Have you heard from anyone for whom Pandora really changed the shape of their life in some way, maybe it resulted in a courtship and a marriage, a divorce, a murder.

WESTERGREN: We had someone whose father was ill, or aging and was in a home kind of reaching the end of his life.  In the last few months, they discovered Pandora and they shared it with him, and he really took to it.  So when they visited him everyday he would listen to Pandora all day long, and it became kind of a companion.  He eventually passes away, but he passed away listening to Pandora.  And because when you die you are given a time of death, the family wrote us to thank us, and told us the time of death and we actually wrote them and told them which song was playing when he died.  And we sent them a CD and they played that song at his funeral.

ANNOUNCER: This episode of Freakonomics Radio was produced by Stephen Dubner with Aimee Machado. Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, and the next episode will show up automatically on your playlist. Go to freakonomics.com to read more about the hidden side of everything.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 37


  1. Rudiger in Jersey says:

    BAD RADIO STATION:
    Here is a Good Idea for a unique radio station. There are too many easy listening and top 50 hits radio stations. Others do classical, jazz, alternative and ethnic.

    But never in history has there been a radio station entirely devoted to lousy songs sung off key by bad artists that causes headaches and annoys listeners. There is material being produced everyday and it has just been fanned by Karaoke and American Idol Shows.

    Just like Mystery Science Theater 3000, focus on the worst songs ever produced …so bad that it is actually good. That can be ribald entertainment for the acerbic set.

    I can hear a William Shatner Memory Lane Hour, William Hung Bed Time Music, and Jack Black Drinking Songs. Barney Songs for the Bathroom.

    So Bad, It’s Good. This would appeal to Gen Xers, Yers and Baby Boomers. Bad songs are memorable and like a branding iron, leave their mark on your brain.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 6
  2. kristy says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 13
  3. Q says:

    The School of One sounds very much like the future envisioned for eduction by Clayton Christensen in his book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”.

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  4. Pat in Falls Church says:

    Interesting ideas piece. Its clear that education, especially k-12 is a mess in this country, and its critical to our long term economic interest to fix it. Its nice to see experiments in the City, most folks who care simply move to the suburbs, and that is not a long term winning idea.

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  5. Aredee says:

    Rudiger in Jersey has a formula for a bad radio station, featuring nothing but “lousy songs” sung off-key. I would add Florence Foster Jenkins and Jonathan & Darlene Edwards to the list.

    Actually, there already is a format that covers that definition. It’s called “hip-hop.”

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  6. Bert says:

    Maybe 30 – 40 years ago three teacher at Broadwater School in Helena MT, Mrs. Parr, Mrs. Kallin and Mrs. Plank taught together as a team in a big room with 80 third graders. What they created in that big room was essentially “School of One” individualized instruction. But there were no computers, no algorithms and (probably) not one penny in extra funding. Just three brilliant and dedicated teachers who made the world of learning come alive one student at a time.

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  7. TJ says:

    I think it’s neat that educators have been almost completely removed from the process of educational reform.

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  8. KJ says:

    Totally agree with TJ. The current systems (backed by educators and their labor representation) retain talent as a function tenure rather than ability – resulting in a system that is apparently inefficient (look at cost versus results of US education compared to the rest of the world). Thank goodness there is room for outside thought and hopefully improvement.

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  9. lynn says:

    TJ,

    I agree with you. It’s not like they have any knowledge about the process or anything…

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  10. JM says:

    how many times does the STUDENT (with our without parental support) get to decline to participate in learning before the LACK of progress becomes the STUDENT’S responsibility?

    the problem with our current system is there is NO MANDATORY out for those students who systematically REFUSE to participate in activities that promote thought, and learning.

    computer, no computer, algorithms or not, learning requires effort and investment by THE STUDENT!

    ANY human who wants to learn has the opportunity!

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  11. DougT says:

    The ideas behind “School of One” are actually quite old. The Bible discusses several pedagogical methods in the book of Deuteronomy. And many religious homeschoolers take these admonitions to heart.

