Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?

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Teacher quality has a huge impact. So how can we identify, educate and reward the good ones? (photo: Ethan Pines)

Teacher quality has a huge impact. So how can we identify, educate and reward the good ones? (photo: Ethan Pines)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is a rebroadcast of our episode “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

The gist: If U.S. schoolteachers are indeed “just a little bit below average,” it’s not really their fault. So what should be done about it?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Free Love” (from Blueprint of Soul)

Hello my fellow Freaks. The episode you’re about to hear is called “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” In my humble opinion, it’s a really good episode. But you’ll be the judge. It originally aired in November of 2014, but I think you’ll find it very relevant to the increasingly intense conversation we’re all having these days about education, and not just in the U.S.

Also, I wanted to give you a heads-up on something else. As you may know, I host another, non-Freakonomics podcast, called Question of the Day, with my friend James Altucher. And all this week, our special guest co-host is none other than – well, here:

STEPHEN DUBNER: Hey James, give me an “M.”


DUBNER: Give me an “A.”


DUBNER: Give me an “N.”


DUBNER: Give me an “Oush”.


DUBNER: Give me a “Zomorodi.” Manoush Zomorodi is joining us in the studio today. Hi, Manoush.


DUBNER: Thanks for playing Question of the Day with us.

ZOMORODI: Oh, it’s my pleasure!

That’s right, it’s Manoush Zomorodi, the host of WNYC Studios’ hit podcast Note to Self. Note to Self is all about using technology in the most productive and purposeful ways you can. So when Manoush sits down with James and me on Question of the Day, we’ll get into this stuff:

ZOMORODI: I have lots of ethical issues with Facebook. 

DUBNER: Give me your top three.

You’ll also see just how much Note to Self and Question of the Day have in common:

ZOMORODI: Oh, God. I just completely disagree with you.

And, of course, we talk about motherhood.

ZOMORODI: Then I went into the vortex of motherhood and was screwed so badly for years.

ALTUCHER: Yeah, motherhood like sucks, from what I could tell.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, those years where nobody’s sleeping are really, really bad.

DUBNER: I just want to register my vote in favor of motherhood.

So, that’s all this week on my other podcast, Question of the Day, featuring guest host Manoush Zomorodi, from WNYC Studios’ Note to Self. You can subscribe to Question of the Day – and Note to Self – at iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. And now, from Freakonomics Radio: “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?”

MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators, “The Clamjammer” (from Harlem Mad)

JOEL KLEIN: I read somebody said it’s as hard to get into an ed. school in Finland as it is to get into M.I.T.

That’s Joel Klein; he knows a little bit about schools, and education, and education schools.

KELIN: I’m now the CEO of Amplify, which is an education technology company started by News Corp.  Before that for a little over eight years, I was the schools chancellor in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Klein has rolled his education experience into a new book called Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. That bit he mentioned about ed. schools in Finland? He was citing Amanda Ripley, who wrote a book called The Smartest Kids in the World.

AMANDA RIPLEY: To get into education college in Finland is like getting into M.I.T. in the United States. And imagine what could follow if that were true here.

Imagine what could follow if that were true here.

KLEIN: They’ve created a set of expectations, brought people into the field, and there’s nothing like self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it’s not that hard to get into an education school in the U.S., not that hard to become a school teacher. As a result, U.S. teachers are, well …

DANA GOLDSTEIN: They’re just a little bit below average.

That’s Dana Goldstein. She’s written a book called The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

GOLDSTEIN: And that is unusual compared to a lot of the nations that we compare ourselves to, whether it’s Japan or South Korea or Finland. You often hear in Finland as a comparison that the typical public-school teacher graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class.  

KLEIN: We’re taking more and more people from the bottom half or even the bottom third of their college graduating class. And that’s always seemed to me to be a big mistake.

We’ve all heard the depressing numbers: when compared to kids from other rich countries, U.S. students are also little bit below average — especially in math — even though we spend more money per student than most other countries. So, is the problem here as simple as adding two plus two and getting four? Is the problem here that our students aren’t getting very bright in school simply because our teachers aren’t very bright?

MUSIC: Jessica Lurie, “Dreamsville” (from Zipa Buka! Watch Out Noise)

Okay, let’s start with a few caveats. When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher. In any case, the subject of teacher skill has taken over the education debate.

BARACK OBAMA: Teachers matter.  So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. 

That’s President Obama from his 2012 State of the Union speech. And this is John Friedman:

JOHN FRIEDMAN: Our article was first posted online right at the beginning of January 2012, which was actually two days after my first son was born.

Friedman is an economist who works on public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The article he’s talking about is called, “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood.”

FRIEDMAN: And our paper got a lot of attention and I was juggling, trying to help my wife care for a newborn and deal with various people who wanted to talk, and it was late one night, 9:45, we had put our son to bed and I was running out to Babies “R” Us to pick up some diapers and I flipped on the radio and I heard the President on the State of the Union start to talk about education.  And I said, well, you know, it’s been getting a lot of attention, maybe he’ll mention it, maybe not, but you know, probably not. And he just got closer and closer to the topic and soon enough there it was. A quarter of a million dollars for a better teacher, just said it right there. It was a pretty amazing day.


OBAMA: We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.  A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.  Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives.  


