Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? (Ep. 188 Rebroadcast)

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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.


Note: sorry this went on so long...I just couldn't stop typing!

I love Freakonomics Radio and have listened for a long time. Disclosure: I am a teacher in his 19th year and a member of a local union. This episode was disappointing...especially after I read some of the comments (people with no teaching experience leading and "reforming" schools...really?). I am from Ohio and have lived through some of Governor Kasich’s ideologically-motivated “reforms” to public education. This summer I learned that his staffer responsible for writing his education policies is a graduate of a teacher training program but has never spent ONE DAY in the classroom as an actual teacher. I guess I shouldn’t expect too much. My undergraduate degree was in National Security Policy Studies. I wonder what reforms I could come up with for the Central Intelligence Agency? Probably not good ones.

Here are some things that I never or hardly ever hear addressed in reporting on education reform or in the political battles over the classroom:

1. Teaching is a job that is unlike most others in this way: being a teacher is the entry-level position and the end-of-career position. There is no real room for "advancement" or a "promotion." And, being 19 years in the field means I can't move to another district because other districts have to do education-on-the-cheap and hire teachers with minimal experience who they can pay less. You might say "well, you can become a principal" but that ISN'T's management. Principals are removed from students for most of their day. Don't you want people who are passionate about helping students to actually BE with students? Do you take the best teachers and "promote" them right out of the classroom so they can sit in their office and deal with parent complaints all day? Also, there are no mid-level jobs at all and very few principal positions . . . not enough positions for the many teachers who would like to "advance" in their field. Department chairs (in high schools) are teachers who keep a full teaching load and are given neither the time nor the authority to evaluate/develop teachers in their department. Same thing with grade-level "team leaders" in middle and elementary schools. Teaching seems to be quite different from, say . . . selling medical supplies. Can’t we acknowledge that?

2. After a couple decades reading and listening about how to do education better, I have never once...seriously, NEVER ... heard anyone talk about a national initiative to improve principals or superintendents or all the other "higher ups" in the district office. They never get mentioned in the discussion of "how to improve America's failing schools." It's like they aren't even there. The problem always seems to be "the teachers," "the teachers' unions," or "socio-economic factors." But administrators failing to lead or failing to develop staff is not mentioned. Why not? I've always wondered that. Now, in fairness to the building-level administrators, they are overworked. It is a massive job running a school. It is another symptom of trying to do education on the cheap. Guess what, bad teachers CAN be fired but it takes competent administrators who have the time to accurately/fairly evaluate teachers. There are too many ineffective teachers (one would be too many) but there are also too many bad principals … often people who used a couple years in the classroom as a stepping stone to six-figure principal jobs - or people who couldn’t hack it in the incredibly demanding classroom. So they get promoted right into leadership positions.

3. IF more dollar bills are the aim of education:
This program said that a good teacher leads to $250k in additional lifetime earnings. That is presumed to be the "value" of the product teachers offer, right? So, why do we evaluate teachers based on how their students do on standardized tests? Is it because tracking lifetime earnings is difficult if not impossible? Or is it that by the time we know if my students earned more money or not decades have gone by and I have already helped or hurt hundreds of students by then...too late to reward me or fire me? Is an "accelerated" score on a US History exam the right metric, the right proxy data-point for adding value to a student's life? Does it correlate? Maybe it is. I honestly don't know if there is a connection or not and I have NEVER heard someone address this question.

4. If well-being is the aim of education:
How should we measure it. Do we use a version of the world happiness survey? The BBC reports that 81% of Britons would rather the government make them happier than richer. There are limits to the nuance-filled and supposed correlation between income and happiness … so I don’t think using income as a measure of well-being works either…plus you get back to the problems I mentioned in #3.

5. Would the real aim of education please stand up?
Have you read many schools’ mission statements? There is a lot about “being good citizens of the world,” “developing responsible and productive members of society,” and “developing empathetic team-players who are curious about the world.” Think tanks and other reform organizations often identify 21st Century skills such as thinking creatively and critically, collaboration, persistence (grit), and a willingness to try new things. If these are the real aims of education, do our standardized tests provide an accurate picture of our students’ growth in these areas? I suspect not. What do you think? Are these skills and attitudes easy to assess or really, really hard? Do we focus our testing only on those things that are easier to assess empirically instead of the things we really care about? That would seem to be a silly thing to do. In any case, I never hear the education debate focusing on the TRUE goals of education. Nor do I hear about whether or not our standardized test measure what we think they measure or if they actually measure the things we say we care about. It is so much easier to debate teachers’ unions or the effect of poverty on students. Shouldn’t each community decide what it cares about, structure curriculum to develop it, and how they will assess success? Instead we get standardized tests that may not even measure what we want to measure and which are used to rank schools and teachers so they can be published in the paper. There is no clarity in what we want.

