Reading, Rockets and ‘Rithmetic

Space shuttle Discovery sits at Kennedy Space Center earlier this year awaiting its last scheduled launch in November 2010 as the program winds down. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Freakonomics Radio

Reading, Rockets, and ‘Rithmetic: When is the federal government not like the federal government? When it launches a Race to the Top.

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast looks into the Race to the Top education-reform program. (You can subscribe at iTunes, get it by RSS feed or listen live via the box at right.) We argue that the U.S. Department of Education is acting a bit more like a venture capitalist than we’re used to — and that that’s probably a good thing.

Race to the Top is awarding $4 billion in prize money to state education departments to reward reform but also to seed further innovation. It thrives on two elements that government bureaucracies don’t usually employ: competition and experimentation.

Arne Duncan Arne Duncan

So we ask Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, where the idea came from — and whether it was a tough sell, and what kind of results he’s seen so far.

You’ll also hear from some private-sector folks who paved the way for Race to the Top. One of them is Craig Nevill-Manning, an engineering director at Google New York. He’ll tell the story of one of Google’s most interesting (though not widely known) practices called “20 percent time,” and how it led to Google breakthroughs that might otherwise have lain unborn. You may even be typing into one of them right now.

As interesting as Nevill-Manning and Duncan are, the star of the episode is Peter Diamandis. As a kid, all he wanted to do was go into space. Things looked promising: he was born in 1961, just as NASA was flexing its considerable muscles. But as Diamandis aged, so did NASA, and it became less ambitious. He realized that relying on the government to push forward with space travel was a losing bet.

So he decided to do something about it. Inspired by the Orteig Prize, whose $25,000 tempted Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, Diamandis founded the X Prize. Its initial offering: a $10 million prize for the first private team who could build and launch a vehicle that could carry three people to 100 kilometers above the earth. And then do it again, within two weeks. It worked.

DESCRIPTIONRic Francis/Associated Press Bob Weiss, Larry Page, Peter Diamandis and Buzz Aldrin at a ceremony for the Google Lunar X Prize.

That was in 2004. Just last month came the second X Prize: three teams who split another $10 million for building safe, reliable cars capable of traveling 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline, or gas-equivalent energy. The car prize money was put up by Progressive Insurance, the space-travel prize by the Ansari family.

The X Prize Foundation is not alone. According to a recent McKinsey & Co. report called “And the Winner Is …,” more than 60 prizes of at least $100,000 have been launched since 2000, representing nearly $250 million in prize money. Furthermore:

Before 1991, 97% of the value of the big-prize purses that we analyzed was dedicated to awards that recognize prior achievement, such as the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes. But since 1991, 78% of new prize money in this data set has been dedicated to inducement-style prizes that focus on achieving a specific, future goal.

As Peter Diamandis sees it, most big institutions just aren’t inclined toward major-league innovation:

In a government situation, if you tried a bold, crazy idea and it blew up in your face, there’d be a Congressional investigation. In a large corporation, if you did that, there’d be a stock price plummeting. So, really, crazy ideas are in the purview of small companies, entrepreneurs who are willing to risk everything to make their dream come true, literally their lives, their fortunes. And we’ve seen that in our X Prizes where people have mortgaged their homes, or lost their marriages, or risked their lives.”

So this style of innovation may not be for the faint of heart. But in a world where problem-solving is often an exercise in political charades and hyperbolic idiocy, we say: bring on the bold, crazy ideas! And if the government wants to get involved, all the better. (Granted, it’s a bit easier to hold big competitive experiments when you can raise $4 billion in prize money just by dipping into the tax coffers.)

As with any experimentation, there will be lots of failures. (See you at the Congressional investigations!) But if the X Prize, Google and Charles Lindbergh are any indication, Race to the Top at least has a chance of helping a few million schoolkids learn how to fly.

Audio Transcript

Race to the Top


Peter DIAMANDIS: You know, since my childhood I wanted to fly into space.  It was my mission, my passion, my drive, and it was something that I got stirred up in me during the Apollo program.


Stephen J. DUBNER: What year were you born?