FRIEDMAN: You know, a lot of the time academics work to get their work published in academic journals or to get their work cited by their colleagues. And to see policy-relevant work being cited by the President, it just gave me a real great feeling that people out there were listening to what we were working on.

MUSIC: Das Vibenbass, “Reference Check” (from Fodakis)

Not only were people listening, the paper that Friedman wrote – along with co-authors Raj Chetty and Jonah Rockoff – became the chief topic of conversation in the never-ending debate about education reform. Friedman himself wound up working for several months as a White House adviser. Here is the paper’s central argument:

FRIEDMAN: We find it useful to think about a really great teacher, a top five percent teacher, coming into a school and replacing a teacher who was average. Now that substitution, for just a single classroom, will increase the future earnings of those students by nearly $1.5 million over the course of their careers. And of course a lot of that money will come far in the future, so if you’re worried about discounting, $1.5 million over their careers is the same thing as a quarter of a million dollars deposited in the bank that same year to accrue interest and let the students consume more over their lives. But it’s not just that students earn higher wages, we also see that they’re more likely to go to college, they’re more likely to not just get high-paying jobs but high-quality jobs, they’re more likely to live in high-quality neighborhoods, and even for female students we see that they’re less likely to have children as teenagers.

That doesn’t sound exactly revolutionary, does it? A great teacher is better than an average teacher. And, furthermore, the gains of great teaching amplify over the course of a student’s lifetime. Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor, also sees this:

KLEIN: Well, I have no doubt that what matters most is the teacher in the classroom. The K-12, kindergarten to 12th grade system, in America is a system that’s driven by teachers and the quality of teaching, which affects not only the sort of content and knowledge that a child acquires, the skills a child develops, but really at a human level, the confidence, the maturation and so forth. So at the top of the heap for me would always be teachers.

DAVID LEVIN: Teachers are the absolute most important people in our educational system.

That’s David Levin, a former teacher and co-founder of the KIPP schools. KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power Program. It began in 1994; it’s now a national network of public schools, generally regarded as very high-performing.

LEVIN: When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Forget The Math” (from Entre Nous)

OK, so if the teacher’s role is so important, and if a great teacher is so much more effective than a not-great teacher, the solution is easy, isn’t it? Find more great teachers. Or maybe do a better job of preparing teachers to be great. And, while we’re at it, maybe we should also raise teacher salaries?

We’re going talk about all those ideas as we move forward, but let’s begin by going back, to the beginning of the teaching profession in the U.S.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, a lot of people don’t realize that in 1800, teaching in a public school in front of say mixed-gender groups of children was considered a job that was really only appropriate for men. And that changed over the course of the 19th century.

DUBNER: And why was that at the time?

GOLDSTEIN: It was considered very public. You were very public, you were very out there. You’re earning money in a public way and in front of mixed-gender…

DUBNER: So inappropriate.

GOLDSTEIN: Inappropriate. Inappropriate, especially for a middle-class white woman to do that type of work. And I write in the first chapter of the book about Catherine Beecher; she was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister. Came from a strong, socially committed, abolitionist family. And the way she sort of conceived of teaching was that because women were natural-born mothers — they were biologically suited to spending time with children — that they would be wonderful teachers in the classroom as well. And she’s interested in this because she decides that she’s not going to get married, and she would like to have something interesting to do with her life other than kind of be an old maid, which is this horrible 19th century stereotype of the single woman. So, she would like single women to have a socially useful role in the young, American, democratic experiment in the early 19th century. And she conceives of public school teaching as the way to do that. And policy makers like Horace Mann, who is considered the founder of our public-school system, this is very attractive to them.

DUBNER: On an economic level, yes?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, for pragmatic reasons. I mean, if you’re going to make public schooling compulsory, which did not happen across all the states until the late 19th century — if you’re going to do that — you need many more teachers. And you can pay women 50 percent as much. So this kind of feminine, modesty, morality, argument—

DUBNER: Loses out to utilitarianism.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, Catherine Beecher makes this argument and then male politicians, they love this because it sounds really good, but it’s also cheap.

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MUSIC: Vunt Foom, “Beatcutter” (from Sub Valve Release)

KLEIN: I went to kindergarten through graduating from high school in public schools in Brooklyn and Queens. That was from 1951 through 1963.

DUBNER: When I think of those years — in New York City particularly, but in U.S. public education generally — I think of them as a kind of golden era. Was that a golden era of public-school education?

KLEIN: On the one hand, we expected so much less from education in those days. And what I mean by that — it always struck me — when I started public school in New York City in 1951, Stephen, approximately 16 percent of America’s workforce were high school dropouts. Today that number is probably five, six percent and declining. So, in some respects what we expected from education was different. But I do think in other respects it was a golden era, in that during that period, certainly my experience, and I think nationally the experience was, that teachers — particularly women teachers, not having the kind of opportunities they have today — would draw really high quality people into the field. That’s not an argument for denying women opportunities, but the beneficiary of the sexism that was taking place were very high-quality, talented women went to work.

This is the brain-drain theory of U.S. teaching. It argues that as well-educated women started having the opportunity to becoming lawyers and doctors and engineers, the talent pool for teachers got shallower. And, relative to those other professions, teaching became a relatively low-paying profession.