    Whatever your beliefs about the Bible or homeschooling, there are now millions of homeschool graduates out there that would provide real-life data for pedagogical evaluation. And millions more who would be open to longitudinal study.

    Why don’t we look at the effects of homeschooling on educational achievement, socialization, athletic development, personal maturity, and the whole range of IQ and EQ scores, along with subject mastery? There’s a population out there outside the educational establishment who are dedicated to the welfare of their students.

    If you believe in the efficacy of data-driven research, it seems that this is an under-researched sector. That may be due to other biases, but that’s another post.

    - DougT

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  12. Dr. Van Nostrand says:

    @lynn

    Knowledge About the process is the problem, we need a new process and educators have a conflict of interest

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  13. Roger says:

    I don’t know—–since reading Diane Ravitch’s, E.D. Hirsch’s, and Charles Murray’s latest books, along with much of the recent books about the current thinking in psychology, I find it highly unlikely that the confidence of education reformers in the efficacy of “objective measures” of student performance is well-placed. In ten years, I bet we’ll be kicking ourselves for having placed so much emphasis on these supposedly “objective” measures. This isn’t to say that “School of One” is flawed. It may very well be a useful initiative. But as a concerned parent, I have learned to be deeply skeptical of the “experts” who consider test results in reading and math to be the sine qua non of educational achievement.

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  14. Glenn says:

    Just curious – since teaching is so easy and everyone is an expert on how to do it – suppose Arne Duncan were to take over a classroom of impoverished kids in a tough city school. Would he be able to have a lot of those students reach mastery of all subjects? Could he overcome all of the factors working against these students. A teacher is important, but only a small part of many variables.

    And the idea that the only thing that hasn’t changed in 100 years is education is laughable. There are new initiatives and changes every year. There is so much change that no one is ever able to tell if the previous initiative even worked. Plus the technology has changed things immensely. I started less than 20 years ago and made copies with hand-cranked carbon-copy machines. Now computers are a major part of my instruction and evaluation.

    I am very tired of hearing how teachers are the problem. We are the only ones actually in the trenches and trying to educate children. It is impossible to teach a student who does not want to learn, does not value education, or has personal issues that are overwhelming. I have taught honors level classes where all of the students got high test scores and remedial classes where students score extremely low. I can assure you it is a lot harder and more frustrating to teach the latter.

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  15. Natalie says:

    I love it when economists talk about teaching!

    This would never fly in the suburbs – parents would never accept their kids wearing headphones and staring at screens rather than interacting with a teacher. What does that say about these approaches? Might it be that the School of One and other “virtual” approaches are what urban districts are turning to in order to mitigate the impact of students’ disruptive behavior (inconsistent attendance, tardy arrivals, resistant attitudes and general unpreparedness) and to help ensure passing marks on standardized tests? In other words, they are the classroom management tools of last resort. It’s much easier to have 28 (or 35) kids put on headphones and stare at screens than it is to learn as a classroom community — if members of that community aren’t willing or able to sacrifice their individual needs to talk, be late, send text messages, listen to their iPods, sleep and otherwise amuse themselves for the sake of learning. And, as a 15-year veteran of public school teaching, I can assure you that just the notion of such a sacrifice has long ago become quaint in many schools.

    These approaches always seem to involve math. How does this problem solve teaching writing, analyzing texts, engaging in civil conversation about controversial subjects . . .

    And, finally, this is an after-school program. Is it any wonder that the post test scores exceeded the pretest scores? Might it be that it’s not the technology, it’s the additional time and effort spent practicing math skills, rather than being at home “playing video games,” that makes the difference?

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  16. Jackson H says:

    It doesn’t cater to your needs!

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  17. Derick says:

    School of One is great we got to use computers and learn like normal classrooms. Plus we next year we are going to do school of one in classrooms now. If you need to contact me its at boafoderick@yahoo.com

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  18. Uthor says:

    @kristy – You seem to be missing the point of Pandora. It is there to take an artist you like and to expose you to NEW music that you may not have otherwise heard. If you want to only hear music by a specific artist, then I would suggest buying an album from said artist. That’s what albums were designed for.

