Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? (Ep. 188)

Listen now:
(Photo: Ethan Pines)

(Photo: Ethan Pines)

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.



Mark Perloe

As long as we are a society that values twerking and limits communication to what we can say in 140 characters how can we expect more. For many reform means teaching creationism, denying mans role in climate change talking about the theory of evolution. How can education be successful when our society values beliefs over facts.

Sam Rausa

Great episode, but I heard little or nothing about the degree to which students are socialized to learn.

I'm an "Alternate Route" teacher in New Jersey, having spent about 30 years on Wall Street. I'm finishing my master's in computer science at Harvard and I had several teaching opportunities. I chose to teach in Irvington, New Jersey, which falls into the lowest socioeconomic stratum in the state and which has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the state. Last week, in separate incidents, two teenagers were shot to death in Irvington.

So how do I teach computer science to a student whose sister was gunned down this past summer and is full of rage? I engage him one-on-one by buying him lunch with my own meager salary and by teaching him video production during my lunch period with my own equipment. He's becoming a leader in my class of 25 students.

There is no education until there's classroom management. This episode spoke in platitudes about education without considering the everyday realities in inner-city schools.



I see one major problem with the basis for this program - how do you decide what makes an effective teacher? How is a good teacher defined? You most likely use test scores and graduation rates and the like to determine if a teacher is successful, but....

the test results are only as good as the assessment tool. How good are those? Do they really assess what is important for kids to succeed in the world?

just a bug in your ear --- look into the economics of educational testing and see


PS there is one other thing about American Education --- we educate everyone, and few other countries are that egalitarian. How about the economics of thinking all graduating students need to be college-ready?

Enter your name...

The USA, and indeed all developed countries, educates everyone. Kids with disabilities in high-performing Finland don't get to skip school (like they used to in the USA, and like they still do in some poor countries). The difference is not whether the kids are taught, but the locations (Germany uses more separate schools than the USA) and what is included in the school's budget (in the USA, "special education" includes a lot of medical services, and this is not the case in countries that provide full healthcare at no cost to children).


How is it possible to measure the impact of a teacher on a persons life?
From Kindergarten through 5th grade students have 6 different teachers. From 6th through 12th grade they have up to 39 teachers.
What is the impact of 12 great teachers 12 average teachers and 12 bad teachers on 1 student?

Do school districts with good families produce "good teachers" just like they produce good property values?

It seems that every example of a low-income success story school (charters, KIP) requires something from parents. Whether it be a lottery, or application process. Is there any examples of low-income students/teachers/schools succeeding without anything extra required from families?


Alex in Chicago

Seems like yet another set of liberal "educators" putting fingers in their ears in face of the reality that most of American students crush international competition. All you have to do is not compare American-Swiss with Swiss-Swiss, etc.

Steve Adams

The one change that needs to happen before teachers can be more effective in the classroom is to allow them the time to do all of the planning and one-on-one interaction that makes a teacher as effective as we all want to be. I spend more than 30 hours a week directly teaching students, leaving very little time to do all of the other tasks that need to be done: planning and revising lessons, reviewing student records, reaching out to students and parents, coordinating with all the other school personnel, providing meaningful feedback to students, and all of the paperwork.

You've talked to a number of school leaders, but all they suggest is that teachers should be excellent without any commitment of resources to help them become excellent.

Enter your name...

I'm not sure what "resources" means. You've got the same 24 hours in every day that everyone else does, and I don't believe that can be changed.

Is this a request for the schoolday to be changed so that the kids go home early once a week, and you spend two or three hours at school for "planning, preparation and assessment time"?

The typical white-collar professional worker in the US spends about 50 hours (not 40) working. If you're spending 30 hours in direct instruction, and 20 hours doing all the other work, then you're "only average" in terms of time spent on the job. Spending half-days on PPA could only give you an extra 10% for non-contact work, which isn't a lot (assuming you're already working the normal amount).

I wonder whether that scheme, which is very popular with teachers (and very unpopular with parents, whose childcare situation gets disrupted every week) would actually result in a net increase in PPA work. It seems equally likely to me that spending three more hours doing planning on Wednesday afternoon would result in spending three fewer hours doing planning on Sunday evening.



Kind of laughable to hear the founder of KIPPS schools as the "expert" about good education. I was a career changer (after 20 years in technology) whose main passion has always been teaching. While looking around for a teaching job, I could not help it but to notice the sheer number of jobs available at KIPPs schools. After some research, I found that those schools do not treat their teachers as well as he makes it sound in this program. If anything, I think his schools are compounding the problem by burning out a lot of young teachers in his schools. Truth is that we live in a capitalistic society, where making money is the ultimate goal for any human endeavor and since what teachers do can't be measured in actual dollars, teaching is a highly under appreciated and disrespected career by all: government, parents, students, administrators. No self-respecting highly effective professional in any field would put up with such low pay, lack of respect for what they do and a system run by admins and politicians whose main concern is their own career and not kid's education, why are we expecting that from teachers? And yes, after a couple of stints as a public school leave-replacement teacher, and as much as I loved teaching and the kids in my classroom, all the stuff I had to deal with, on top of an unbelievable low salary for my level of education, and total lack of respect, bordering on contempt from some admins and parents, I do not believe I will continue pursuing a career as a public school teacher.



This is Mr. Levin's and Mr. Feinberg's "vision"...And yes, I have taken a couple of their Relay School and they felt more like an advertisement for their "vision" than an actual college course:

"The constant churn created by teacher and staff turnover, then, reinforces and emboldens a strict corporate code of behavior that applies to all teachers and students, alike. Indoctrination into the KIPP code must be quick, thorough, and constantly monitored and reinforced."