GOLDSTEIN: So, the median income for the American public-school teacher is about $54,000 per year. And actually if you look at the median incomes for teachers in other nations, it’s not that different. However, what economists have said about this is you can’t just look at the salary itself; you have to look at the gaps between what college-educated workers in different fields make. So for example in the United States, the difference between what an attorney makes and what a teacher makes is much larger than the difference between the typical attorney and the typical teacher in Finland or South Korea, or the typical teacher and the typical engineer, a much smaller difference in South Korea than in the United States.

LEVIN: In general KIPP teachers will be making more. I mean, they’re working longer hours, so they’re making more money for that time. And as a society, you know, we have to start thinking, yes we have to start paying teachers more and recognizing that there will be professions that pay more. What else can we do to make teaching as respected a profession as possible? I mean, and you know, one of my favorite ideas is for teachers who continue to teach past their fifth year that we consider some type of tax break and tax incentive for them including the possibility that they don’t pay income tax, recognizing that we won’t always be able to pay teachers more. But there are ways that we can say to teachers, “Hey, you are a national treasure, you are essential to the future of the country.” And I think if we got serious about that it could really make a huge difference. Even little things — I know it sounds little but we have armed forces you know, board airplanes first. Well, why not have armed forces and teachers board airplanes first? You know, I just think there are lots of ways we could think about valuing the teaching profession more.

MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Soul To Go” (from City Stoopin’)

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MUSIC: Peter Mulvey, “Brady Street Stroll” (from The Knuckleball Suite)

We’ve been talking about teacher skill in the U.S., and how important that is.

GOLDSTEIN: If you look back through all the different education reforms we’ve tried in American history, they’ve almost always been motivated by our fears of the worst teachers. So, we start from the assumption that our teachers are failing, and we know they’re often not doing as well as we want them to. And then we decide that we would like to get them out — so, find ways to weaken their job security to get them out of the classroom and also to bring a new cadre of teachers in who are going to do better. And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

LEVIN: Yeah, I mean I think there are a tremendous number of amazing teachers everywhere in the county. And you know, the success of KIPP from the beginning has been able to recruit them to come work with us, to help them grow and become even better and then to have them stay with us over time. And all of which we’ve worked really hard at. And I think there are a couple of key aspects to what makes our teachers successful. One is this combination of head and heart. What I mean by that is the ability to simultaneously deliver rigorous content — consider that the “head” part — while also simultaneously motivating and engaging kids to care deeply about themselves, their future, and the content that’s been delivered — consider that the “heart” piece. It’s the real combination of rigor with joy that I think KIPP teachers are exceptional at and we spend a lot of time working on. And in addition to that, I think is there’s this recognition at KIPP that character and academics are interwoven in every minute of every day with everything that happens. And so there’s an old James Baldwin quote, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but have never failed to imitate them.” And I think our teachers take that incredibly seriously. And so if we’re expecting our kids to work hard and be nice, our teachers believe that they need to do the same. If we’re expecting our kids to love math and reading, then teachers need to show the same love of math and reading.   

DUBNER: Talk to me for just a minute about how teaching is taught generally in the country. I’d especially like it if you could talk about it in light of the kind of common thought experiment, I’m sure you’ve heard it, if you went to sleep 120, 130 years ago and woke up today, almost everything in the world would have changed except for the classroom where there is one teacher up in front of 20 or 30 kids with a chalkboard and so on. And I’m curious what you think about how teaching is generally taught in this country, and if it’s found lacking, which I assume you’ll say it is, whether that’s because it’s stuck in the past or maybe because it’s a lot harder problem than we think.

LEVIN: So, I think yes, the way we train teachers is fundamentally broken in this country. And I think that’s true on three levels. So, 1) it’s disproportionately theory-based. And so you’ll learn about theories of child development, you’ll learn about theories of math instruction, or theories of reading instruction. And all of that is actually important. It’s just I’m not sure of like what good the theory of math instruction is if you don’t actually know how to deliver a lesson on math as well. 2) we have two problems with the way we approach content in this country. There is no doubt that content is queen and king. So the importance of content mastery in the classroom is absolutely essential. Having said that, sometimes the best math teachers weren’t necessarily the best math students, because you know you often teach better what you weren’t so good at, because you actually had to work to learn it. And yet, very often you have to have a certain number of college credits in math in order to be a math teacher. There is truth to that for sure when you get to the more complicated and higher levels. At K-8 level, however, you need to be able to deliver the content. You need to have a mastery over that, and that isn’t necessarily meaning you had a math degree in order to be able to teach fractions. You just need to be able to actually understand the nuances behind fractions. And right now, we’re assuming that if you have a math degree you can teach math as opposed to you know being taught the content. The third problem with the way teachers are trained is that we are not training teachers right now to meet the challenges of our kids today, right? So to this extent we are sort of still training teachers for classrooms of the past. So we’re not teaching teachers well enough how to effectively differentiate for the vast range of skills the kids have. We’re not teaching teachers effectively enough how to use technology to further teaching. And we’re not teaching teachers how to make school relevant for what kids are really needing to succeed in the colleges they may go to or the careers they may pursue 20 years from now.

DUBNER: So, when you say that the way we teach teachers is fundamentally broken and then you describe these dimensions on which it’s not working, I guess my next question is a very obvious one, which is: why? I mean, you know, in most areas of higher ed., the curriculum and methodology and pedagogy adapts over time. I mean, the way computer science is taught now is really different than the way it was taught 30 years ago. And  the failings that you describe, they sound maybe hard to address, but not complicated. So why hasn’t the teaching of teachers evolved?