6. Teachers spend the whole work day dealing with the exigencies of the job ... being a good teacher requires a lot of extra work and thus extra time. Teachers need to collaborate with each other...that is the best professional development. Teachers put in a lot of extra time (outside the contract day) planning and grading and learning. When people (like we heard in this episode) say that the only institution to remain unchanged in centuries is the school, I cringe. They way I engage my students is totally different from what I did even five years ago. Most schools these days don't have the teacher lecturing and kids writing notes in rows of desks. If you want a totally different level of instruction than the "factory approach" then teachers need the tools to meet this new demand: fewer students, more prep time. If we want schools to keep an eye on developing the "whole child" the structure of our daily routines has to change. When the final bell rings, teachers are exhausted. But our day is only half over because we have to get ready for another day. Most teachers I know don't just pull out the same lesson they've been using for the last 15 years. I often hear comments like "teaching may be exhausting but you get three whole months off in the summer." That isn't necessarily true. Most summers I have about 8 weeks "off" but spend countless hours preparing for next year, taking classes to maintain my credentials, talking to my colleagues, and attending conferences or workshops. The school day/schedule needs to be reformed...and that can't be helped by better teacher prep programs. We never hear about this, however. Too complicated, I guess. It is much easier to play soundbites of people railing about teachers' unions.

I’ve gone on too long, obviously. And I doubt many read this post all the way to the end. I just couldn’t stop writing. I guess I am frustrated in most of the reporting on school reform. Usually, Freakonomics sees the whole field and relates the inherent complexity in things. This episode’s approach just confused the issue. But I still LOVE the program and donated $15 this afternoon. I know more good programs will follow!



Re your point #1, it's really not that different from a lot of other careers, from carpentry to computer programming. You may get better at what you do (and so make more money), but the only way to get a "promotion" is to stop doing the job, and become a manager. Which unfortuantely requires an entirely different (and in the case of programming, orthogonal) skill set, so you usually wind up converting your best workers to mediocre managers.


I wonder how much of the failure of the US education system is down to teachers, and how much to a culture that simply doesn't value education? Indeed, which actively devalues it: people who like learning are denigrated as eggheads (in my youth), geeks, nerds, and the like; apart from "normal" life and shown as losers who can't get girls/guys.

So what incentive does any kid have to try to do well in school, if that means social ostracism?


I am an art teacher at a high poverty school. We have many excellent students that excel. However many students do not care about their education. Also phones are a huge problem. Since phones began appearing in every students pocket, energy and mood is extremely low, and has had a huge negative impact on classroom climate. Trying to manage phone use is difficult and feels like a war. We try to encourage students to use their phones as a tool in the classroom but it hasn't been very effective.
Also about teacher pay, I make well below the median suggested in this podcast. With student loan debt and bills I barely make enough to get by and get very little support. I am leaving the profession because I simply cannot afford it.

Ken K.

I have a bachelor's degree in a field not related to the subject I teach. At times I wonder if having a master's degree would really make me all that better of a teacher. I teach a modern world language, and I often see my colleagues, who have master's degrees in my field, making linguistic mistakes that I would never make. Additionally, a master's degree does not delineate who will bring passion and charisma into the classroom; or employ engaging lessons in the classroom.

Moreover, social scientist find through research time and again that students' achievement is linked with their parents' income. Not that that is an excuse for teachers in low-income districts to throw up their hands, but the public needs to be aware of that evidence.

One final anecdote- I have worked for three different school districts in Virginia, and only one out of the three paid for a portion of the classes I was taking merely to become certified to teach. I would imagine that a master's degree would rack up tens of thousands in students loans. The meager salary difference between a teacher with a master's and one without makes the decision to earn a master's difficult.


Ken K.

I forgot to mention that our test scores include those of students with learning disabilities whereas scores for students in other countries do not.