Have you considered in your research of failing schools, specifically inner-city schools, the idea that since 1955 and the Brown v. Board of Education decision, schools have resegregated? I am a teacher at a charter school in South Central Los Angeles and 95% of my students are Latino and impoverished. The rest of the students are African-American and also impoverished. Yet, just a two miles away is USC and a few miles away is Beverly Hills. The education gap is huge even though the distance is small. I think this is something worth investigating.

Your show relies on the false premise that American public schools are failing. Really it is certain types of public schools are failing such as high poverty rural and urban schools. Well-funded suburban schools are actually very competitive internationally (beating out nations at the top of the PISA).

Part of the disparity is that new and inexperienced teachers often start their careers in Title One schools where some of the biggest challenges of poverty exist. Those teachers who don't burn out and leave the profession in the first five years often migrate to the better working conditions, pay, and funding of more affluent districts as they become better at their jobs.

Sadly, you don't look at those subtleties (and many more realities of our education system). Frankly I'm disappointed with your lack of analysis. Anyone who has examined the issues for any significant period of time realizes that the real problem related to teachers is addressing teacher retention rates and keeping better qualified and more experienced teachers in tougher schools.

If you're going to do a show about school reform, perhaps you should not make general, and inaccurate, generalizations about the entire educational system. If you can't accurately identify the problem, you'll never find the solution.

I expected better from Freakonomics. I give you a D-.


William Garfinkel

Let me look at this from a taxpayer's perspective. There is just not enough home equity from property taxes in the US to satisfy the education beast's hunger for more and more salary and benefits. It's time that the school districts did more with less like the rest of the community. It's time that the independent school districts go away and become part of the state's civil service system and become true state agencies. Why, we need an open, transparent and accountable system of education if we are to educate our children at an affordable cost.


I just finished listening to the podcast, which I found to be a 30 minute promotion for ALEC's education agenda. Did I miss something? Was this a rebroadcast from 2010? That is by far the most biased Freakanomics podcast that I can remember. While there were small bits and pieces I could argue for and against throughout the podcast, the most glaring omission was that not a single teacher was interviewed. (Three years in Teach for America does make one a teacher.)


The comparison to teacher salaries in other countries seems quite misleading. For example, in Finland teachers are required to have a Masters degree so naturally the salary differential to graduates in non-teaching jobs is smaller, as it would be if you only compared US teachers with a Masters degree. Then factor in the pension and health care system. In Finland teachers receive the same tax funded health care and pensions as everyone else. In the US teachers unions have negotiated pension and health care benefits considerably better than the average benefits available to graduates working in private industry (where fixed benefit pensions hardly exist any more). Now add in that average US teacher salaries are decreased by the inclusion of low paid early childhood teachers - a group that doesn't exist in Finland since school doesn't start until the age of 7. Add in the greater differential in job security for US teachers vs US private industry, earlier retirement, less working hours and I doubt there is much if any real discrepancy.

And this is all before we consider the quality of the teachers. Even if salaries were raised to attract better teachers how could this be done without also overpaying the existing poor quality teachers for the next 30 years. The AFT is hardly likely to allow any change that disfavors it's current members.



Many kids go home to drugged-up moms and their abusive boyfriends looking to have "fun." Where's the reinforcement? The school system is only one leg of the table.

Charles Pack

Why wouldn't you ask the people who know best: the renowned academics who have studied these problems for decades? We/always think that the business people know how to run schools. The countries with the best educational systems and results do not do this.

Judith Kurland

One must look at how other countries ' teachers teach math. They focus on fewer topics, work together to prepare and plan the best possible lessons. Possibly get extra training in good lesson and techniques in teaching math topics. Here - we try to cover much too many topics and not really in depth. No time is given for teachers to work together and plan. And there's time wasted on test prep and testing that is just not wasted in other countries. And yes, perhaps, our training in math was not so good. We need mentors or extra training to bring us up to par. Plus, many of our children come from impoverished homes that don't provide the basic vocabulary and fundamentals. (I taught elem. school in NYC for 25 years with quite good results) But my own high school didn't give me more than Elem Algebra, Geometry, and Intermediate Alg., no trig. When I got to college I needed extra help to pass my year of mathematics in Brooklyn College.


Don Duggan-Haas

No. You've framed the problem incorrectly - wholly incorrectly.

Schools aren't broken; they do the wrong things. Failing to recognize this assures ineffective responses to the problems of education.

The structure of schooling, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels has nothing to do with what we know about how people learn. If you didn't know anything about schools, but know something about learning - even if it's just from reflection on what you understand most deeply - and someone proposed schooling to you, you'd dismiss them as nuts.

We’re so stuck in the paradigm of schools that we can’t see that schooling is an essentially insane thing to do. The standard practice of putting 2000 teenagers in one building is crazy. Asking kids to sit in rows and listen to somebody talk about the Battle of Hastings for 45 minutes or an hour and then move down the hall and listen to somebody else talk about the Pythagorean Theorem for another 45 minutes or an hour? Well, that’s loony. That we expect kids to do this hour after hour after hour, day after day after day for years on end is the craziest thing of all. It’s as if the people who designed schools didn’t know or didn’t care anything about how kids (and people more generally) actually learn. It’s not that schools are broken – it’s that they do something fundamentally different than what we pretend they’re designed to do!

The above paragraph is from my chapter in this book:

School reform efforts, for the last many decades, have largely been an exercise in Einstein's definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. If the basic structure of schooling doesn't change, the outcomes won't change very much, even if you're doing things a bit more competently within that structure. Doing the wrong thing better is only of limited utility.



If teaching is so important to the future, does that not mean it should be made MORE competitive not less? In the documentary "The Cartel", they made a convincing argument for a voucher system which has the schools competing for head count, as the funding follows the students.