LEVIN: So, why hasn’t this changed? One interesting metaphor there is like the bar exam, where people study and cram for the bar exam because they need to pass it to get their credential. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect what they do then when they go to practice it. But education is even worse because you get your master’s then you go practice and there’s no reverse accountability. And if you think about computer science, the example you gave, if you have coders who aren’t up on their recent code, those people aren’t going to get hired. And so there’s a feedback loop there. Or if doctors aren’t trained on the current medicines, people aren’t going to go to those doctors. So there’s a feedback loop there. But in education that feedback loop doesn’t exist. Teachers go into the classroom—

DUBNER:  And why? I mean, is it partly because — are we seeing the backside of the fact that teaching is a public institution, a government institution, governments just have different ways of verifying and qualifying people than does private practice?

LEVIN: So, why is that? I think there are a couple of reasons. It has been historically very, very hard to evaluate and remove ineffective teachers. How you’re trained and your future performance have been very, very disconnected. Now there’s been a big push recently over around teacher evaluation and teacher accountability. But people still aren’t really connecting the entire cycle between the recruiting, developing, and retaining of teachers. Teaching is, arguably one of the most important professions in our country and it’s still a divided conversation, right? So we talk about developing teachers. But if you listen to the public conversation it’s mainly about teacher evaluation, retention, not recognizing that who you bring in and how you train them leads to their future performance. And so that disconnect I think is remains like a huge, huge, problem. And there’s no incentive for schools of ed. to change.

MUSIC: Fooling April, “Too Late” (from Three)

That’s why Levin decided to help start a new kind of graduate school to educate teachers.

LEVIN: The Relay Graduate School of Education — I was one of the co founders along with Norman Atkins and Desha Tull. Norman Atkins from Uncommon Schools. And Daesha Tull from Achievement First. And we basically felt that there was a disconnect between the way our teachers were getting trained in the graduate schools around New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut and their performance in the classroom. And so what we thought is that you could create a more productive union between theory and practice and that you could have people who are teaching teachers who are still connected to students either as teachers or as principals. And what started in New York has now grown in New Jersey, and New Orleans, Houston. It is a two years master’s program where the enrolled teachers need to show student proficiency in order to earn their masters.

DUBNER: Give me some specifics on that. What kind of proficiency do they need to show and how does it differ from the standard ed. school?

LEVIN: So, in the standard ed. schools you don’t need to show any proficiency, by and large. Your master’s defense might include writing a paper or delivering a project. Now, this is actually changing in real time. There are places now where to get a master’s you do need to start demonstrating the applicability of that in a classroom. But for us, it is a variety of measures that teachers can use. So, some of it, if you teach third through eighth grade in New York, for example you can use the state test, and you can use your value-added to demonstrate that kids have made a year’s worth of progress. If you teach K-2, you can use the Step Assessment or Fountas and Pinnell. But either way there has to be some demonstrable way that you’ve shown student growth. And for folks who teach other subjects, such as the humanities or the sciences, part of what they do is they outline how they’re going to show that growth at the beginning of their second year. And then that progress is measured. And how is that different? The very existence is the difference.

MUSIC: D. James Goodwin, “Losing Sleep”

The role of education schools also came up when I asked Joel Klein, the former New York schools chancellor, about building a better teacher.

KLEIN: They’ve got to have demanding criteria, they’ve got to support rigorous entry requirements into the profession, whether it’s the equivalent of some form of national exam, or state-by-state exam, but that really test people on the range of skills and talents they need.  

But Klein sees other flaws in the teacher system, besides the ed. schools.

KLEIN:  We’ve got to move away from a trade-union model, which is built on the three pillars of life tenure, seniority and lockstep pay toward a professional model that rewards excellence and greatness. And the third thing that I would say, Stephen in terms of the solution, and this kind of just may be a good tie with my old antitrust days, and that is I think the more choices we give families, the better it’s going to be, whether those are charter-school choices, or traditional public-school choices. And what I mean by that is that everybody that you know, and I suspect most people that listening today have exercised choice of schools for their kids. They’ve moved to a neighborhood if they want to live there where there’s a good public school. Some of them have gone to private schools. But they haven’t just simply said, well whatever the neighborhood school is I’m going to go there. What they’ve done is basically say, “I’m going to move or go to a private school to get a good education for my child.” The kids with the least resources in America are the kids who are not getting any choices; it’s one and done for them, and it seems to me if we could create the kind of choices you now see, for example, in Harlem, which we created under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership where now basically there are lots and lots of options and parents have become increasingly informed consumers.

Those “old antitrust days” that Klein mentioned? He used to work for the Department of Justice; he was the lead prosecutor in United States v. Microsoft Corporation.

DUBNER: Now, Bill Gates was not very fond of you at the time, was he?

KLEIN: I think that’s fair to say.

DUBNER: You were not on his Christmas card list at the time.

KLEIN: Not on his Christmas card list, not a lot of invites to Seattle, Washington to meet with him.

DUBNER: And you guys however, did kiss and make up at some point?

