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

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(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.



Julien Couvreur

How do we reconcile the two observations you made:
(1) teachers are paid relatively less than other skilled professions, compared to other countries (which you labeled "brain drain" theory),
(2) the US government spends more per pupil than other countries.




Teachers are as good as the community and students' families. The better the community the better the student. Students that are prompt and motivated are easy to teach. That is not the case in communities (or families) that are broken.
Schools are expected to also be role models, parents, providers of food, and police officers. The more resources that the communities invest in these efforts dilutes away from education.

For the record: The data used for comparison between countries is flawed. The US is one of the few countries that educate every child. Also, monies are spent on the US teachers for health care which is not included for teachers in countries which have social medicine.


I've yet to hear in the news a crisis in the quality of mechanics, accountants, and butchers. It seems most jobs need no academic papers with solutions to increase quality, no pronouncements from the President during the State of the Union address, and little thought from anyone aside of those who are performing the work. We obtain quality products and services from countless professions, never once comparing the productivity of American carpenters to those in wealthy European nations. Strange that so many smart people doing so much talking seems to produce no results in teacher improvement.

Michelle Mills

Oh, Freakonomics. Why did you not interview a single experienced or current teacher for this episode? That in itself speaks volumes. (Teaching for 3 years with TFA is not what most people would consider experienced.)


It seems unlikely that local communities will increase pay or other rewards for teachers without increases in revenue, which they are unlikely to seek out. The tax break and airline boarding first seems to be in the correct direction. Why not have a national teacher ID card? At my previous job, I worked with an ex-marine who tried to figure out every possible way to exploit his veteran's card, and he was able to get discounts in surprising places including getting substantial discounts at expensive hotel rooms in San Francisco, and even getting out of traffic tickets when he casually showed it when he got stopped. If there were a way for teachers to easily identify themselves there may be ways that people outside of government can reward them. We could have a national drive for businesses to give teachers discounts and other perks. They can get discounts the way that students, veterans, and seniors do. We can promote businesses that give discounts or rewards to teachers and could even do a little shaming of businesses that don't. Teachers would get extra perks to offset the poor pay.



GASP! Implying that there's a supply side AND a demand side?!

Enjoyed the Podcast.

Brad Morris

I don't understand why the amount of holidays teachers get was not taken into account as part of their compensation in this podcast. It is not an equal comparison to take a job's annual salary where an employee may have 15 days of paid vacation with 6 holidays and compare it to another job where the employee might only work 7 months of the year. My numbers aren't exact but my central point is. Your job security should also be accounted for when considering compensation. Teachers appear to have fairly strong job security despite markets and job performance. These are relevant economics points in this discussion I wish this podcast had explored. This is my favorite podcast and I love the work you all do.

On another note, I think a great future podcast would be to explore the "glass ceiling" for female jobs and what factors play in this.


wait.... So society or culture has nothing to do with education? Home life? If not, then why are say, Jews, Koreans, Chinese, Indian....all have excellent education success in this country? They all, as communities in their own way, put stable family environment and education at the top of their elements of success pyramid.

David J. Krupp

Thank you, you beat me to saying exactly the same thing. The CULTURE of the society, community and parents are everything. Unfortunately American society is anti-intellectual. The serious student is derided as a nerd, dork, dweeb, geek, sissy and egghead.


Not only that, but our absolute refusal to do proper tracking in public education is killing us.

Think about it like a plant, you absolutely have to prune the weak parts or the healthy section will be drained of resources and begin to weaken as well. That's exactly what's happened when we began all these immersion programs. Great for those on the lower end of the academic scale, but at the cost of our most gifted students.


OK, so we demand that our teachers are masters of their subject, construct individualised learning programs for their students, raise their students' grades despite external factors, and be charismatic enough to inspire their students. Fire them if they don't. Or at least dock their pay. Fair enough.

We also demand that they stay on top of current education paradigms and that they formally account for their performance. That's a lot of paperwork, but yep, fine.

And we give them a modest pay bump. Let's say... 80K. But, obviously, they need to be micromanaged in return. You need accountability for that 30K windfall.

So. Who's interested?

What, me? Pffft. Im using my math degree to make three times that, and I can get up at 10 AM. Maybe someone in a lower quintile will put up with all that. (And nor should they expect better! Losers.)

But yeah, let's knuckle our teachers. They're obviously the only reason our kids are getting dumber.


Dan DeLuca

An entire episode on teachers, and not one teacher was interviewed on air. Can you imagine an entire episode on doctors without one practicing doctor. Attorneys? Engineers? There was a lot of talk about how to "fix" teaching in America, but this is just another example of how far we have to go until teaching is a valued and respected profession.


I went through school math-impaired from the start. I simply did. not. get. it. Every year, math got harder and harder because I was either not taught correctly from the start/did. not. get. it. I tried. I TRIED. I went to summer school year after year taking math over, and I did even worse in summer school. Algebra was a nightmare. No one would help me. The teacher said I was stupid and to take summer school again. I tried. I TRIED. Only reason I got out of school at all was because they let me take (bonehead) business math twice. I was able to add and subtract OK!