How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System? (Ep. 5)

Listen now:

“How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?”: We’ve all gotten used to the thrill of customization — Pandora Radio lets anyone customize the music he or she wants to hear. Could a New York City pilot program called School of One do the same thing for education?

We’ve just released the latest episode of our Freakonomics Radio podcast. It’s called “How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?” (You can download/ subscribe at iTunes here, get the RSS feed here, read the transcript here, or listen via the player above.)

This episode is a full 30 minutes long, and it’s about what we call “the thrill of customization” — that is, how technology increasingly enables each of us to get what we want out of life, whether it’s a consumer experience or a religious experience. The main focus of the episode is a fascinating New York City Department of Education pilot program called School of One.

DESCRIPTIONAll photos Stephen J. Dubner Joel Rose, School of One
DESCRIPTIONChris Rush, School of One
DESCRIPTIONJoel Klein, New York City schools chancellor

You’ll hear from its founder, Joel Rose, as well as its co-founder and tech guru, Chris Rush; you’ll also hear from Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education (whom some of you may remember as the former head of Chicago Public Schools who worked with Levitt to get rid of cheating teachers).

And, because we tend to never follow a straight line in our podcasts, you’ll also hear some interesting stuff about Pandora Radio from its founder, Tim Westergren, who has just been named to the Time magazine list of 100 influentials (congrats!).

The School of One tries to take advantage of technology to essentially customize education for every kid in every classroom and help teachers do their job more effectively. That is of course a daunting task — and perhaps, some might argue, unnecessary — but the amount of thought and analysis that have so far gone into the program is impressive. Furthermore, the enthusiasm it has generated from people like Duncan and Klein make it a program to watch. And the early results are promising.

DESCRIPTIONLionel, a School of One student

You’ll hear about School of One’s conception, its potential pitfalls, and most of all how it works day-to-day. You’ll spend some time in a classroom in I.S. 339 in the Bronx, hearing from kids like Lionel (at right), whose daily “playlist” — in this case, his math lessons — are chosen in part by an algorithm that is designed to learn how Lionel learns best.

And you’ll hear how Chris Rush and others track and analyze the schoolwork that Lionel is doing to make sure he’s not just doodling away his time (like Levitt did in the third grade).

Below you’ll find some more images, including screen shots of the School of One software that helps handle the various analyses. Hope you enjoy the episode; it was an interesting one to make.

DESCRIPTIONSchool of One teacher Joyce Pulphus with students Tyesha Wilson and Frank Angel Montalvo.
DESCRIPTION School of One students learning via “virtual tutor”; that’s podcast producer Aimee Machado getting in there with the microphone.
DESCRIPTIONAfter the kids have gone home for the day, School of One teachers and administrators analyze their progress, one student at a time.
DESCRIPTIONAt School of One headquarters in the Dept. of Education building in Lower Manhattan, a dashboard lets the project’s administrators monitor each student’s progress across the entire skill list.
DESCRIPTIONEach student’s lesson is scheduled the night before, based on an optimization algorithm.
DESCRIPTIONEvery teacher has a set of skills he or she is assigned to teach throughout the program, and is given a “five-day forecast” to show which skills will likely be taught next.

Rudiger in Jersey

Here is a Good Idea for a unique radio station. There are too many easy listening and top 50 hits radio stations. Others do classical, jazz, alternative and ethnic.

But never in history has there been a radio station entirely devoted to lousy songs sung off key by bad artists that causes headaches and annoys listeners. There is material being produced everyday and it has just been fanned by Karaoke and American Idol Shows.

Just like Mystery Science Theater 3000, focus on the worst songs ever produced bad that it is actually good. That can be ribald entertainment for the acerbic set.

I can hear a William Shatner Memory Lane Hour, William Hung Bed Time Music, and Jack Black Drinking Songs. Barney Songs for the Bathroom.

So Bad, It's Good. This would appeal to Gen Xers, Yers and Baby Boomers. Bad songs are memorable and like a branding iron, leave their mark on your brain.



Pandora radio is something we are applauding? Give me a flippin break.

Nothing could be more annoying than choosing an artist and getting fewer and fewer songs by that artist the longer you listen because some programmer thinks you can use some equation to quantify and select music for your "genres". Bleh!!!

Pandora is nothing more than what Muzak has been doing for years----plugging in unknown or bad artists whose music is less expensive to play and every now & then you get the artist you choose. There's even the wrist slapping penalty if you skip too many songs.

Astronomy class. I wanna take a test on the earth's sky. Nope, skip that question. And, that one. That one, too. Ok...Here's one I can answer: "What color is the sky?" Ans: "B-l-u-e." Yeah, ok....I can see how this works on the Pandora PS 23 lesson plan.

Base enducation on this formula? Scary. Oh well.


The School of One sounds very much like the future envisioned for eduction by Clayton Christensen in his book "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns".

Pat in Falls Church

Interesting ideas piece. Its clear that education, especially k-12 is a mess in this country, and its critical to our long term economic interest to fix it. Its nice to see experiments in the City, most folks who care simply move to the suburbs, and that is not a long term winning idea.


Rudiger in Jersey has a formula for a bad radio station, featuring nothing but "lousy songs" sung off-key. I would add Florence Foster Jenkins and Jonathan & Darlene Edwards to the list.

Actually, there already is a format that covers that definition. It's called "hip-hop."


Maybe 30 - 40 years ago three teacher at Broadwater School in Helena MT, Mrs. Parr, Mrs. Kallin and Mrs. Plank taught together as a team in a big room with 80 third graders. What they created in that big room was essentially "School of One" individualized instruction. But there were no computers, no algorithms and (probably) not one penny in extra funding. Just three brilliant and dedicated teachers who made the world of learning come alive one student at a time.