KLEIN: Well, Bill gets all the credit for it. Before I started as chancellor in New York, he had given a $10 million philanthropic contribution to help establish new small high schools for highly dysfunctional large high schools in high-poverty communities. And the question was whether he would stick in after I was appointed. And thankfully he did, and became the largest contributor to New York City schools in terms of literally well over $100 million over the course of my tenure, a lot of which went into this new small-schools initiative, which were breaking down these large, failing schools in high-poverty communities that have 2-3,000 kids replacing them with four, five, six smaller schools with a lot of community support and partnerships, and much more demanding requirements. And the results of that have been just phenomenal.

DUBNER: Did you ever talk to him what it was like for him to learn that, you know, here he was with the Gates Foundation giving money to a lot of different schools and school systems including New York, and then to find out that you, his bête noir was the guy who was coming in to run the New York City schools. Did you have that conversation with him ever?

KLEIN: I never did. I was just so grateful that he was willing to support us, and the jury was out on this. And then we had an event. I’ll never forget this event, because I hadn’t seen or spoken to Bill since after the case, this was about a three-year hiatus, and he came to the Bronx school, Morris High School up there where we were opening these new small schools, and he and I spent the day together. I didn’t know what it would be like, and it was a very warm, engaging day. We went to classrooms together, and then we did a public appearance with Mayor Bloomberg. And in it, Bill made some glancing jokes about the antitrust suit and so forth, and happy to be on the same team. And when it was all finished I just was so relieved that it had gone so well, and as I walked off the podium, the principal came up to me and said, “you know, Chancellor, Bill Gates gave you $51 million today. That’s a nice day’s work. But just think what he would have given you if you hadn’t sued him.”   

MUSIC: Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics, “Coming Home To You” (from It’s About Time)

But let’s be honest. All the Gates Foundation grants in the world, all the school reform – and teacher reform – in the world won’t necessarily solve the problem. There’s a mountain of recent evidence suggesting, in fact, that teacher skill has less influence on a student’s performance than a completely different set of factors: like, how much kids have learned from their parents, how hard they work at home, and whether the parents have instilled an appetite for education.

In other words, you can reform the supply side of the schools equation all you want, but what about the demand side — students and their families?

KLEIN: If you come from a family that inspires a kid to learn, that’s demanding about a child’s homework, that’s enormously helpful and valuable. But I always like to hold those things somewhat constant, because the people in the education business are not going to be able to change those things. I mean, we often used to jokingly say, you know, parents give us the best kids that they have for us to educate. And by the same token, kids come with the best parents they’re going to get, and we have to take them where they are.  

Think about it: a school has your kid for only seven hours a day, 180 days a year, or about 22 percent of the kid’s waking hours. Nor is all that time devoted to learning, once you account for socializing and eating and getting to and from class. And for many kids, the first three or four years of life is all parents and no school.

But when serious people talk about education reform, they rarely talk about the family’s role in preparing children to succeed. That may be because the very words “education reform” indicate that the underlying question is “what’s wrong with our schools?” – which, these days, inevitably leads to “what’s wrong with our teachers”? Which is a relevant question but plainly not the only question.

And so we’re going to keep this conversation going on our next episode. It’s about a program in Toronto called Pathways to Education. It’s a program that helps students succeed in school by helping them with everything that a family is supposed to be helping with but, way too often, isn’t. That’s next time on Freakonomics Radio.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Suzie Lechtenberg and David Herman, with help from Joel Werner. The rest of our staff includes, but is not limited to, Arwa GunjaJay CowitMerritt JacobChristopher WerthGreg RosalskyKasia MychajlowyczAlison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas behind this episode:




  • Checkout Amplify, a News Corp education-technology startup.
  • The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) was started more than 20 years ago with a few dozen fifth-graders in Houston; today KIPP is a nationwide network of charter schools with more than 58,000 students. A recent KIPP offshoot that is relevant to this episode: the Relay Graduate School of Education.
  • President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address on the state of education in America.


The plutocratic narrative about failing schools, failing teachers...same old creation of a crisis, with profitability for the richest 0.2%, as the answer. This 2014 reburp post could be replaced with the current Flint water crisis.
Silicon Valley (Gates) spent hundreds of millions or, a billion (we can cross reference in an internet search, any education "reform" group and "Gates" to see some of the funding, he loves his data) for promotion of Common Core by the PTA, Chamber of Commerce, union leadership, astroturf groups (check out Jan. 7, 2016 Mind Over Media job description "Influencer Strategy Manager for Gates Foundation Project"), academic societies, school districts ...yada yada yada. No surprise, Microsoft announced a deal with Pearson in the summer of 2014 to develop curriculum for Common Core. Lots of companies plot a way to make money on the data mining/analytics from student testing. (Sad when they cannibalize the young). Z-berg backs the for-profit schools-in-a-box (Bridge International Academies).
While Gates described "reform" as creating a market. And, groups he funds, describe schools (but, not the ones his kids go to) as "human capital pipelines", most Americans think the schools for their children, funded by their taxes should belong to them, not oligarchs wallowing in their riches, hundreds or thousands of miles away.
I just can't quite figure out why a college dropout and his wife have an audience in DC and state capitols, while Picketty's research falls on deaf ears.... wait, are those greenbacks?



I listened to this podcast again. I was really disappointed in who was chosen to speak. I would have loved to have Dubner or Levitt speak to Dr. Walter Stroup, an education researcher who has debunked many of the standardized tests on which these Value Added Models (VAM) are based. I would have loved to hear from an author of the American Statistical Association paper on why the VAM is inappropriate for assessing student progress and teacher effectiveness. I would have loved to have Sarah Lubienski, an economist who focuses on education, and her husband Chris, also an economist who focuses on education, speak about how public and private schools compare.