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  19. Ken says:

    Actually, Pandora, SiriusXM and other services that only expose you to music similar to your tastes, are killing music, as explained in my essay “How Getting Exactly What You Want Is Killing Music”, which you can read at:

    http://dyske.com/paper/859

    PS To Uthor, what you are describing as “new music” is actually just a carbon copy of old music – read the essay to find out why…

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  20. Glenn says:

    Arne Duncan thinks that magnet schools are the answer, yet there is absolutely no evidence that they succeed better than regular public school despite the inherit advantage of having students of parents interested enough in their children’s education to enroll them in one.

    Why no mention that Duncan manipulated the data in Chicago, moved students around to his advantage, etc. to make the numbers work in his favor? Scientifically speaking, he is a charlatan.

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  21. Joe says:

    Am I the only one struck by the horrendous student performance numbers mentioned in the podcast? They start around 8:45 in the podcast. Only 12% of 8th grade math teachers can get 1yr of growth out of 80% of their students. The reading numbers are even worse, around half of that. Only 6% of teachers can get most of their class (80%) to show 1 year of reading improvement after 1 year in their class????

    Why would anyone who can understand those numbers send their kids to this school system or the thousands like it across the country?

    Is their any other institution in America where so many people keep subjecting their children to such a non-productive environment?

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  22. Sander Scott says:

    I am an Elementary Principal at Westwoods Elementary School in Traverse City, MI. I love articles like this — love the concept of “choose your modality”.

    I would also say that professional development — having teachers continue to refine their professional practice through a systematic process of practice–reflect–share–reflect–practice is the single-most effective strategy to improve instruction.

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  23. girard31 says:

    What is flawed about both the School of One and Pandora is that both allow you to stay in your box. I can only learn this one way. I only like this kind of music. Both forget that the larger world is at once stimulating and challenging.

    Isn’t this just telling people it’s okay to stay in your comfort zone? I’ve found when you venture outside your comfort zone, it sometimes brings enlightement.

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  24. Lovena says:

    How is the Safety of Seatbelts Like Gun Control?

    this is my freakonomics question for my project please help and comment…

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  25. Dee says:

    @Natalie: Are you kidding me? I have several friends in the suburbs whose kids go to school online. The suburbs are no different than the urban areas in our country. There are parents who care in both areas, and there are parents who think education solely belongs in the hands of the teachers and doesn’t need to involve them in both places. Give me a break!

    As to the podcast, I guess I must be missing something. I grew up a very bright female with ADHD. While I scored consistently at 142 on the IQ tests, I floundered in school. What I needed was someone to teach me in the way that my brain would accept. But I was one of 28 kids in my classes and the teachers simply couldn’t (and some WOULDN’T) tailor their curriculum to help me and a handful of other kids. The result was that I simply stopped trying and all but flunked my way through high school. If it weren’t for my outstanding SAT scores (I grew up in the ghetto in New Jersey with parents who didn’t even speak english when they arrived in the States. So much for standardized testing not working for poor kids in the ‘hoods. We were too poor for private schooling/tutoring to even be an option) I would never have gotten into college. Once in college, I took it slow and did my work my way and excelled. I have to wonder if I had had the opportunity to participate in something like the School of One, would I have had a better academic record? Would I have been able to actually learn the rudimentary subjects that most of my friends were able to take in and actually absorb? At 40, I am just beginning to find the time to go back and learn things I should have known in the third grade. It embarasses me but at the same time, I refuse to simply go through life in ignorance of so many things that others ‘get’. Maybe this school doesn’t work for all kids, and kids shouldn’t just be dumped into a system because it’s considered the latest and greatest way to learn. But it sure would be nice to know that my child has options. I have always supported the vouchers for education. I would love to know that my child can tour a few schools, and I can help him in finding the one that may be the best fit, even if that one is online, and requiring him to wear a headset.

    But perhaps I’m missing something. Though I have to wonder, if the current system requiring an actual teacher is so great, why is our education still lagging so very far behind from the rest of the civilized world? Their systems seem to be very similar to ours, so where are we going wrong? Goes back to teachers and parents doesn’t it? Obviously the old system isn’t working so what should be done? And should some children be sacrificed (as I feel I was) in order to make it work for the majority?