Imagine the incredible disconnect that occurred in my brain listening to what is typically one of my all time *favorite* podcasts: Last Friday, I am pulling out of Union Station (DC) after work and just that morning, I had read a chapter in Mercedes Schneider's book A Chronicle of Echos, Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education devoted to no other than Joel Klien. I'd suggest the Freakonomics team add this to the etc resources above: where you can get a flavor of another perspective, which many people are voicing in this comments section. Seems like the Freak team missed a great opportunity to either tell a more balanced story or have a guest with a more moderate and realistic view. This issue is polarized enough, and we could use a good dose of sanity...

miss r

As a teacher that graduated cum laude from one of the top ten state colleges in the US and chose to teach in one of the poorest schools in my city, I really think you missed the mark. You should rework your thesis, it's actually a claim. The assignment requires an explanatory thesis not an argument. Also, consider the background and history of the issue. Yes Horace Mann is important but when did people
started claiming that our schools are failing? Who would benefit from making these claims? Next, reconsider your sources. Are they credible? Are these expert opinions? Did you represent multiple perspectives? Last, your conclusion is lacking. You've merely mentioned opposing ideas, it lacks depth and insight. See me after class!


How can you drive out a bad teacher who belongs to a union and has tenure?

Maxine riley

Thanks for choosing this topic Stephen. A Very stimulating conversation!

i have been racking my brain over this topic for the last month or so. It began after i read an article talking about this exact theme on HuffPo where the author argued about the various positions and problems with the education system.

after looking at it from various points of view im of the thought that the parents are equally to blame as teachers.

With both parents living extremely busy lives, its hard for them to spend the time needed in shaping the mind of the youth.

Please do another followup to this topic as i find it very fascinating.


Probably true, but if you think reforming the education system is hard, just try changing parents.

prateek misra

Hey would love to get your view on this proposal of mine...I think I might have discovered a way to prevent regulatory capture of a regulator.The idea is simple. Start with the assumption that regulatory capture will happen and nothing you do will prevent it from happening.Then you divide the regulator into three independent wings, like the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary. Have three wings which can act as check and balances to each other. The Holy Trinity. Example in Auto Industry there are three chief regulatory captures.Industry,Workers and Consumers.Let the wings have representatives from each sector. Then we let the Coase theorem come into play, i.e. let the parties bargain with each other and you will get a more efficient result.At the end of the day, the issue is of bargaining,and you cannot capture that that information in a model,because it is in a constant state of flux.Example: when the oil prices were 120$ the bargaining would be very different when the price of oil is 30$.The consumer would be willing to pay higher taxes if the price of oil is going to go down,ask for better,safer cars at cheaper prices etc. The worker will be asking for higher wages as the cost of owning and making a vehicle around the currant market price is lower, hence greater profits,have better bargaining on their protections etc. The Industry would like to maximize the profits of shareholders, want better labor mobility, hire and fire laws,competition, trade, protectionism etc.The Government should not exist in the three mechanisms, not because of any libertarian reasons, but because even if a single team gets it, bargaining becomes asymmetric and the "game" is over.Imagine it as a game with three teams. The Government will at most have the power of a referee in a soccer match or an umpire in a cricket match.


Dan Gray

Surprise, surprise... more teacher bashing from ignoramuses who don't know what they're talking about. The PISA test, which is administered to less than o.o1% of American students is their comparison basis. Even a lowly teacher could tell you that that is statistically meaningless. And of course the US is compared to the rest of the world's schools which are uniformly terrible. "Uniformly terrible?" Absolutely. The curriculum in nearly every world country is dictated by the state in every detail. You go to any classroom in France or Japan or nearly every other country and if this is February 15th at 10 am, the fifth graders will all be doing the lesson on page 114 of the same text... in exactly the same way. And that way is rote memorization. Group work? No. Lab work? No. Creativity? No chance. They teach to the "recall and rote" tests like PISA. Their result? They do great on these tests that they train for. In the US we teach to teacher strengths. We teach to meet the needs of our students as best we can and we give teachers free rein to do so. Our result? the most creative, dynamic, inventive population on Earth, year after year, decade after decade. The worlds first rate universities are dominated by American universities. The world's research institutions are dominated by American institutions.

