> 0 Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? (Ep. 188) - Freakonomics Freakonomics

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.




I thought this program was supposed to look at topics from the angle of economics and statistics. When did Freakonomics move away from that premise?

James Jones

It was a strange experience to listen to a Freakonomics podcast on this subject and hear no mention of the proverbial elephant under the rug: government schools have an effective monopoly on K-12 education, and a monopoly, especially one that can use government's coercive power to take the money it wants, has no incentive whatever to improve or even a need to perform its alleged function.


Programs like KIPP and other Charter schools are privately funded and often attached to a corporate interest. I can't speak for the Nation as a whole, but here in Baltimore despite the positive press our Charter schools (KIPP included) perform much lower on tests, attendance, and suspension statistics than the regular public schools.


I'm surprised at how little Freakonomics analysis you put in this podcast.

You essentially accepted the average salary for teachers, without considering the value of the benefits (a defined benefit pension, which may (and I suspect most) teachers have) is a HUGE value over most of us who have an IRA or 401(k). You also have to consider the fact that teaching may be a 10-month job for many. So what is the real apples to apples comparison for teachers v. average college graduates?

You also didn't consider incentives here. A plumber, or a a lawyer, or an entry-level white-collar worker generally has incentives to keep striving and improving their performance, because they are rewarded for it by promotions and raises. On the flip side, those people who don't perform are quickly left behind or fired. Teachers, by the nature of the job, don't have the same upside (promotions and raises) or downside (getting fired) that are dependent on their abilities. In a job that tends to be defined and controlled by seniority and collective bargaining, why would you expect the average employee to do more than show up and do the minimum required by her own sense of morality?

Third, the fact that assessing teachers may be hard doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done at all. I'll bet you that every teacher or administrator that works in a school can identify a number of teachers who are dramatically sub-par. I'll bet you that there would be a broad consensus on which teachers in any school are the ones that should go if merit were a criterion. And I'll bet that the same is true on the top end -- the people in the school know who the superstars are. Virtually every non-unionized worker in the country has to contend with subjective and inaccurate assessments and employment actions. Why is there any sound economic reason to insulate teachers from that? And, if teachers were rewarded or punished based on their performance (even if subjectively and/or inaccurately assessed), you can bet that they would modify their performance to increase the upside and decrease the downside.



"In a job that tends to be defined and controlled by seniority and collective bargaining, why would you expect the average employee to do more than show up and do the minimum required by her own sense of morality?"

Because teaching isn't just "a job". I know that's a vague sentiment and I can only back it up with emotional cliches, but as a teacher who has worked in tough system for a decade - it takes a special kind of person to do this job well. I care about the students I teach, that's what pushes me forward. Adults, specifically reformers who lack classroom experience, are the worst part of this career. I've watched wave after wave of reforms sweep through my system, only to be dropped by administration when they realized the model they were using was only successful in one rural community and wasn't actually tested for a massive urban school system.

The podcast also forgot to mention that K-12 tenure and college/university tenure are not the same thing. Tenure in public education is not an immunity to firing, it is a promise of due process. If a teacher is failing their students, and their supervisor documents that failure in a specific bureaucratic way - that teacher can be fired at the end of the school year (and in extreme cases during the school year).

In my experience the problem hasn't always been that the teacher was bad, but also that the principal couldn't be bothered to get out of his/her office to do the necessary observations and paperwork to get rid of the bad teacher.



I agree that it takes a special kind of person to be a great teacher. My kids have have many, many more teachers who were excellent or exceptional than mediocre or worse.

But we're not talking about individual teachers, in part because teachers and their unions fight to the death to prevent anyone from making termination, retention or promotion decisions based on whether a teacher is any good. Thus, the rules were written to protect the many, many mediocre or bad teachers.

Why in the world would any great teacher want a system where they could be laid off before a mediocre or bad teacher who had more seniority? Or that makes it so difficult to fire a bad teacher?

If you want to be recognized for talent and dedication, then you have to be prepared to be penalized for being incompetent or slothful. If you effectively prohibit management from making decisions based on teachers' ability, you shouldn't be surprised that people have negative conclusions about teachers' abilities.



This morning I listened your episode "Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?" For a podcast that loves facts, it was such a massive disappointment to hear. I don't listen to your podcast often, but it is in my rotation and the Freakonomics book is still one of my favorite reads. I have an admitted bias here, as I am a 10 year and counting veteran of the Baltimore City School System. But I wanted to post my reaction for what it is worth.

The host and his interviewees refer to teachers as an amorphous mass, like we are all mindless cattle stampeding towards a cliff edge and simply need a brave cowboy to steer is un a different direction. They constantly talk about 'bad' and 'good' and 'great' teaching without ever qualifying what any of that means. The host interviewed three people: An author of a book called "Teacher Wars", The retired chancellor of the NYC School system (who was a lawyer before his post at the helm), and the head of KIPP who hasn't taught in a classroom since 1990. Not a single active current teacher was interviewed.

They bashed teachers, unions, higher education's preparation of teachers ALL with broad strokes - talking about how teachers aren't learning how to incorporate modern skills and technology in the classroom. Not once did they talk about how underfunded education is, or how education ranks close to last on important issues polled for both Democrats and Republicans (The Economy and Taxes are at the top of that list). They never touched on groups like Teach for America, and that it exists because people don't want to be career educators in this system anymore.

The message was we currently have stupid and incompetent teachers who are unfirable, and that if we could only take the top 5% graduates of every college and make THEM teachers (like in Finland!) than we would be saved. They did, of course, constantly stop to remind the listening audience that teachers are the most important people for our future, just not the ones we have currently. Not the best way to start the day. Teachers know that reform is needed, but that reform does need to by systemic and communal (something the podcast talked about in the closing minutes, but seemed to dismiss as an option). Parental involvement and early education are very important to student growth and success in the classroom.