DIAMANDIS: So, I was born in ‘61 and Apollo was going on in the late sixties.  We landed on the moon in sixty-nine.  And I was in fifth grade, sixth grade, getting interested in science at that time, started drawing rockets on every piece of paper I could find. And I was an early space cadet.  It was different for me.  I wasn’t just interested, but we have a calling in life, and that was my calling.  


DUBNER: You must have felt that you were born at just the right time initially, right? You’re a kid, this is starting up here, it’s only going to get bigger and better, and then what happened?


DIAMANDIS: And then the bottom fell out.  You know, we got to the moon and then it stopped.  I was decimated by that.  That old biblical saying, the meek shall inherit the earth, I used to finish that by saying the rest of us are going to the stars.  And we didn’t.”


DUBNER: Meet Peter Diamandis. He did get to launch a spaceship. But NASA didn’t have anything to do with it.


DIAMAND: You know, this space program fell away and I was like, how am I going to make this happen, how am I going to go, and ho w is everybody else going to with me? And, by chance a good friend of mine gave me a copy of Lindbergh’s book, Spirit of St. Louis.  And I’m reading this book, and I find out that unbeknownst to me, Lindbergh made the trip across the Atlantic not just on a whim or to prove something to friends, he did it to win a twenty-five thousand dollar prize And I’m making notes in the sides of the margins about how many teams competed, how much money they spent, and I was amazed.  Twenty-five thousand dollars drove four hundred thousand dollars worth of expenditures by nine teams.  And the guy who put up the money only paid the winner.  How cool was that?


DUBNER: Four hundred thousand dollars worth of expenditures by those teams, what kind of value did that produce then in terms of innovation?


DIAMANDIS: So, what was incredible  that when Lindbergh made this flight, he changed the paradigm of what was possible.  The best measurement for that is the year before Lindbergh flew, there were six thousand passengers flying in the United States.  Eighteen months after his flight, there was a hundred eighty thousand, a thirty-fold increase.  You know, he changed the paradigm of, oh my God if this 25-year-old kid can do it, then I can fly too! And really it was the causative creation of a multi-hundred billion dollar aviation industry.  Amazing!”




ANNOUNCER: From American Public Media and WNYC, this is Freakonomics Radio.  Today: Reading, rockets and arithmetic!  A look at how a little bit of competition can travel a long way ----- but can it make it all the way into the classrooms of America’s schoolchildren? Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


DUBNER: The spacecraft that Peter DIAMANDIS was responsible for launching -- he didn’t design it, or build it, or even pay for it. All he did was create a competition. DIAMANDIS runs the X-Prize Foundation, which offers cash prizes -- big ones -- to whoever does the best job of solving whatever challenge the Foundation dreams up. The first prize offered $10 million to anyone who could send a spacecraft, with three people aboard, more then 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, and then come back -- and then do it again within two weeks of that first launch. It worked. When you hear people talking today about the future of commercial spaceflight, they’re talking about the movement DIAMANDIS got started. 


That was back in 2004. One sunny day this past September, in Washington D.C., DIAMANDIS handed out another $10 million, this time to three teams of inventors, each of whom designed a car that is safe, reliable -- and can travel more than 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline, or gas-equivalent energy.


[X-PRIZE: Today we are living in a day and time when literally anything is possible a spaceship ... educate, or how we feed the country ... ]


DUBNER: That’s right. The X-Prize Foundation is looking at education and poverty -- and a long list of other challenges too, from curing AIDS to predicting earthquakes. Another moon landing too. As Diamandis would say: How cool is that?!


But the coolest part is how the incentives work. The X-Prize Foundation gets someone else to put up the prize money -- the spaceship sponsor was the Ansari Family; the 100 mile-per-gallon or car was sponsored by Progressive Insurance -- and then they only have to pay the winners. All the other ideas get thrown in for free.


It’s not surprising that this kind of competition is catching on.  According to McKinsey, the consulting firm, more than $250 million has been handed out, for 60 new prizes, in the last 10 years, by all kinds of sponsors for all kinds of innovations.


In fact, on that same sunny day in September when the Progressive X-Prize was being announced, at the same time, also in Washington D.C., there was another prize ceremony was going on, with an even bigger handout -- billions of dollars.