That being said, the US does face ENORMOUS societal obstacles that make teaching today very challenging. At the very top of that list is poverty. The US has a higher rate of childhood poverty than nearly every single developed country. And this problem is laid right at the feet of our public schools. In addition to teaching, we feed the kids, transport them to and from school, administer their medical needs, regardless of costs, even extreme costs, provide before school care, after school care... basically provide them with every single service that should normally come from their community, or church, or federal government. Second is the extremely brutal workload foisted on teachers today. I teach classes of over 40 in a room built for less than 25. Most of my students have no textbook and no supplies other than what I provide to them. I am given one hour to prepare for every three hours of teaching. Compare this to Finland where teachers have one hour to prepare for one hour of teaching. Third is the layers upon layers of incompetent administration and bureaucracy piled on the backs of teachers day after day and year after year from untrained, ill-informed, incompetent managers at the school level, district level, state level and national level.

Everyone who ever went to school or had a kid in school considers themselves an expert on education. (Bill Gates? The guy who wracked up billions with his unprecedented scale of corrupt business practices that destroyed free competition and caused billions of lost hours and productivity all around the world? He's your "expert?" the man should be in prison. Give me a break.)

You want expert opinions? Talk to real teachers. I have been teaching high school science courses for nearly 30 years. I have been a department head for most of that time and have had the great privilege of working with dozens of teachers. Nearly all of the teachers with whom I have had the pleasure to work are truly brilliant, dedicated, hard working, selfless people. The few bad apples (all at a private school, not public) were dismissed at my insistence within two years or less.


Brian Silvestro

"Our result? the most creative, dynamic, inventive population on Earth, year after year, decade after decade."

Dan, do you get out much? When is the last time you set foot on college campus that wasn't private (I'm talking state community college, state 4 year college, or state university)? When is the last time you've been to a "big" city? If you think the the majority of the under "30" inner city population is creative, dynamic, and inventive you are horribly mistaken. I'd love to take you for a ride around Providence, New Bedford, or Hartford!!!

"In addition to teaching, we feed the kids, transport them to and from school, administer their medical needs, regardless of costs, even extreme costs, provide before school care, after school care… basically provide them with every single service that should normally come from their community, or church, or federal government."

Dan, spare me the liberal social justice rhetoric. Have you heard of PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY? Those services should come from the child's PARENTS or extended FAMILY, not the taxpayer. You've been teaching for 30 years, and you can't figure that out.

I owned a home in Providence, RI for almost 10 years. I paid my fair share of property taxes to support the HORRIBLE Providence public school system!

Just so you don't get the impression that I was born with a silver spoon and attended private high school, let me tell you a little about myself. I went to public school in Providence for 5 years (grades 8-12). I graduated from Classical High School (1991, 13th out of 250 students) and URI (BS, Life/Environmental Sciences 1995; 3.5 GPA). I'm from a lower, middle class family, and I paid all of my college tuition through grants, loans, and my own money!!! (no parental help) I have 20+ years of experience teaching/tutoring basic math through Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physiology to junior high through college level students.

You need to take off your rose colored glasses and teach at public high school or a community college to get a taste of what the REAL WORLD is like!

Just out of curiosity, do you have a BA in education or a BS in a Science? If you have a BS, I would expect a little more objective, common sense!!!

By the way, if you don't think recall/rote memorization is important, I'd love to give your students a quiz on naming ionic compounds.



You didn't discuss a drive for "fairness" in education that could also have impact on a potential "education problem". Some schools (at least, the district I’m familiar with) have gone in for “fairness” in education. In my son’s schools academic mediocrity is enforced. There is no leveling until high school, and there in an attempt to maintain the ability of kids to move up and down in the levels a lock-step in curricula is maintained between levels, with the first couple months of any class used to make up for lack of depth for the kids who transferred up from lower levels. There are no other public schools within range that accept out of town students, and there are no charters within commuting distance.

In middle school, but also to some degree in elementary school, we got comments from some teachers that made it seem as if there were stereotypes at play both about our son and us. It was as if his accelerated, largely self-driven education in English literature, history, and sciences was viewed as entirely selfish. A few were openly resentful at times and called home, complained in meetings with us, or told him he shouldn't be reading about anything not being currently covered in class.

It would be interesting to know if the pursuit of “fairness” and difficulty in dealing with kids who self-educate also affects outcome.



Drubner....Goldstein...and Levin. Is this Jewish radio or something? Why is this tiny minority so grossly over-represented here and on the other NPR shows?