Archives for schools



U.S. Math Education Still in the Doldrums

Every three years, the OECD, in the PISA assessment, studies 15-year-olds around the world to measure performance in reading, mathematics, and science. The results of the 2012 PISA assessment, which had a particular focus on mathematics, just came out and the United States does not fare well: “Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 26th.” I worry not so much about the rank, but about the low absolute level of proficiency to get this rank.

The U.S. students’ particular strengths and weaknesses are even more distressing:

Students in the United States have particular strengths in cognitively less-demanding mathematical skills and abilities, such as extracting single values from diagrams or handling well-structured formulae. They have particular weaknesses in items with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.

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In Praise of Smaller Schools

We are in the midst of a nationwide search for a single magic bullet in education. But the more evidence that is gathered, the more obvious it becomes that no such single magic bullet exists.

That said, a new study (abstract; PDF) on school size — not class size, but school size — is worth a look. Here’s the abstract; I have bolded the most relevant conclusions:

One of the most wide-ranging reforms in public education in the last decade has been the reorganization of large comprehensive high schools into small schools with roughly 100 students per grade.  We use assignment lotteries embedded in New York City’s high school match to estimate the effects of attendance at a new small high school on student achievement. More than 150 unselective small high schools created between 2002 and 2008 have enhanced autonomy, but operate within-district with traditional public school teachers, principals, and collectively-bargained work rules.  Lottery estimates show positive score gains in Mathematics, English, Science, and History, more credit accumulation, and higher graduation rates.  Small school attendance causes a substantial increase in college enrollment, with a marked shift to CUNY institutions.  Students are also less likely to require remediation in reading and writing when at college.  Detailed school surveys indicate that students at small schools are more engaged and closely monitored, despite fewer course offerings and activities.  Teachers report greater feedback, increased safety, and improved collaboration.  The results show that school size is an important factor in education production and highlight the potential for within-district reform strategies to substantially improve student achievement.

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Trends in School Financing

The New York Fed recently released an interesting set of maps and charts on school financing in New York and New Jersey that demonstrate the effect of national fiscal policy on public-school students. Their findings:

  • School funding and school expenditures increased steadily through the 2000s, but have slowed in the past year or two.
  • Federal funding swelled during the federal stimulus period, but has since begun to ebb.
  • Recent patterns in state and local funding show signs of slowing down.
  • While instructional expenditures remained on trend (or suffered only slightly) during the recession, there is evidence of sharper cuts in recent years.
  • In spite of these broad patterns, there are considerable variations across states and districts.
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    Question of the Day: How to Stop Restroom Sabotage?

    A reader named Olaf Winter writes in with a problem that perhaps you all can help solve?

    Hello Dubner & Levitt,

    During a Parent Teacher Association meeting in my son’s high school in Essen, Germany, I heard complaints about a growing problem with unbelievably dirty toilets, or to be more precise, with the problem of adolescent girls smirching, soiling, polluting, dripping and littering at the restrooms.

    I’m talking about unrolled packs of toilet paper stuffed into the toilet; about smearings on the walls (with pens in the best case). I forgo the more unsavory details. You probably have an idea of what I mean. The school I am talking about is one of the best schools in town. It is a newly built complex with beautiful architecture, lots of space and light. The pupils have an upper-middle-class background. And still, when they are in the restroom at least some of them behave like savages.

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    How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System? A Freakonomics Radio Podcast Encore

    Our recent podcast “Weird Recycling” looked at ways to reuse things that most people don’t think are reusable, like chicken feet and nuclear waste. This week, we’re taking our own advice, and updating a program we did a while back. It’s called “How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System?” and it focuses on what you might call the thrill of customization — that is, how technology increasingly enables each of us to get what we want out of life. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

    The main focus of the episode is a fascinating New York City Department of Education pilot program called School of One, which customizes the classroom experience for each student. Read More »



    Massive Teacher Cheating Scandal Erupts in Atlanta

    An investigation into Atlanta’s public school system has uncovered evidence that teachers and principals have been secretly erasing and correcting answers on students’ tests for as long as a decade. A state investigation found that 178 educators at 44 of the district’s 56 schools engaged in cheating. The report is a huge blow to an urban school district that for years was hailed as one of the country’s most successful due to increased student performance.
    From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

    Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

    For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

    In the report, the governor’s special investigators describe an enterprise where unethical — and potentially illegal — behavior pierced every level of the bureaucracy, allowing district staff to reap praise and sometimes bonuses by misleading the children, parents and community they served.

    The report accuses top district officials of wrongdoing that could lead to criminal charges in some cases.

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    School-Matching Failures, and Advice From the Man Who Designed the System

    The Times reports on New York City kids who fail to get into any of the high schools they apply to. Al Roth, who helped design the school-choice program but has no hand in running it, reports on why this failure occurs. (One big problem, from the Times article: a school like Baruch College Campus H.S. received 7,606 applications for 120 seats, many of them coming from outside of Manhattan; but the school “has not accepted out-of-district students in many years, a fact not mentioned in the Education Department’s school profile.”

    Roth’s advice:

    For students: use all 12 choices. The system is designed so listing 12 choices won’t hurt your chance of getting one of your top ones. But if you don’t get one of your top choices, having some other schools on your list that you wouldn’t mind going to will save you some heartache.

    For schools and guidance counselors: give these kids more useful advice! They should be told if the lists they are submitting include only schools for which they have little or no chance of being accepted.