This ceremony was at the Department of Education. Secretary Arne Duncan was announcing the winners of the “Race to the Top” education-reform plan. Eleven states, and the District of Columbia, will share more than $4 billion in prize money to invest in their school systems.


Wait a minute, wait a minute: a multi-billion dollar government prize for states and their schools to compete for?


Arne DUNCAN: I’m Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education.


DUBNER: So I want to know where the Race to the Top idea came from, who designed it?  I know that you’re a big basketball dude, I picture you home on your couch watching Final Four and thinking, hey that’s what we need, a winners bracket for education.  But I’m guessing it didn’t really happen like that, right?


DUNCAN: No, there’s a set of folks that just fundamentally believe that the status quo wasn’t good enough, and the only way to challenge the status quo is to give people rewards for success.  So, there may be some sports analogies there, but one of the things that really influenced me, was in the Chicago public schools receiving a teacher incentive fund grant from the Department of Education, which was very important and helped us change our behavior in Chicago in ways that would never have happened without that incentive.


DUBNER: Now who did you have to sell the idea to of Race to the Top?


DUNCAN: It wasn’t a hard sell.  Everybody knows that we have to get better, everybody shares the same sense of urgency, and political leaders, educators, folks from day one absolutely understood that this is the right thing to do.


DUBNER: That may be so, but forgive me for saying so, it doesn’t seem like a very governmental thing to do on some level, asking states to compete against each other for federal education funding.  You do after all run the Department of Ed. for the United States of America government.  So, why do you want to set these states against one another, why set up the competition?


DUNCAN: Because I fundamentally think that you not setting states against each other, this is really a test of each state’s courage, commitment, and most importantly their capacity to deliver dramatically better results for students, for their state’s children.  So this wasn’t about this state versus that state, this is about states looking within themselves ... And even the states that didn’t receive money, virtually every governor, every state school chief officer that I’ve talked to have all said we’re moving forward with or without the money.  So what this has done, this has moved the entire country; this isn’t about a couple states that received money. This is about a national movement to get our country where we need to go educationally.”


DUBNER: So it’s one thing to have states compete against one another.  Or aerospace engineers.  But how do you deliver on that, how do you make sure you get, like Arne Duncan wants, “dramatically better results?” How do you know you’re not just ... flushing billions of dollars into space?


In just a minute, we’ll hear from one company that has made experimentation a routine part of its employees’ workdays. You’ve maybe heard of this company? It’s called Google...




ANNOUNCER: We’re back with Freakonomics Radio from WNYC and American Public Media. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


DUBNER: Sure, setting up a multi-million dollar prize is going to get the attention of inventors, even educators. But what next? Yes, it was a cash prize that got Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic. But how do you get the Wright Brothers to invent the airplane in the first place?


Craig NEVILLE-MANNING: My name is Craig Neville Manning, and I’m an engineering director here in Google New York.


DUBNER: Craig Nevill-Manning was one of Google’s first 250 employees. Which means that -- yes, he’s worth a few bucks -- but also that he’s been promoted a couple of times. So he no longer just sits in a cubicle writing code.


NEVILLE-MANNING: I find that if I’m having a tough day with a bunch of meetings and emails, I can restore my sanity by actually writing some code.  So I sort of force myself to do it from time to time.


DUBNER: Whereas for the average human being that would destroy what little sanity they had.


NEVILLE-MANNING: We’re a weird group.


DUBNER: Yes you are, yes you are.


DUBNER: The engineers at Google have a particular incentive to experiment on the job. Given the success of the company, it’s surprising more firms haven’t copied it. It’s called ‘20 percent time.’


NEVILLE-MANNING: So twenty percent time means that any Google engineer can take twenty percent of their time, say it’s one day a week, or one month in five, and do with that time something that they think is important for the company or for the world, regardless of whether their manager thinks it’s a good idea.  And it’s really a way for our engineers to come up with a creative idea and then put that idea into practice, to build a small prototype. ... I feel like lots of ideas that people have, most of them are bad, and you never find that out until you actually try to put them into practice.  And when you do, you probably think of a different idea that’s a much better idea.  And so having that kind of freedom to experiment is important.


DUBNER: When did twenty percent time start to happen?


NEVILLE-MANNING: Right from the beginning.


