How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System? (Encore) (Ep. 54)

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School of One students learning via “virtual tutor.” (Photos: Stephen J. Dubner)

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

The main focus of the episode is a fascinating New York City Department of Education pilot program called School of One, which customizes the classroom experience for each student. You’ll hear from founders Joel Rose and Chris Rush as well as then-schools chancellor Joel Klein and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (whom you may remember as the former head of Chicago Public Schools who worked with Steve Levitt to get rid of cheating teachers).

You’ll also hear some smart stuff about customization from Pandora Radio founder Tim Westergren, who has since led his company into the promised land of public ownership.

Lionel, a School of One student

The School of One tale is told from conception onward. You’ll hear about its victories, its potential pitfalls, and how it works day-to-day. We 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.

Furthermore, you’ll hear how 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 of schoolkids’ work.

There have been some big changes at School of One since this episode originally aired. Joel Klein, you probably know, left his job as schools chancellor (and landed in a very different universe). And Joel Rose left School of One to start a new non-profit organization that hopes to take the mixed-modality model national. We’ll be sure to update his progress on this blog. It’s quite possible that cities across the country will soon start experimenting with a classroom experience that looks very much like what School of One has been doing in New York.

School of One teacher Joyce Pulphus with students Tyesha Wilson and Frank Angel Montalvo.

After the kids have gone home for the day, School of One teachers and administrators analyze their progress, one student at a time.

At 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.

Each student’s lesson is scheduled the night before, based on an optimization algorithm.

Every 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.

Mike B

We aren’t going to solve the education “problem” in this country until we solve the poverty problem. When you run the numbers most of the so called failing schools are serving poor and poor minority populations. If you break out American school districts by poverty rate and then compare them to international test scores of countries with a similar poverty rate, the American schools come out on top in every band. Our schools with very low poverty do better than countries like Finland and out schools with very high poverty do better than countries like Mexico. The same goes if you compare US State based test scores to other countries. Instead of being around number 20, which is our national ranking, several US states are in the top 10 and even the top 5.

What is failing isn’t our schools, it’s our social policy. However certain political wings don’t want to talk about poverty or income inequality. They would rather vilify public sector services like schools. Trying to attach poor educational achievement in poor communities by fixing the schools is like trying to save a sinking ship by bailing faster. Yes it’s a strategy, but it might not be the best.



I think perhaps you are confusing cause and effect. It's certainly possible to get a decent education despite attending a "poverty" school. I did it: so did most of the foreign students filling the STEM classrooms at US universities.


This is basically what Montessori guides have been doing in their classrooms for over 100 years, since Maria Montessori figured this out. Instead of calculating with computers and algorithms, they use their training and brains. If public schools (as some are) converted to the Montessori method, and trained their faculty and staff, success would occur, as it does here.


Please provide evidence. I think there are multiple ways to teach children, and Montessori is just one technique.

Frank C

This is really exciting and I can't wait to see the long-term results of customized-ed. It occurred to me a long time ago, that the factory-model, although useful during its time, was out-dated and out of touch with our technological progress. I questioned why there was a need and pressure for every child to be learning material A at age X. It a clunky way to standardize education and given the advances in computing, I really believe this is the next step towards optimizing results for each individual. This is not to say that every individual will be capable of solving differential equations by age 15, but it is to say that each individual will be closer to their full potential.

Individually tailored, customized, choose-your-modality schooling is the future - and if you think you can retrofit our current school system (a 1971 Ford Pinto) to run and perform optimally (Ferrari GTO) for all our kids, then I have a bridge to sell you.


David Liebschutz

One of the better podcasts in awhile. Nice work!!

mike D

I am worried that a large portion of Americans are being taught one thing in school, then another at home, or the same thing at school and home for some home taught children and some charter school students.

Things like, the earth is the center of the universe, the sun goes around the earth which is still. (18%)
and man was created by "Intelligent Design". (about 40 %, unsure 20%)

Personally, I find these stats far more disturbing than any other I've ever heard on Freakonomics.

And I agree with Mike B that alleviating poverty will help alleviate poor education results, but the problem is a chicken/egg type thing. Education brings people out of poverty, not being poor is likely to get you a better education, you live in a nicer area, better schools, more good students who are less likely to disrupt classes and take up the teachers time.

Which leads to the question faced by many "special" schools... How are the students picked? Or are they? Are all comers welcome? Probably not, a school that is very successful is a school overrun by requests to join. They can pick and choose the students they want. Those with parents who are motivated to motivate and discipline their children.
(discipline in the sense of providing a framework of rules, respect for authority and consequences if rules are not followed)

It's been shown in many schools that excel in poor inner cities that the student population has been picked and the problem students have been left behind to fend for themselves in the old system. So as some schools get better, some get worse.