I get that this is supposed to be entertaining but you guys left off so many good, smart speakers and a large part of the issue.


Is the KIPP a real program or just another program? I am very connected to the smartest kids in Jacksonville Florida and I don't know a single person in this program. In addition, the address for the school in my city is listed in the worst part of town and at the Dog Track.


On May 15, 2015, the Diane Ravitch blog posted "The KIPP Propaganda Machine". Comments follow the post, providing specific information.

IMO, bottom line.... Bloomberg and his fellow plutocrats, instigated a plot to snatch up public assets. They're modeling their Russian, oligarch, counterparts. In the U.S., the target is public education assets.

Communities, across the country, having been hollowed out by Walmart (which funds a lot of the education "reform"), are trying to survive, by fighting off Silicon Valley, discount retailing and Wall Street "reformers". They're fighting to prevent local resources, intended for kids, from being taken.

The fact that no major media has a heading, "Obama Admin Enables Billionaire Takeover of Schools", demonstrates the uphill struggle that communities face.


Is KIPP still the darling they are portrayed as in this podcast? Instead of a rebroadcast, it would be nice to see some follow through and follow-up.


What I didn't hear addressed (maybe because I skipped through some of the podcast) is the will of students. Many of my friends that are teachers say the exact same thing, and that is that "children don't give a shit about their education". You can have the best, brightest, and most well trained teachers possible, but if kids would rather use twitter and instagram I don't think it would make a difference. And adding in electronics into education such as tablets most likely will not make it much better since it's been proven an old fashioned book is much better and less distracting. If you want to fix schools, make schooling 4 hours a day instead of 8. Also, teach one subject a day broken into 15-20 minute intervals with breaks during said 4 hours. Children's brains aren't good at focusing....

Steve Bruns

How valid is the underlying premise that US school children under-perform those of other first-world countries?

Let's consider that most other countries track students and split off those that are college-bound (the others who go to trade-school are NOT tested.) So, the data from overseas really only reflects their top tier of students, whereas data from US students includes all students of all ability levels.

A more apples-to-apples comparison would be to compare kids form similar socio-economic backgrounds. And when you do, the data looks very different.

Of course, US education doesn't do well for kids in poverty--no argument there. But, is it the school's fault, or the fact that the US has a much weaker social-safety net when compared to France or Scandinavia? American parents have to work three jobs just to scrape by, and can't afford to give their children regular dental or vision checkups. Maybe Abraham Maslow was right--when someone's safety and security needs aren't met, they aren't very receptive to learning.

Ironically, each year I see schools moving to fill in this gap, providing a weekend's worth of canned goods, free dental checkups, free counseling, even giving college-bound alums help with college supplies. Schools are filling roles traditionally reserved for social-service agencies because they know the truth: hungry kids don't do well, and neither do the ones that are stressed-out, cold, or hurting (emotionally or physically.)



The weak point of US Education? Definitely teachers. I'm an immigrant, so I can see it from outside perspective. My kid is in 10th grade now (one of those top schools you have to pass an exam to get in) and I can tell one thing: the teachers don't know how to teach and how to tailor homework. Since elementary school can point one, maybe two good teachers my kid had. It doesn't matter what kind of textbooks or curriculum you have, if you know how to teach, this is the most important part of the process. I know right now why US kids are behind Asia and Europe, There are the worst teachers here I've ever met. Plus there is FAR TO MUCH testing, testing time should be replaced with learning time. How they dare to test if they do not teach??? I am very disappointed with teachers (and they protest if we want to evaluate them by how the students do perform on tests, amazing. I always thought that the coach should be judged by the team's scores)



How can you drive out a bad teacher who belongs to a union and has tenure? A school system cannot reward good teachers w/o punishing bad teachers.

Phil Persinger


Teachers' union membership (or not) is only one of many dimensions in an analysis of education quality.

I grew up in a school system where there were no unions, and the perceived-- and I emphasize "perceived"-- quality of individual teachers varied wildly. I believe that teachers then w/ sufficient seniority became tenured (and maybe you think that's a problem, too), but both tenure and union membership confer on teachers some measure of due process when problems arise. That most folks in this country do not have due process, pensions, decent vacation time, etc., at work is, I think, the source of much of the animosity directed at unions and particularly public-sector unions.

Christi Bennett

So, you wait until the last, small paragraphs to mention that MAYBE home life has some effect as well? Education is a two-way street where the STUDENT must contribute as much effort as the Educator. When will the kids have any accountability for their education?


True, paying teachers more will not instantly fix the problem. That being said, will we ever attract higher quality teachers without paying them more money?
A conversation about fixing our school system has no value if it doesn't include paying our teachers more. If you had a college-aged child contemplating careers, would you encourage them to teach? Mine didn't, and they're both teachers. We can't reasonably expect to attract America's best and brightest to a profession that is constantly having it's only form of job security attacked by the public.

Annie Tan

As a special education teacher, I was very dismayed that not one teacher or student was interviewed about their thoughts about the education system.