DUBNER:  Why? How?


NEVILLE-MANNING: I don’t know whose idea it was in the very first place, but I think Google came out of academia.  Larry Page and Sergey Brin were PHD students at Stanford, and I think that academic ethos of you should always be trying new stuff because you need to do that to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  And they thought that was important, because I think they saw that Google would go beyond just a search engine, which it has.  And even for the search engine itself you need to come up with different ideas, because the technology has changed over the last ten, twelve years. 


DUBNER: Tell me, what are the greatest hits then that have come out of twenty percent time at Google?


NEVILLE-MANNING: Well G-Mail was one of an engineer who worked on the main search engine and then accumulated a certain amount of time and decided, you know, what we really need to do is revolutionize email.  That was Paul Buchheit.


DUBNER: Now, let me ask you this, had Paul not done that, had he not taken his twenty percent time and come up with that, would Google have gotten to gmail?


NEVILLE-MANNING: It’s hard to know honestly. There’s strong possibility that we wouldn’t have.


DUBNER: So for all the world that’s out there, probably half our listeners are now G-Mail users, they’re thinking “holy cow,” if Google didn’t have this arcane 20 percent policy, my life would be a little bit worse.




DUBNER: Think about it for a minute. At most institutions, you have a lot of meetings. You ask 20 people to mark their calendars, then put them in a conference room for an hour, and try to come up with an idea. That’s 20 person-hours -- and one idea. Google’s 20-percent time flips that model. Instead of one idea out of those 20 person-hours, you get twenty ideas. Sure, most of them will fail. That’s what happens when you experiment. But some won’t fail. And now you’ve got something else: a culture of experimentation.


That’s what Google has built. That’s what the X-Prize Foundation is after, using competition as a lever. And that’s what the U.S. Department of Education is tapping into with Race to the Top.


During the application process, states had to show that they were already trying new things, whether it was modernizing their labor agreements or using more rigorous means to measure student data -- and teacher data. Public education is a big machine; it won’t change overnight. But has Race to the Top produced any changes yet?


DUNCAN: I’ll give you four.


DUBNER: Here’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan again.


DUNCAN: One, is thirty-six states to date have adopted college and career ready standards. Secondly, we hav  e forty-four states who are now working together in two different groups to come up with the next wave of assessments that will be much better with students, much, much better for teachers, give them real time information in terms of what students are actually learning, not just what’s being taught.  Third, we saw a couple dozen states remove impediments to innovative schools, remove those barriers legislatively.  And finally, I was fascinated; I learned a lot coming to Washington.  One of the things I learned is that we actually had states that had laws on their books, actual laws that prohibited the linking of student achievement to teacher evaluation.  Imagine that. Well, every single one of those laws are now gone.  So, those four things have all happened already, and I think the country will never go back to where it was before.”


DUBNER: Now Duncan gets to sit back and see what happens to the experiments he’s funding. He’s the Education Secretary-as-venture-capitalist, spreading the seed money around, placing big bets on the most promising startups he can identify. One state he’ll watch is Maryland. It’s getting $250 million in Race to the Top money.


Nancy GRASMICK: Nancy Grasmick, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools.


DUBNER: Grasmick says her state is making drastic changes to get the Race to the Top money. Math and English teachers are getting graded based on student success. And Maryland, by virtue of being a winning state, gets to join a broader group of elite experimenters:


GRASMICK: One of the excitements for us is the ability to work with other states, as they are grappling with this, so we can benefit from the knowledge base that we have in all of the winning states.”



The fact is that Maryland is drafting off two earlier Race to the Top winners, Delaware and Tennessee. They both drew up plans to more closely link teacher pay to student performance. 


In Delaware, that’s Peter Shulman’s job.  He’s head of the Delaware Dept. of Education’s Teacher-Leader Effectiveness Unit -- a name that only a government could love. He’s 35 years old but he came to education late, after working on a web start-up and earning an MBA from Wharton.  Giving a guy like him a job like this is, in itself, an experiment.


 DUBNER: Now what are your Wharton MBA buddies doing, most of them?


Peter SHULMAN: Not this. You have as the traditional stereotypes would apply. You have Wall Street folks, you have real estate, you have a big strong health care factor. And you have those that chosen to start their own businesses.


