> 0 How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System? (Encore) (Ep. 54) - Freakonomics Freakonomics

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.


It is kind of funny to see the obvious misspelling in the educator dashboard there. Surely it is "more than expected" in basic English.


After failing in a [well to do] public high school, I switched my teens to a 'self paced' charter school where they did very well. I liked the curriculum, which was challenging and from which I learned new info.

There are indeed multiple paths to learning, and matching it to the child makes a big difference.


Does anybody know the tittle of the song at the end of the podcast?

Tired in Buffalo

Catering to each student seems to be a drastic measure that once again goes overboard in catering to the student. One of the funniest experiences I had as a teacher was having a student teacher present Our Town by Thornton Wilder during Black History Month and showing a pic of James Baldwin as the author. Funny part was her supervisor, Dr. So and So from UB didn't even know. We are so consumed with gimmicks and strategies that the actual content does not seem to matter. Maybe Lionel or someone like him, learns best with loud music (because he is never exposed to a quiet atmosphere.) Studies now show that students absorb more without multitasking in a quiet or silent environment, but we will still keep catering to the Lionels or whoever, who say they learn best with loud music. There has always been poverty in this country. But never in the history of this country, has there been so many excuses, crutches, coddling and acceptance of total disrespect for teachers and educators. Men have pulled themselves out of poverty through education and hard work historically, but now we don't give them that chance, we give them a handicap instead. Show me a college or a job or career that is going to "individualize" the experience for the learner or the employee. It doesn't exist. Why don't we simply expect more and accept less of the crap.


Todd B

I think this research is fascinating and has real potential to improve the education industry. There is plenty of research out there showing that each individual has different styles of learning, and recently the responsibility has been placed on the teacher to target as many of those as possible to ensure no students fall through the cracks and give each an equal opportunity to learn. But systems such as this can improve our allocation of resources, the most precious of which is one-on-one instruction, so that the students who need less help or can learn through less resource intensive will allow the system to give more "expensive" (for lack of a better word) support to those who need it. It's just genius!

My question is how can I get involved? Does anyone know the name of Joel Rose's non-profit, or how to get in touch with him? A google search didn't turn up much other than announcements of his departure from School of One.

Thanks to the Freakonomics team for another enticing podcast!



I can hardly wait to see the pampered darlings who come out of this system entering the workforce. I hope to God they all start their own businesses.

You remember work, right? It's supposed to be the end result of education.

Part of the learning in a traditional school system is learning to work with others, learning to get information from people who operate in different modalities than you, learning to work to different expectations. And that means your classmates as well as your teachers. And your principal upon occasion.

When my nieces have a bad teacher, I remind them they'll have bad bosses too. It's a fact of life - so rather than trying to remove every stone from their path why don't we just let them learn to work through the issues?

Because otherwise, we'll have a nation of people who want jobs reset for each and every one of their personal preferences - and that seems highly inefficient to me.



Soundhound can't find it, and Shazam gets it wrong. It sounds like Chopin to me, but I'd sure like it if someone could pinpoint it for us. Dubner?


I had never heard of Iglu and Hartly until listening to this podcast, and now "In This City" is one of my favorite songs.

Donald Da Duck

Hi, my mother was a teacher for 30 years. She was teaching kids math in schools and still does it via private tutoring.
She was able to tell you at any point what some kid can and cant do, what she needs to do to improve his/her knowledge, she would go as far as having 3-4 customized tests and groups within the same lecture. Green board and chalk, that was all she needed.

Her kids went to highest ranking state competitions and won or got to the highest level.

Why am I saying all this: to basically say that I have a clue of what I am saying.

The teacher that wants and goes an extra mile for her student always always has better results. She did not need no programs no fancy computers to do it. She just had a good methodology, good way of teaching.

I have friends that are teachers I know what they were learning. They were not learning how to teach people something, they learned almost everything but that. Out of 40+ exams that they had to pass only 1 or 2 was about child psychology and methodology. What I am suggesting is that teaching work force is unqualified to say the least. Teaching is a skill an art, I can teach kids with ease (I am not a teacher but I did give lectures for a while). It rubbed off just by watching her and I am honestly better than the most.
Once teaching becomes observed as a skill of itself we may see different results. Until then we are gonna see programs like this that in its core do not get it. They are of well intentions but are still hiring the same work force that was unable in 90% of the cases to teach kids what they were supposed to.