One of the podcasts I listen to every week is Freakonomics, which focuses on business and economics in everyday life and is based on the books of the same name. Most episodes are very interesting, although sometimes they reach a little too far in trying to make a connection, and once in a while fall off the rails altogether.

As with a recent edition in which they asked the question Is America’s Education Problem Just a Teacher Problem?. You can probably guess how that discussion went.

Start with the people involved. In addition to the host and co-author of the books we have the co-founder of KIPP, which the program describes as a “nationwide network of public schools”,1 a think tank economist, the author of a book on education history, and Joel Kline, a lawyer and former Chancellor of the New York City schools. No actual teachers, of course, and at least two people who are described as “educators” but who really are more business people.

Although there is so much wrong in this program, I still recommend a listen.2 If, however, you don’t want to spend the time, here’s a short summary of the conclusions, none of which should surprise you.

  1. Everyone agrees that most US students are not doing well, especially compared to those in other countries.
  2. Most US teachers “aren’t the best and brightest” and we need more “great” teachers.
  3. More great teachers will change #1 as well as improve the economy.
  4. But raising teacher salaries will not solve the problem, although “competition” (merit pay, charters, etc.) will.
  5. Teacher unions are bad and KIPP has everything figured out.

Finally, at the very end of the program, the host inadvertently stumbles across why the previous 35 minutes of talk was mostly wrong.

Think about it: a school has your kid for only seven hours a day, 180 days a year, or about 22 percent of the kid’s waking hours. Nor is all that time devoted to learning, once you account for socializing and eating and getting to and from class. And for many kids, the first three or four years of life is all parents and no school. But when serious people talk about education reform, they rarely talk about the family’s role in preparing children to succeed. That may be because the very words “education reform” indicate that the underlying question is “what’s wrong with our schools?” — which, these days, inevitably leads to “what’s wrong with our teachers”? [emphasis mine]

Reformers rarely talk about the family’s role. Or the part that a community plays in that other 78% of a child’s life. About whether living in poverty just might have more influence on a child’s future than any “great” teacher.

Maybe the underlying question of school reform shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with our schools?”, but instead “what’s wrong with our society?”.