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

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“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.


Am I the only one struck by the horrendous student performance numbers mentioned in the podcast? They start around 8:45 in the podcast. Only 12% of 8th grade math teachers can get 1yr of growth out of 80% of their students. The reading numbers are even worse, around half of that. Only 6% of teachers can get most of their class (80%) to show 1 year of reading improvement after 1 year in their class????

Why would anyone who can understand those numbers send their kids to this school system or the thousands like it across the country?

Is their any other institution in America where so many people keep subjecting their children to such a non-productive environment?

Sander Scott

I am an Elementary Principal at Westwoods Elementary School in Traverse City, MI. I love articles like this -- love the concept of "choose your modality".

I would also say that professional development -- having teachers continue to refine their professional practice through a systematic process of practice--reflect--share--reflect--practice is the single-most effective strategy to improve instruction.


What is flawed about both the School of One and Pandora is that both allow you to stay in your box. I can only learn this one way. I only like this kind of music. Both forget that the larger world is at once stimulating and challenging.

Isn't this just telling people it's okay to stay in your comfort zone? I've found when you venture outside your comfort zone, it sometimes brings enlightement.


How is the Safety of Seatbelts Like Gun Control?

this is my freakonomics question for my project please help and comment...


@Natalie: Are you kidding me? I have several friends in the suburbs whose kids go to school online. The suburbs are no different than the urban areas in our country. There are parents who care in both areas, and there are parents who think education solely belongs in the hands of the teachers and doesn't need to involve them in both places. Give me a break!

As to the podcast, I guess I must be missing something. I grew up a very bright female with ADHD. While I scored consistently at 142 on the IQ tests, I floundered in school. What I needed was someone to teach me in the way that my brain would accept. But I was one of 28 kids in my classes and the teachers simply couldn't (and some WOULDN'T) tailor their curriculum to help me and a handful of other kids. The result was that I simply stopped trying and all but flunked my way through high school. If it weren't for my outstanding SAT scores (I grew up in the ghetto in New Jersey with parents who didn't even speak english when they arrived in the States. So much for standardized testing not working for poor kids in the 'hoods. We were too poor for private schooling/tutoring to even be an option) I would never have gotten into college. Once in college, I took it slow and did my work my way and excelled. I have to wonder if I had had the opportunity to participate in something like the School of One, would I have had a better academic record? Would I have been able to actually learn the rudimentary subjects that most of my friends were able to take in and actually absorb? At 40, I am just beginning to find the time to go back and learn things I should have known in the third grade. It embarasses me but at the same time, I refuse to simply go through life in ignorance of so many things that others 'get'. Maybe this school doesn't work for all kids, and kids shouldn't just be dumped into a system because it's considered the latest and greatest way to learn. But it sure would be nice to know that my child has options. I have always supported the vouchers for education. I would love to know that my child can tour a few schools, and I can help him in finding the one that may be the best fit, even if that one is online, and requiring him to wear a headset.

But perhaps I'm missing something. Though I have to wonder, if the current system requiring an actual teacher is so great, why is our education still lagging so very far behind from the rest of the civilized world? Their systems seem to be very similar to ours, so where are we going wrong? Goes back to teachers and parents doesn't it? Obviously the old system isn't working so what should be done? And should some children be sacrificed (as I feel I was) in order to make it work for the majority?



I believe this was a great podcast. I congratulate the "School of One" program and the freaks for showing it to us. For years, it has been clear that many kids do not conform to the usual way of learning and therefore do not do well at all; the system kicks them out. These are the two things that come to mind with this program. 1) Content, and 2) Comprehensive curriculum

1) Content: I imagine that Pandora groups songs and users using statistical analysis. So, if 1000 people liked these 5 songs and then that other new one, because you liked those 5 songs as well, you would probably like that new one too. Of course, I am being simplistic. Pandora has millions of songs to choose from. The school of one program may not have 1000 ways to teach intermediate algebra skills, not yet at least. An implicit question is how many ways are required. Can there be 5 ways of teaching the same skill at the same level using individualized tutoring? For example; lets say using games, can there be 3 different ones, probably just different in their presentation? I am sure the answer is related with the amount of money available. How to create content that is low cost and is effective at meeting the desired objective e.g. intermediate algebra. Pandora, let's remember does not "create" the content, only channels it. So, how would we approach that? To get more money, is there the need to partner with other states? countries? Do we tap into the non-profit foundations ala Bill Gates? What other ideas are there?

2) Comprehensive curriculum: I will use an example to illustrate. In the past farmers used to have free roaming chickens that ate whatever they found. Then, mass production and competition drove farmers to give them grains, and a mix of protein, carbs and fats, and we thought we were done. We then realized that they also needed vitamins and minerals, that were in the original food, but we did not know it. We gave them that and then realized that they needed little pellets to break food, so now we have added that, etc, etc. The point here is that their original diet had many things that were required, like the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, fats, carbs, pellets, etc, that we did not know they ate. We made mistakes on the way, because we thought about it simplistically. In school of one, maybe we teach them algebra, trigonometry, reading, etc, but what about whatever character trait is learned by overcoming being chastised in front of 40 kids. There may be things that kids in the past learned that we do not realize they did. So, creating this alternative curriculum required really smart people tapping into the experience of older and wise teachers. Really, do not overlook this!



Think about poverty and it's effects on neighborhoods, families and kids.

Think about kids, and their families access to libraries and books.