 DUBNER: And when you tell them that you are running the Delaware Department of Education Teacher-Leader Effectiveness Unit, if you do tell them that, I assume you do, what do they say to you?


SHULMAN: So, I get a variety of responses...some say that’s terrific work. That’s terrific to work in such a civic minded arena that we really believe needs help in this country. Others roll their eyes and say, to summarize, they don’t think change can be made and they think I’m wasting my time.


 DUBNER: What I’m guessing, some of them might also so you’re taking your skills and the way that you learned to think by getting an education like an MBA from a place like Wharton. And bringing that into a realm where those skills, and that way of thinking, traditionally, hasn’t been appreciated. So tell me, now that you’ve had a foot in each world, how much does what you are doing now in the Department of Ed, in Delaware, resemble the work you’ve done in the private sector?


SHULMAN: There are many parallels. I think that when you talk about using analytics, driving for efficiency, putting forth a continuous improvement model. These are aspects that work, I think, in any organization. Both private sector. As well as government. But what’s interesting about education is, to bring in an army of folks, like myself, would not work. It has to be a confluence of traditional educators and then potentially meet them with skills that have been obtained through the private sector, or some skills that have been obtained in other organizations.”


DUBNER: So new ideas are coming to schools, driven by a kind of thinking -- and even a kind of person -- that isn’t usually found in a government bureaucracy. Not everyone’s going to like it


DIMANDIS: If you want to cause a true breakthrough the day before something is really a breakthrough it’s a crazy idea. 



Here’s Peter Diamandis again, from the X-Prize Foundation.


DIAMANDIS: If it weren’t a crazy idea it wouldn’t be a breakthrough it would be an incremental improvement.  And so the question is where in our government and large corporations do we allow for crazy, risky ideas to be tried? In a government situation, if you tried a bold, crazy idea and it blew up in your face, there’d be a congressional investigation.  In a large corporation, if you did that, there’d be a stock price plummeting.  So, really, crazy ideas are in the purview of small companies, entrepreneurs who are willing to risk everything to make their dream come true, literally their lives, their fortunes.  And we’ve seen that in our X Prizes where people have mortgaged their homes, or lost their marriages, or risked their lives.”


DUBNER: That’s a little scary. But hey: in the real world, there are real risks. You want winners? There’ll be losers too. You want a new solution, a new technology, a new education system? There’s going to be a whole lot of people -- noisy, well-funded, entrenched people -- whose only goal is to defend the status quo.


So bring on the crazy, risky ideas. This cocktail of competition and experimentation -- it has the potential to really change things, to fix things. Of course it’ll be messy. Of course there’ll be failures.


But maybe it’s worth thinking about carving out some 20-percent time in your own life -- within your family, your company, your military unit, your school, even your government bureaucracy. It’s inspiring! Maybe we should start a Freakonomics Prize -- right now. Just think of the problems we could solve:


Like, how do you get doctors to do a better job washing their hands in hospitals ... How do you change the incentive structure for politicians so they’re looking out for the public’s long-term interests rather than their own short-term interests ... How do I get my son to put the seat up when he pees ... What would happen if you could could take a bunch of monkeys and teach them to use money, create a regular monkey economy, and then just sit back and see how they spent it? What would that tell us about how we spend money ...





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  1. RandFan says:

    Why should the government have to be in the role of venture capitalist? Why not let the real venture capitalists find a market-based solution to our education problem. Why not? Because that would mean de-centralizing control of education in this country. The nostalgic fairy tale of an effective, cost-efficient, state-run public education system churning out hard-working, patriotic, tax-paying citizens is an American shibboleth that refuses to wither no matter how mediocre the actual product.