I couldn't listen to the whole episode- I usually love your podcasts, but I had to stop listening. I am so mad right now. Not once did you put a measure of why our students are doing badly, not once did you provide a measure (test scores? College attendance? Graduation rates) that would show student progress, so how do you measure what Joel Klein or Dave Levin did as successful? Especially when you mention international sources, why not talk to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator who actually compares the US to Finland, one of the best countries for education according to the PISA scores you put out? Why didn't you look at the relationships between poverty of students, student test scores, graduation rates, and teacher retention? Why not look at how demoralizing teaching has become in this country and wonder why the "top third" wouldn't go into such a disrespected job in the first place?

I love my students, and I love teaching, but I and other teachers are tired of being disrespected, and the attitudes expressed in this podcast are exactly why teachers are leaving the profession all the time. All the research says teachers get effective within five years, so why not do something that makes sense and focus on retaining teachers? Half of us leave by the five-year mark, by the way, that wasn't mentioned at all. Not much was said about poverty, and the possible student retention issues at KIPP, or whether the disciplinary policies there are ethical and developmentally appropriate for students. I wish, I wish, Stephen, you had tried to find critics of these folk like you try to at points, and I wish you had interrogated their thoughts and tried to find counterpoints, not just take Klein or Levin at their words. What made me cringe the most was that you said this would be a "good" episode, one you were proud of. I just wish you had done more research on actual effective teachers rather than looking at one controversial chancellor, one charter school leader, and Dana Goldstein (whose book, by the way, talks through how strategies like merit pay DO NOT WORK to incentivize teachers. I very much enjoyed Teacher Wars).

Thanks for reading,
Annie Tan
Special education teacher in Chicago



I have a graduate degree in physics, and I went to a top school with a well-known physics teaching group. They develop curricula (notes, homework problems, worksheets, etc) that are used in teaching undergraduate physics and in high school physics.

This group was well known by the department to be filled with shockingly incompetent teachers.

For example, each year, incoming grad students are required to TA undergraduate classes taught by this group. Each year--each and every year--multiple grad students involved in this complain to the department that they are instructed to give incorrect explanations to their classes, that they have worksheets with serious errors in them, and that they are specifically forbidden from giving students solutions to homework or test problems. (I've looked at their published work, and what they provide to high schools, and it's not much better.)

After I complained to enough people, I was told by a committee head, and I quote: "well, alright, we know they aren't any good... but they bring in a lot of grant money and publicity to the university."

And remember, this is physics, there isn't any ambiguity about what's correct and what isn't.

This happens for three reasons.

1) Physics is hard, and there are just not enough smart, qualified people to teach it, not at the undergraduate level, and not at the high school level. The demand is simply too high for the supply to match, and requiring that it is available for everyone can only decrease quality.

2) There is no reason for a qualified person to teach. No qualified person would want to work in such a dysfunctional environment when they have other (more fun and higher paying) alternatives. No qualified person would want to take time out of research or industry work to teach in this environment.

3) Even if someone qualified did want to teach high school physics, all they'd get for their trouble is a condescending lecture about how having a PhD in physics from MIT and 30 years of experience at NASA doesn't qualify them to teach physics (no teaching degree *OR* teaching certificate?!?). We have literally millions of retired scientists and engineers who are MORE than qualified to teach high school math, physics, and general science classes, and would be happy to do it in the right circumstances. But they are simply not allowed to. (And who will get kids more excited about science? Retired NASA scientist, or incompetent fresh-out-of-college PhD in "physics education"?)

Of course, I cannot speak for other fields, things may well be different there.



Do you really think you need to be a genius to teach? Leave it to academics to miss what actually happens in school. Being smart does not make you a good teacher. It does help, but the skill set of a good teacher is not the same as a PHD at a research university. Teaching is as much about emotional intelligence as IQ. You are fighting a constant battle every day to get a group of people to do something they don't want to do. You get almost no support from the parents, and you only have an hour a day. The students will not study outside of your class, there is no motivation or punishment to change that.

You can listen to TED talks or these reformers all you want, but what they are pitching is absolute nonsense that is obvious to anyone who has taught. You can't fix schools by fixing the schools. The schools are the part that is working. What broke is the governments that are supposed to fund them, and the middle class that fills them with children who see value in education.

Just like the police, teachers are stuck trying to deal with something that society has long since given up on: poverty. Education is the way for some students to escape poverty, but if you look at the research, it will show you there was usually another influence in their life that caused them to do well in school. Maybe we should fund those influences with billions instead of wasting money trying to fix the thing that isn't the problem.


Roxana (@ConnectEdProf)

I'm normally a fan, but this episode was plainly bought by the privatizers and painfully ill-informed. Here's a glimpse of what you all just endorsed on your show: Relay and Uncommon Schools are both outgrowths of TeachForAmerica (, and not only ignore theory, but also decades of research on how children learn and thrive. The hyper-focus on performance and scores promotes a rigid, compliance-driven, militaristic environment that stifles authentic learning, exploration, expression, risk-taking, and growth.

My guess is that TFA-rooted schools like Relay and Uncommon ignore theory precisely so that the next generation of teachers working in their affiliated charter schools *will not question why* they are being asked to engage in the abusive practices they are being asked to partake in. Please do more research on the guests and organizations you promote. Listen not just to the marketing pitches but also to the counter-narrative of voices documenting the harm unleashed when corporate charter reform takes over communities:

Value-Added Modeling has been specifically dismissed by both the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association as a faulty metric for teacher evaluation. And Klein's Edtech company "Amplify" was just bought off after a massive failure teetering at the brink of bankruptcy Amplify effectively just wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in contracts related to the new computerized tests, yet Klien is (and will likely continue to be) given airtime to speak about failures of teachers in education reform.