Please, tell me about how students are picked for this school.


Mike D

I would also like to know the truth of the statement that is often heard: "Teachers cannot be fired for any reason".

I worked in a unionized hospital, and the same thing was often said of any and all unionized staff.
But it simply was not true and union members were fired for things like: stealing, constantly being late, just plain poor performance, too much sick time (although they could go onto part or full time disability if there was a real cause behind the problem in which case they would keep their job if they got better and could return to work).

Some managers simply fired some people out of hand, but they were forced to rehire the people and make them whole because they failed to document the problems with the staff member in question.
Any decent union will insert a clause in the contract that says staff can only be fired for cause. Not to be confused with being laid off due to no work or cutbacks, etc.

Any manager/school board member who signs a contract that doesn't allow for firing with cause should be fired, and they should be sued into the ground for not representing the interests of the school system. Or at least beaten with a large stick.

When I went to high school there were a LOT of poor teachers who simply didn't seem to care. It didn't surprise me because the principle didn't seem to care. There was not real consequences to any student for almost any behavior, including skipping school or smoking pot. The school rapidly became a place that didn't feel safe, for some wasn't, and wasn't conducive to a decent learning environment.

The year after I left he was fired and the school was cleaned up. In the meanwhile, I wonder how many students wound up losing out because they didn't get the support and discipline they needed?



I happen to teach in a high poverty school. According to test scores, (not a perfect way to measure, but the best way we have) our students are doing better than many in wealthier areas. It takes a different approach sometimes, but it is possible, with good leadership, teachers who are there for the right reasons, and some parental support, to make this happen. The biggest difficulty is getting parental support. Many parents in poor communities had bad experiences in school themselves, and distrust educators as a result. Understanding and acknowledging this can be difficult for some teachers, so those teachers ought not teach where I do. And that support must continually be earned, through communication and personal concern. But that us what it takes.

We will not alleviate poverty without improving education, and there us no magic formula. We still use traditional methods, but are constantly assessing and analyzing data. We teach concepts muckle ways and times, and document each student's progress, tailoring interventions as needed. It's still rational education, but not that much different than the School of One. We just have teachers doing their job instead of depending on computers to do it.

You can make a chicken/egg argument, but blaming bad education on poverty accomplishes nothing. It is just a cop-out. Instead, let's treat kids like kids and teach them, instead of making excuses for them. Most poor communities have plenty of people who are experts at blaming failings on others (this is often, though not always, why they are poor), and that already gets passed on to the kids. They don't need teachers making excuses for their failure too. Rather, they need high expectations. The method of getting there (School of One, Montessori, traditional education, etc.), is far less relavent than the dedication and persistence of the educators.



Please excuse the Android-auto-correct-isms in the prior post. "Muckle" should be multiple, and "rational education" should be traditional education.



After listening to this podcast I thought I'd check out Pandora. Not available outside the US due it licensing restrictions. That's bloody typical.

Mike D

It is available to some countries, you just have to pay for it ($3.00 a month).

Basil White

No trickle-down education policy for me, thank you. Saying that we have to "fix the poverty problem" to fix schools is like saying we have to pay health insurance companies more money to fix our health care problem. Just because better education costs more doesn't make the education problem a financial problem: you gather evidence on what works, you do what works and you fund it at an amount that maximizes the learning per dollar.

The money is an indirect cause of improvement: what directly causes educational improvement is evidence-based educational policy. If better education costs more, that's because higher costs happen to emerge from teaching students the way the evidence tells us to teach them. In fact, computer-based learning partnered with volunteer tutoring can actually decrease costs.


The School of One link is broken. The link should be

Zhao Huang

This Ameircan obsession that the solution to the education crisis is to pour more money and create fancier education methods really really confused me.

I am from China, and received my primary and secondary education in China and went to U.S. college. The faculty to student ratio in China is well above 1:70 in most schools and the average spending on education is much less. Students have less education options and are poorer (compared to U.S. standards). However, from my personal expertise, most Chinese students at better at math than most Ameircan students. The reason? Because in Chian ther is only one way to succeed - pass the one-time life-decisive examination. Students under the pressure work much harder. So I am really confused why American claim they care so much about the education while allowing the kids to get off school in the afternoon and teaching the simplest math in high school. Most students underperform in education simply because they are not working hard enough. Blaming the teacher or the system cannot explain why certain students perform better, and certainly cannot explain why the "worse" system in China are producing students better at math.

I do admit that, education always comes with pressure. Korea, which has a similar system as China, has the highest high school suicide rate. And the examination is smothering the creativity in students. My solution to the education problem is simply that students need to be inspired more but the standars of homework and tests have to be strict. I think a much harder and stricter exam, at least in math, will very effecienty increase students' performance.