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  26. Omar says:

    I believe this was a great podcast. I congratulate the “School of One” program and the freaks for showing it to us. For years, it has been clear that many kids do not conform to the usual way of learning and therefore do not do well at all; the system kicks them out. These are the two things that come to mind with this program. 1) Content, and 2) Comprehensive curriculum

    1) Content: I imagine that Pandora groups songs and users using statistical analysis. So, if 1000 people liked these 5 songs and then that other new one, because you liked those 5 songs as well, you would probably like that new one too. Of course, I am being simplistic. Pandora has millions of songs to choose from. The school of one program may not have 1000 ways to teach intermediate algebra skills, not yet at least. An implicit question is how many ways are required. Can there be 5 ways of teaching the same skill at the same level using individualized tutoring? For example; lets say using games, can there be 3 different ones, probably just different in their presentation? I am sure the answer is related with the amount of money available. How to create content that is low cost and is effective at meeting the desired objective e.g. intermediate algebra. Pandora, let’s remember does not “create” the content, only channels it. So, how would we approach that? To get more money, is there the need to partner with other states? countries? Do we tap into the non-profit foundations ala Bill Gates? What other ideas are there?

    2) Comprehensive curriculum: I will use an example to illustrate. In the past farmers used to have free roaming chickens that ate whatever they found. Then, mass production and competition drove farmers to give them grains, and a mix of protein, carbs and fats, and we thought we were done. We then realized that they also needed vitamins and minerals, that were in the original food, but we did not know it. We gave them that and then realized that they needed little pellets to break food, so now we have added that, etc, etc. The point here is that their original diet had many things that were required, like the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, fats, carbs, pellets, etc, that we did not know they ate. We made mistakes on the way, because we thought about it simplistically. In school of one, maybe we teach them algebra, trigonometry, reading, etc, but what about whatever character trait is learned by overcoming being chastised in front of 40 kids. There may be things that kids in the past learned that we do not realize they did. So, creating this alternative curriculum required really smart people tapping into the experience of older and wise teachers. Really, do not overlook this!

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  27. olas10 says:

    Dee,
    Think about poverty and it’s effects on neighborhoods, families and kids.

    Think about kids, and their families access to libraries and books.

    Think about going into a classroom. Now count the engaging, compelling texts for kids to read.

    “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
    — Albert Einstein

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  28. Sue says:

    Pandora? It’s still a radio station. Try Grooveshark.com. It’s everything you describe that you want before you introduced Pandora in your podcast.

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  29. Dave says:

    I laughed each time you said “25 kids.” In California, it’s 32 in elementary and 40 in secondary.

    I also laugh every time one of the commenters says that it’s impossible to teach this kind of kid or that kind of kid. It’s funny because there are schools out there with 100% proficiency with very diverse students.

    In 2009, Crawford Elementary School in Houston, Texas was 100% African American and Hispanic, 100% free and reduced-priced lunch, and 40% English learners yet had 100% proficiency in English, Math, and Science. You could argue that the test was easy or the cut scores were low, but the rich, mono-chromatic schools did not achieve anything near 100% proficiency.

    Sixth Street Prep in Victorville, CA is another example of a highly diverse school scoring FAR above state averages.

    The educational research shows that the teacher is the number one factor that affects student achievement (See Hattie’s “Visible Learning”). Dr. Douglas Reeves says, “The quality of the teacher has 6-10 times more impact on student achievement than ALL other factors combined.” That’s why teachers have to be a huge part of any educational reform. Bill Gates spent more than $1 billion dollars on “Smaller Learning Communities” and recently announced that they don’t work and that he learned that what does work is high-quality instruction. That’s why teachers are at the core of reform.

    It also makes me sick when people say, “We shouldn’t have to teach the way the kid learns, they need to adjust to our teaching style.” How elitist is that?!? A teacher should do whatever it takes to ensure that a student learns even if it means that the teacher has to change the way that they do things.