Teaching is an Art and a Science. It is an individual expression of both content and engagement, and until podcasts and news sources and reformers start including TEACHERS in the discussion on how to fix teaching, it will continue to be a lost cause.


Average Random Joe

Actually they talked about how over funded, how we spend more per student than anyone else.

You talk about it being void of facts, but they did state that teachers are typically lower compared to their classmates. You may not have like the facts but that was the context they stated that message of stupid and incompetent teachers.

And who are unfirable, are you saying that there isn't a differential compared to most other jobs for ability to fire someone?

Teachers know that reform is needed? They only chant, more money. But that just maintains the status quo. We didn't accept that in the medical world, throwing money at it wasn't an option. Reform mean actual change and teachers offer none that again doesn't include just spend more money.

Parental involvement is minimal when there is little teacher involvement. Ever had your own kid with a bad teacher? You can't do anything but try and undo the damage everyday. Or tried to work with an apathetic teacher. Parents that are turned away that were already on the fence are disenfranchised from the process, without a voice for recourse. So they give up. Let the parent grade the teacher. Let the student grade the teacher. Remove outliers (top 10% and bottom 10%) and add grades from fellow teachers, administrators, and some third party. You at least have some plan to rate teachers. Currently any plan to rate teachers is strictly rejected. The party of no just rejects anything but the status quo, that isn't recognizing the need for reform.

All jobs and professions are arts and science. If it was pure science, a computer/machine can do it.

Teachers are excluded because their only message is maintain status quo. They never have another message.



I just listened to the podcast today and haven't read all of the comments, so I apologize if I'm rehashing things that have been brought up (which I'm sure that I'm doing).

I am a public school teacher, in the middle of my 5th year of teaching, and have taught in 3 public schools in two states. I went to two different graduate schools for education; one to get certified and another to receive a master's degree. I'm also a huge fan of the show and of the Freakonomics books. So, needless to say, I was interested in this podcast. However, it left me a little annoyed.

First, I had a major issues with the guests, or I should say the lack of guests of differing viewpoints. Both Klein and Levin are huge proponents of charter schools. Charter schools are different than regular public schools (even though you lumped in KIPP schools with regular public schools). While everyone who applies is eligible, charter schools don't take everyone who applies. Public schools have to take EVERYONE. Charter schools can also kick students out of school. And where do they end up? Back in the regular public school. Now, I know charter school teachers, and they are great people and teachers, and charter schools do offer a great alternative for urban students, but they should not be the model of how schools should be run. By the way where were the interviews with REGULAR PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS/ADMINISTRATORS? Where is their side? What about parents?

Second, I was shocked at the lack of discussion of mandatory standardized testing. This is one of the major problems that teachers are facing. There is less time to teach students because they are preparing students to take tests, especially in the lower-economic districts. I hope the fact that you had someone from Amplify, a company that is connected to creating the PARCC assessment, had nothing to do with this. Also, education is NOT QUANTIFIABLE! Why does no one understand this? It's qualitative, and sometime takes time for a student to understand things. Yet teachers are being graded on how well their students perform on a test, on top of how administrators are able to evaluate teachers subjectively, even though it is becoming more objective.

Finally, for a show/brand that always discusses incentives, I heard almost none of them brought up. Mr. Klein discussed the need to get rid of tenure and "lock-step" pay raises, yet these are two huge incentives for teachers to stay in the profession. Teaching is HARD. I was admittedly naive about teaching when I went into it, but can now attest that it is an extremely difficult profession. Without the incentives mentioned above, along with benefits and a pension, most teachers would leave the profession within 5 years, especially now with all of the paperwork and stress they have to go through.

Still, I want to say that I thought the topics of discussion were relevant and some of the points made by the guests were excellent. Schools of education do need to change. My post-baccalaureate teaching program was TERRIBLE and my lack of knowledge in how to teach language arts was a huge obstacle in my first teaching job. There definitely does need to be more hands-on experience for teachers, possibly a full-year of student teaching. And teachers definitely lack skills in differentiating their classroom teaching (I was one of them).


Muriel Berkeley

The metrics driven approach to education (value added defined as changes in standardized test scores) that Joel Klein helped to popularize are ruining schools and driving those who want to teach elsewhere. Until we accept how complex teaching and learning are, AND look to research that shows the most effective instructional practices, we will not improve our schools.


I agree with almost everything Dave Levin said, but paying more to work longer hours, is not actually paying more. Just saying.


How typical: all this talk about problems with our education system being "broke" and most if not all of the focus (read: blame) is placed on the teachers...perhaps a little on the administrations. NONE of it where it largely belongs: on the kids (and by obvious extension the parents). What a classic 21st century mindset: blame someone else and don't hold the ones accountable who should be first and foremost. If they're doing poorly, by golly must be bad teachers or a "bad system." What a joke.

The system we had in place was working fine until permissive/neglectful/irresponsible parenting became all the rage. Coincidence? Or just maybe that is in fact a huge part of it. Ya think?

Try actually talking to teachers (which this thing failed to do) and you will find overwhelmingly how much teacher authority and discipline have been shredded to the point of near non-existence. God forbid a teacher should so much as look at a child cross-eyed for fear of being sued, and the administration - also running like scared rabbits thanks to our brilliant legal system that practically applauds the sue-happy idiots - is no help. There's the real problem.

I'm reminded of the poll done some time back where they polled kids who did well in school and asked them what was the biggest factor. American kids said something like a special teacher, etc. Foreign kids said "hard work." Hello McFly.