Please consider a future show to include student mental and physical health as it relates to the tsunami of tech-based reforms being unleashed on our youth. Here's an overview of topics that would be great to see being given more airtime:



This argument may present a flaw in logic. Is it possible a teacher doesn't need to be a top student to teach the basic skills in primary or secondary schools? You may not need to be a top Math student to teach third grade addition. Efficient asset allocation would suggest not to waste the best resources on elementary tasks, but save them for more difficult ones like higher education, graduate education, or university research. This seems to be exactly what happens. What do you think?

Susan Ridgeway

Before you interview "experts" you should really research their history and their involvement in the education system. Your Kipp school founder was trained as a Teach for America teacher. Now go and look up the kind of training Teach for America teachers get. Next look at Joel Klein's tenure as Chancellor of schools in NYC. Do you find any scandals associated with the people he hired? I love listening to podcasts and so called experts on education who know nothing of education theory and have no degrees in education. Klein never taught a day in his life. Kipp schools skim their students. They get rid of the students who don't do well. No wonder they look so great. Look at their funding. They get millions of dollars from the likes of Bill Gates and the Waltons, more experts who want to fix education who know nothing about it. Meanwhile public schools are being defunded because charter schools siphon off our funding so their students can do well. Research how much they pay their teachers. They make far less than public school teachers do because these school don't allow unions in them and why? Because the likes of Levin want to make a million a year and if he had to pay his teachers more, then he might have to take a pay cut. And just for the record, math teachers in K-8 education do not have to have degrees in math. They need degrees in education in K-8. And they don't need them from pretend graduate schools like Levin's and his charter school cronie's. They need them from some of the best education programs from some of America's best schools in the country that are extremely rigorous and difficult to get through. Then these graduates have to take numerous state tests that are rigorous. Why don't you research who the teachers are at Kipp. They can hire anyone they want because there are special rules for charter schools that say they do not have to hire professional licensed teachers, so they hire Teach for America students with six weeks of training who get stipends to pay off their school loans and then they leave the profession to get higher paying positions like principals and founders for charter schools. Yeah, let me board a plane early. Don't insult my intelligence. Levin and Klein can kiss by my tired overworked _ss! And don't flatter yourself by calling yourselves journalists. Now research who and where the best schools are. Public schools in wealthy suburbs get higher test scores than almost all the charter schools and they do that with far less money along with elected school boards and parents. Oh that's right, you probably didn't know there weren't any school boards in charter schools did you?


Peter Pfeiffer

I just listened to your podcast about teachers in our schools. I found much of it very informative and I really enjoyed the expert guests on the show. I took exception to two of the points made during the podcast:
1. You compared a teacher with a college degree with other occupations with a college degree, which I think is a useful comparison. However, you compared a teacher with a college degree to a lawyer. Lawyers not only have to go to law school and pass their state bar exam, but getting into law school is hyper competitive. And, passing the bar is not a sure thing. Not by a long shot. Just ask Hillary Clinton about not passing the Washington DC bar exam. Even a Yale Law graduate isn't guaranteed to pass. You also compared teachers to engineers. Anyone with expertise in the education field will certainly tell you that graduating with a STEM degree, even if it's a bachelor's degree, is significantly more difficult than graduation with many of the undergraduate majors that teachers end up in. I'm speaking of getting a BA in communications or similar examples.
2. It was also suggested on the podcast that perhaps we could incentivize teachers by providing cultural perks and recognition. The example given was that perhaps, in addition to members of the military boarding a plane ahead of everyone else, we could encourage the airlines to offer the same honor to teachers. I admire teachers, but they're not putting their life on the line every single day like service members do. A little perspective, please.



I agree that something needs done with education. The US is spending a lot of money without much benefit. I think a lot has to do with value people place on education and the education system. Parents just cannot expect to send there children to school and magic happens. Education starts at a young age and low performing children go to school already behind. Absenteeism can be a problem as well - how would kids learn if they aren't even in school.

As a podcast called freakanomics I was a bit dismayed as well as others that you compared teaching to other "college educated professions.' And included lawyers and doctors in your paragraph. Lawyers and doctors all have a grauduate level education and thus really are not at a comparable level. that's 3-4 extra years of school - the same as comparing a high school grad to a college educated person. Additionally. For doctors they then have 3-7 years of additional training where they work longer hours and get paid less hourly than a starting level teacher.

When comparing physician salaries to teachers salaries in Finland and the US you should also account for that in Finland medical school is free and in the US it's averaging over 100k total debt by the time a doctor gets out.

I listened to this podcast months ago and found it interesting but I really think you missed your mark.
I think teachers deserve more respect - I really don't think the underperformance is mainly a teacher problem. I think if they were not the scape goat and people would respect them more the teachers we have would be more effective and you would draw more people into teaching.

I think that it is interesting that people are anti teachers unions because you can't get rid of underperforming teachers... If you look at states with unions though --- teaching jobs are way more competitive due to the benefits and better salary. A lot of people who can't make it as a teacher in a state with more competition will go to the states without unions and try to find jobs. Sure you may get a few bad apples but it seems that you also draw the best candidates when you offer benefits such as unions.