    But there lies the problem. Michael Fullan points out that when a person is given the choice to change or die, nearly everyone will choose die. Just think about stopping smoking or drinking. When given the choice to stop smoking or die, most people choose “die.” When faced with the choice of reducing consumption of artery-clogging foods or having a heart attack, most choose the latter. He points out that the 5 problems that add up to the highest medical costs are all due to bad habits, not genetics or disease.

    As such, the solution is not to change the millions of teachers who already are in the field, but to change the teacher preparation programs to remodel the system from the bottom up, through the rookies. It’ll take time, but will pay off over about the term of maybe 5 new presidents.

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  30. Kelly says:

    I would love to know what the classical piece playing during the part about the last song the elderly man was listening to as he died was. I know it, i just cant put my finger on it, and its not like i can look it up by the lyrics. Thank you!

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  31. Stephen G. Kennedy says:

    Something in our educational system/s is just not working well enough for enough people. So we have to talk about alternatives, and we have to enter into intelligent and genuine dialogue without too much fear of change. Our children and young people deserve that. Unfortunately, the cynicism in our country and the clinging to routines of the past are making all that difficult.
    There is good research, good thinking, good intention out there right now — as an educator,I applaud any idea that focuses on deep thinking for kids, that shifts the conversation from teaching to learning, and that leads all of us as adults to assume the responsibility for making change that gets schooling out of the bubbling business and into the real world of solving important problems.

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  32. Michael Barker says:

    This was a revelation for me. It made my eyes water. I thought, “If this had of existed when I went to school, there is no telling where I would be now.” You see, I am the square piece that the educational system tried to put in the round hole. By the time I was ten, standardized tests showed that I could read on the tenth grade level. By the time I was twelve, I was essentially a dropout producing consistently poor grades for years.

    I had a hunger to learn but found school confounding. To this day, I still don’t simple math. I have problems with addition, subtraction, multiplication and just forget division. I taught myself algebra, geometry and calculus, however. It is interesting to solve a complex math problem only to botch it because I blew 7 X 8. The calculator saved my butt!

    I now work in a discipline where I troubleshoot complex problems. I even solved one problem because I used an understanding of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

    My point is that school was a hindrance, never a help, because my education could not be tailored to my needs.

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  33. Chris Rogers says:

    Can anyone tell me what the current status and future prospects are for School of One? I discovered the Freakonomics podcast only recently, and I’m going through old episodes. I was especially intrigued by the 5/12/2010 one on SOO (specifically, but customized education generally). I tried to research how things have gone since that episode but was dismayed to find very little. The news page on the SOO site itself (http://schoolofone.org/news/) is quiet. That Joel Rose left the scene in March and planned expansion of the program has been delayed don’t seem to bode well.

    Is SOO SOL?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  34. Bruce Peterson says:

    Wandering Star by Lee Marvin from Paint Your Wagon

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  35. Linda says:

    This podcast upset me on a lot of levels. I’m not a teacher, but my husband is. He teaches algebra to classes of >35 8th grade students all day in LAUSD. He is a very smart man who loves the kids. He has excellent class management skills, and his scores are high, but he is not one of the stellar few with those success numbers because his students are middle to low and often do not come with the needed skills in place.

    As usual, this subject was handled in a vacuum, reduced to the obvious target. Yes, a teacher makes a difference. So does the student, the parents, the administration. The small numbers of successful teachers quoted no doubt have accelerated classes of highly motivated students. That is not reality. Think bell curve.

    And why is it people believe all children desperately WANT to learn if only the right teacher would appear? Most kids want to learn on their own terms, which is not what creates math skills and reading comprehension.

    A drive to work or not work comes from the home environment. Add in that not all cultures value education as highly as family. Add in time spent preparing for unending testing. And magnet siphoning. And nearby schools with the best scores that subtly turn away the kids with problems and send them to you. And the prevailing atmosphere of low work for high reward and responsibilities not taken by parent or student. And the administration changing the game plan every year. Changing good books for bad ones. I can go on.

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