I think it's neat that educators have been almost completely removed from the process of educational reform.


Totally agree with TJ. The current systems (backed by educators and their labor representation) retain talent as a function tenure rather than ability - resulting in a system that is apparently inefficient (look at cost versus results of US education compared to the rest of the world). Thank goodness there is room for outside thought and hopefully improvement.



I agree with you. It's not like they have any knowledge about the process or anything...


how many times does the STUDENT (with our without parental support) get to decline to participate in learning before the LACK of progress becomes the STUDENT'S responsibility?

the problem with our current system is there is NO MANDATORY out for those students who systematically REFUSE to participate in activities that promote thought, and learning.

computer, no computer, algorithms or not, learning requires effort and investment by THE STUDENT!

ANY human who wants to learn has the opportunity!


The ideas behind "School of One" are actually quite old. The Bible discusses several pedagogical methods in the book of Deuteronomy. And many religious homeschoolers take these admonitions to heart.

Whatever your beliefs about the Bible or homeschooling, there are now millions of homeschool graduates out there that would provide real-life data for pedagogical evaluation. And millions more who would be open to longitudinal study.

Why don't we look at the effects of homeschooling on educational achievement, socialization, athletic development, personal maturity, and the whole range of IQ and EQ scores, along with subject mastery? There's a population out there outside the educational establishment who are dedicated to the welfare of their students.

If you believe in the efficacy of data-driven research, it seems that this is an under-researched sector. That may be due to other biases, but that's another post.

- DougT


Dr. Van Nostrand


Knowledge About the process is the problem, we need a new process and educators have a conflict of interest


I don't know-----since reading Diane Ravitch's, E.D. Hirsch's, and Charles Murray's latest books, along with much of the recent books about the current thinking in psychology, I find it highly unlikely that the confidence of education reformers in the efficacy of "objective measures" of student performance is well-placed. In ten years, I bet we'll be kicking ourselves for having placed so much emphasis on these supposedly "objective" measures. This isn't to say that "School of One" is flawed. It may very well be a useful initiative. But as a concerned parent, I have learned to be deeply skeptical of the "experts" who consider test results in reading and math to be the sine qua non of educational achievement.


Just curious - since teaching is so easy and everyone is an expert on how to do it - suppose Arne Duncan were to take over a classroom of impoverished kids in a tough city school. Would he be able to have a lot of those students reach mastery of all subjects? Could he overcome all of the factors working against these students. A teacher is important, but only a small part of many variables.

And the idea that the only thing that hasn't changed in 100 years is education is laughable. There are new initiatives and changes every year. There is so much change that no one is ever able to tell if the previous initiative even worked. Plus the technology has changed things immensely. I started less than 20 years ago and made copies with hand-cranked carbon-copy machines. Now computers are a major part of my instruction and evaluation.

I am very tired of hearing how teachers are the problem. We are the only ones actually in the trenches and trying to educate children. It is impossible to teach a student who does not want to learn, does not value education, or has personal issues that are overwhelming. I have taught honors level classes where all of the students got high test scores and remedial classes where students score extremely low. I can assure you it is a lot harder and more frustrating to teach the latter.



I love it when economists talk about teaching!

This would never fly in the suburbs - parents would never accept their kids wearing headphones and staring at screens rather than interacting with a teacher. What does that say about these approaches? Might it be that the School of One and other "virtual" approaches are what urban districts are turning to in order to mitigate the impact of students' disruptive behavior (inconsistent attendance, tardy arrivals, resistant attitudes and general unpreparedness) and to help ensure passing marks on standardized tests? In other words, they are the classroom management tools of last resort. It's much easier to have 28 (or 35) kids put on headphones and stare at screens than it is to learn as a classroom community -- if members of that community aren't willing or able to sacrifice their individual needs to talk, be late, send text messages, listen to their iPods, sleep and otherwise amuse themselves for the sake of learning. And, as a 15-year veteran of public school teaching, I can assure you that just the notion of such a sacrifice has long ago become quaint in many schools.

These approaches always seem to involve math. How does this problem solve teaching writing, analyzing texts, engaging in civil conversation about controversial subjects . . .

And, finally, this is an after-school program. Is it any wonder that the post test scores exceeded the pretest scores? Might it be that it's not the technology, it's the additional time and effort spent practicing math skills, rather than being at home "playing video games," that makes the difference?


Jackson H

It doesn't cater to your needs!


School of One is great we got to use computers and learn like normal classrooms. Plus we next year we are going to do school of one in classrooms now. If you need to contact me its at


@kristy - You seem to be missing the point of Pandora. It is there to take an artist you like and to expose you to NEW music that you may not have otherwise heard. If you want to only hear music by a specific artist, then I would suggest buying an album from said artist. That's what albums were designed for.


Actually, Pandora, SiriusXM and other services that only expose you to music similar to your tastes, are killing music, as explained in my essay "How Getting Exactly What You Want Is Killing Music", which you can read at:

PS To Uthor, what you are describing as "new music" is actually just a carbon copy of old music - read the essay to find out why...


Arne Duncan thinks that magnet schools are the answer, yet there is absolutely no evidence that they succeed better than regular public school despite the inherit advantage of having students of parents interested enough in their children's education to enroll them in one.

Why no mention that Duncan manipulated the data in Chicago, moved students around to his advantage, etc. to make the numbers work in his favor? Scientifically speaking, he is a charlatan.