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  2. ezra abrams says:

    This stuff sounds good, but it is really rightwing politics disguised as helping our kids.
    First of all, public education for the well to do is
    My kids attend school in Newton, MA, and I can assure you in towns like newton – towns where the upper middle class and wealth live – public education is great.
    So this isreally about making the poor work harder; rather then tax the rich, and help remove some of the barriers to making public schools for the poor work (like, say, doing something about guns, or providing housing, or…) we say to the poor, hey, its good old Dickensian economics – if your are hungry and your teeth are hurting cause your parents can’t afford dentistry, that will make you work harder.
    As to that crap about gov’t not being inventive, and the private sector being more inventive – anyone who uses google as an example of hte private sector is
    google is the antithesis of hte private sector because they are a de facto monopoly, and can do the things that only de facto monopolys can do, which is give employees time to think…
    which sort of validates the idea that this whole private enterprise/competition thing doesn’t work and is just propaganda for the right wing billionaires whose idea of full employment is us as maids and butlers on their estates…..

    As for all that prize stuff…it makes a great story, and like most great storys we learn as kids, no one ever questions it.
    I wonder if you go and actually look at what scholars have written about the lindbergh flight, you will probably find that the time “was ripe” the technology had matured to the point that it was doable…

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  3. the hub says:

    race to the top has nothing to do with children directly… it is based on administrators and school boards ideas of how to reform programs to help school children.. not really that innovative if you ask me.

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  4. Education Consultant says:

    RTTP simply reinforces the stratification that already exists in American public education. We need a Marshall Plan revitalize and reimagine all of our public education systems, rather than lavishing funds on a few already-competitive systems.

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  5. Haitch76 says:

    Race to the top is like the war in Afghanistan–a senseless waste of money for a wrong headed idea. Lawyer Arne Duncan is spending scads of money based on the fragile reed of standardized tests–tests that are gamed by the likes of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.

    Look at the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada’s idea of what might make Harlem’s students into productive citizens insteads of drop-outs. He spends endless amount of rich folks’s cash and achieves in 2010 substandard results (See NYTmes, Oct 13, 2010). Along the way, NYState standardized tests are gamed.

    And the story finally comes out: No, it’s not true that Canada’s Harlem Zone Students outperformed tony Scarsdale, as previous NYS standardized test indicated. –it’s just that they tests were studied in advance and answers were almost identical form year to year. Canada’s student studied the test and did well. The new 2010 NYS test, was changed,was not given out,and proved a telling point–Harlem Zone did not do well.

    Harlem Zone is all about small class size, 2 teachers in a room, auxiliary services, longer school year–and these services didn’t do the trick.

    What might work!
    How about affordable housing and stable jobs for parents? It’s no small thing that there is a high correlation between SAT scores and family income, heck, there is high correlation between zip codes and SAT scores. The richer the parents, and hence the better neighborhood they live in, the better the score. Many a college admissions officer has followed this simple rubric.

    For the most part, our so-called “failing schools” occur in impoverished minority/immigrant parts of the urban landscape. That should tell you something; poverty can have a debilitating impact on educational achievement ! Students of poverty move often, have poor job prospects and, as a result, often drop out. High school drop-out rates in urban high schools in often 50%.

    Give parents jobs, provide affordable housing, provide a career path for impoverished students and you have the means of solving the problem. Who will pay for it? Many well to do philanthropists are now pouring money into “failing schools.” So far, they have not come up with the right solution to the problem. A jobs and housing program might be just such a solution.

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  6. jokey says:

    Race to the top is nothing more then vote buying, paying off teachers unions in sympathetic districts. There isn’t one honest education expert that can honestly say money is the problem with the US education system.

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  7. fsm says:

    How interesting to read RandFan claim that the a good state-run public education system is a fairy tale immediately after reading that the US ranks in the 20s/30s in education — that is, right behind 20-30 countries that have *stronger* start-run public education systems than we do.

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  8. twicker says:

    Methinks you don’t understand how VC works. Having lived in that world for awhile (by being part of a few VC-funded companies, and others that decided to move away from VC funding), I can tell you that schools are precisely the *opposite* of the ultra-high-growth startup companies that VCs look for. They’re precisely the wrong fit for a fund that’s trying to produce the types of returns they try to produce. If any have tried to find a highly-scalable solution that was likely to succeed, and have thrown money at that “solution,” I’m betting they’ve failed (think “Edison Schools/EdisonLearning”).

    You may know “Atlas Shrugged,” but that’s not the real world of finance (or of starting up a corporation, for that matter). You might get some angel investors biting, as they can generally take a longer-term approach, but VC? Not a chance (especially after the implosion of the Edison Schools).

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