Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? (Ep. 188): Full Transcript
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “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:
KLEIN: 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: And How They Got That Way.
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.; and 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 a 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?
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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 averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school, and 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:
PRESIDENT 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.
PRESIDENT 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.
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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’s the paper’s central argument:
FRIEDMAN: We find it useful to think about a really great teacher, a top 5% 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.
So 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 see 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.
LEVIN: Teachers are the absolute most important people in our educational system.
That’d Dave Levin, a former teacher and co-founder of the KIPP schools. KIPP – it stands for Knowledge Is Power Program – 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.
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Okay, 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 pretty 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 are going to 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.
DUBNER: That’s Dana Goldstein.
GOLDSTEIN: 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 groups…
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. They 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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KLEIN: I went to kindergarten through graduating from high school in public schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
Joel Klein again.
KLEIN: 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 5, 6 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: So in general KIPP teachers will be making more. I mean, they’re working longer hours, so they’re making more money for that time.
That’s Dave Levin, from KIPP.
LEVIN: 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 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, 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.
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Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: let’s not pretend that boosting teacher salaries would automatically fix everything:
LEVIN: So I think yes, the way we train teachers is fundamentally broken in this country.
And: is it really fair to blame only the teachers?
KLEIN: 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 that they’re going to get, and we have to take them where they are.
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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.
That’s Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars.
GOLDSTEIN: 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 like amazing teachers everywhere in the county.
That’s Dave Levin, from the KIPP schools.
LEVIN: 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 one, 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. Number two, 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: 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.
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And 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 cofounders 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 show 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.
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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 maybe 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.
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.
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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:
OREOPOULOS: The Pathways Program has four pillars. Those are counseling, academic, social and financial.
In other words, 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. Thanks for listening.
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?“