Think about going into a classroom. Now count the engaging, compelling texts for kids to read.

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
-- Albert Einstein


Pandora? It's still a radio station. Try It's everything you describe that you want before you introduced Pandora in your podcast.


I laughed each time you said "25 kids." In California, it's 32 in elementary and 40 in secondary.

I also laugh every time one of the commenters says that it's impossible to teach this kind of kid or that kind of kid. It's funny because there are schools out there with 100% proficiency with very diverse students.

In 2009, Crawford Elementary School in Houston, Texas was 100% African American and Hispanic, 100% free and reduced-priced lunch, and 40% English learners yet had 100% proficiency in English, Math, and Science. You could argue that the test was easy or the cut scores were low, but the rich, mono-chromatic schools did not achieve anything near 100% proficiency.

Sixth Street Prep in Victorville, CA is another example of a highly diverse school scoring FAR above state averages.

The educational research shows that the teacher is the number one factor that affects student achievement (See Hattie's "Visible Learning"). Dr. Douglas Reeves says, "The quality of the teacher has 6-10 times more impact on student achievement than ALL other factors combined." That's why teachers have to be a huge part of any educational reform. Bill Gates spent more than $1 billion dollars on "Smaller Learning Communities" and recently announced that they don't work and that he learned that what does work is high-quality instruction. That's why teachers are at the core of reform.

It also makes me sick when people say, "We shouldn't have to teach the way the kid learns, they need to adjust to our teaching style." How elitist is that?!? A teacher should do whatever it takes to ensure that a student learns even if it means that the teacher has to change the way that they do things.

But there lies the problem. Michael Fullan points out that when a person is given the choice to change or die, nearly everyone will choose die. Just think about stopping smoking or drinking. When given the choice to stop smoking or die, most people choose "die." When faced with the choice of reducing consumption of artery-clogging foods or having a heart attack, most choose the latter. He points out that the 5 problems that add up to the highest medical costs are all due to bad habits, not genetics or disease.

As such, the solution is not to change the millions of teachers who already are in the field, but to change the teacher preparation programs to remodel the system from the bottom up, through the rookies. It'll take time, but will pay off over about the term of maybe 5 new presidents.



I would love to know what the classical piece playing during the part about the last song the elderly man was listening to as he died was. I know it, i just cant put my finger on it, and its not like i can look it up by the lyrics. Thank you!

Stephen G. Kennedy

Something in our educational system/s is just not working well enough for enough people. So we have to talk about alternatives, and we have to enter into intelligent and genuine dialogue without too much fear of change. Our children and young people deserve that. Unfortunately, the cynicism in our country and the clinging to routines of the past are making all that difficult.
There is good research, good thinking, good intention out there right now -- as an educator,I applaud any idea that focuses on deep thinking for kids, that shifts the conversation from teaching to learning, and that leads all of us as adults to assume the responsibility for making change that gets schooling out of the bubbling business and into the real world of solving important problems.

Michael Barker

This was a revelation for me. It made my eyes water. I thought, "If this had of existed when I went to school, there is no telling where I would be now." You see, I am the square piece that the educational system tried to put in the round hole. By the time I was ten, standardized tests showed that I could read on the tenth grade level. By the time I was twelve, I was essentially a dropout producing consistently poor grades for years.

I had a hunger to learn but found school confounding. To this day, I still don't simple math. I have problems with addition, subtraction, multiplication and just forget division. I taught myself algebra, geometry and calculus, however. It is interesting to solve a complex math problem only to botch it because I blew 7 X 8. The calculator saved my butt!

I now work in a discipline where I troubleshoot complex problems. I even solved one problem because I used an understanding of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

My point is that school was a hindrance, never a help, because my education could not be tailored to my needs.


Chris Rogers

Can anyone tell me what the current status and future prospects are for School of One? I discovered the Freakonomics podcast only recently, and I'm going through old episodes. I was especially intrigued by the 5/12/2010 one on SOO (specifically, but customized education generally). I tried to research how things have gone since that episode but was dismayed to find very little. The news page on the SOO site itself ( is quiet. That Joel Rose left the scene in March and planned expansion of the program has been delayed don't seem to bode well.


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Jose Luis

latest news on School of One

Bruce Peterson

Wandering Star by Lee Marvin from Paint Your Wagon

Jose Luis

According to this article, results are mixed, if not bad:


This podcast upset me on a lot of levels. I'm not a teacher, but my husband is. He teaches algebra to classes of >35 8th grade students all day in LAUSD. He is a very smart man who loves the kids. He has excellent class management skills, and his scores are high, but he is not one of the stellar few with those success numbers because his students are middle to low and often do not come with the needed skills in place.

As usual, this subject was handled in a vacuum, reduced to the obvious target. Yes, a teacher makes a difference. So does the student, the parents, the administration. The small numbers of successful teachers quoted no doubt have accelerated classes of highly motivated students. That is not reality. Think bell curve.

And why is it people believe all children desperately WANT to learn if only the right teacher would appear? Most kids want to learn on their own terms, which is not what creates math skills and reading comprehension.

A drive to work or not work comes from the home environment. Add in that not all cultures value education as highly as family. Add in time spent preparing for unending testing. And magnet siphoning. And nearby schools with the best scores that subtly turn away the kids with problems and send them to you. And the prevailing atmosphere of low work for high reward and responsibilities not taken by parent or student. And the administration changing the game plan every year. Changing good books for bad ones. I can go on.