Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? (Ep. 188)
We’ve all heard the depressing numbers: when compared to kids from other rich countries, U.S. students aren’t doing very well, 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? Is the problem here that our students aren’t getting very bright simply because … our teachers aren’t very bright?
That’s the question we ask in our latest Freakonomics Radio episode. It’s called “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
The cast of characters:
+ Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor (and head of the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Antitrust Division) who now runs Amplify, a News Corp education-technology startup. Klein’s new book is Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, which was so informative and impressive that I blurbed it. In its review of the book, Newsweek says that Klein “politely rips the status quo,” which is exactly right. In this episode, Klein covers a lot of ground, including his own public-school education and the relatively low academic achievement of today’s teachers. He also tells us that Bill Gates, the primary target of the U.S. v. Microsoft prosecution that Klein led, years later donated $51 million to New York’s schools. This was shortly after Klein became chancellor. “But just think what he would have given you if you hadn’t sued him,” a principal told Klein.
+ David Levin, a former teacher who co-founded, with Mike Feinberg, KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program. They started 20 years ago with a few dozen fifth-graders in Houston; today KIPP is a nationwide network of public schools with more than 58,000 students. A recent KIPP offshoot that is relevant to this episode: the Relay Graduate School of Education. As Levin says in the podcast: “The way we train teachers is fundamentally broken in this country.” He also has some ideas about improving the public’s attitude toward teachers (hint: tax breaks and early boarding on airplanes).
+ John Friedman, an economist who works on public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-author of “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood.” The paper’s findings about the value of a good teacher were so eye-opening that they were featured in President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address.
+ Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, who shares some interesting history about why U.S. schoolteachers are predominantly female.
There aren’t many easy answers in the education-reform debate, and even fewer magic bullets. But we hope that by asking a very basic question — how much of the problem lies in our teaching, and what’s to be done about it? — that we can contribute to a useful conversation. Next week’s episode will follow on this one, with a look at a social-services program in Toronto that is accomplishing what a lot of schools cannot.