Freakonomics and education

This post began as a comment on Joe Bower’s blog, for the love of learning, in response to his post, “Shame on you Steven Levitt.”

I’ve been listening to Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics the past week while commuting. While I find the perspective and insight fascinating, I truly detested Levitt’s handling of the “cheating teachers” studies in Chicago.

His perspective on education is obvious when he talks about “bad teachers” and “good teachers” (as defined by standardized test scores). The disdain with which he talks about the teachers supposedly proven to be cheating the tests is also disappointing. The real problem, though, is that he asked the wrong question. The question shouldn’t have been, “do teachers cheat?” Sure, some teachers cheat – so do some people in every profession in the history of the world. Teachers are human too.

The real question should have been, “why are these teachers cheating and what does it tell us about the educational system?” Or, better still, “are standardized test valid measures of teaching and learning?” Instead, huge assumptions were made:

  1. Teachers are cheating to make themselves look good and to get pay raises (or avoid being fired) – while this may be entirely true, individual teachers’ motivations may have been drastically different;
  2. Standardized tests are valid measures of teaching and learning – obviously I don’t believe this at all;
  3. Test scores should be relatively stable from year to year – anyone who has pored over data from frequently administered tests knows this to be untrue. I’ve seen kids’ scores on the MAP test go up and down dramatically within a year

No debate as to the validity, reliability or value of standardized tests is mentioned. No concern about cohort effects is addressed.

Why should we expect an economist to understand the full scope of the issue?

We shouldn’t.

And yet, considering Levitt’s premise of using data and statistics to tell the story behind the story (I found his analysis of cheating in sumo wresting fascinating) I think he missed the true opportunity here.

The story Steven Levitt should be telling is the correlation between family income and test scores and what this indicates about our educational system and the future of our nation.


What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

I have a confession to make.

I’m a learning junkie.

There – I said it!

Yesterday was the first day of my Winter Break. I’ve been mildly sick all of the last week of school and refusing to stay home because I didn’t want to call in sick right before break. I have a 4 week old newborn at home. I really need a break this year!

So what did I do yesterday?

  • Wrote a proposal for a Washington STEM Entrepenurial Award (partly done with one hand while holding a sleeping infant)
  • Wrote a proposal to lead a Professional Learning Community study of formative assessment, feedback and summative assessment with my colleagues in January
  • Read 2 chapters of Making Learning Whole (mostly while riding my exercise bike)
  • Caught up on reading a few of my favorite blogs by my fellow educators

Of course, I also had plenty of time to read to the kids, hold the baby, take a nap, and watch A Christmas Story with the whole family.  Don’t worry – my family is not getting neglected!

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t learn enough. I can’t improve my practice as an educator fast enough. The longer I teach, the more urgency I teach with.

The desire to become the best teacher I can be drives my voracious appetite for learning. I have a really hard time understanding teachers who don’t engage in any self-directed professional learning. It’s actually become a real pet peeve of mine to hear teachers say things like, “I don’t have time to READ!” Then they launch into a long-winded conversation about whatever crappy T.V. show they watched the night before.

How do you have time to NOT read?

How can you NOT care to improve as an educator?

I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my vacation. I’m also going to come back from this break a better educator than I was before it.

What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

Wait ’till next year

Why put off for next year what you can do today (or at least tomorrow)?


In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Brooklyn Dodgers fans’ rallying cry was, “wait ’til next year!”  The team would come close to a championship only to lose the World Series (usually to the hated Yankees).  This fan attitude showed undying loyalty to the status quo and may have enable team management to not ‘go for broke, knowing the fans would keep coming back.


Why is it in education that when we recognize a problem, we say, “wait ’till next year?”

We’ll revise the student handbook next year…

I’ll try project based learning (or standards based grading, inquiry, etc). next year…

We’ll change the way we to professional development next year…

Why not today?

It goes beyond procrastination and into fear. Yes, I know a new school year is a fresh start and a clean slate and a great time to implement new things. That being said, if a change can be made now, today, why wait?

This mentality is why many teachers repeat their first year of teaching every year. They wait until the new school year to make a change. Over the summer, the urgency for change dims. They forget the frustration of the previous year. They blame the group of kids they had or their circumstances. Then it happens again and they decide that next year is REALLY going to be the year. And the cycle repeats.

If you see a problem in your classroom, do something about it today.

If you see a problem in your school, put a fix in motion today.

Get students and/ or staff involved.  Brainstom solutions. Pick one. Try it. Monitor the results.

Tweak, revise, rethink, scrap, try again. Maybe this year will be crazy but you’ll learn alot that you can implement next year from a position of experience.

Today is too important; not to mention tomorrow and all of the tomorrows before next year!

Tension: Freedom vs. support

How do you balance freedom with support?


My favorite restaurant in town closed a few years ago. It was a phenomenal Thai restaurant owned by an amazing woman who immigrated from Thailand. She did all of the cooking and ordering herself and love went into every bite. The menu was simple but every dish was done exquisitely.

When she sold the restaurant to focus more on her family, the new owners greatly expanded the menu. Patrons were suddenly overwhelmed by the number of choices. Overhead must have been a nightmare. They went out of business within a year.




There is a critical tension between freedom and support. Go to far in either direction and inquiry falters.

When I give my students too many choices (especially too soon), many flounder. Some can’t (won’t?) generate a question that they are interested in answering. We all get frustrated. Often this requires  a lengthy discussion to help identify a productive question. At this point, neither of us is sure whose question it really is.

The role of the teacher in inquiry is different from a traditional classroom, but no less critical.

If kids don’t get the coaching they need, when they need it, they often quit. When needed materials or methods are not delivered on time, students lose the spark of curiosity – sometimes for good. When promised learning experiences are delayed or cancelled, engagement and learning suffer.

Yet I am only one man. Sometimes the whirlwind of inquiry activities is overwhelming. I’m teaching my students to be more self sufficient and to lean on their peers for feedback but the road is bumpy.

Without sufficient leadership, teenagers resemble a football team with the ball and the lead at the end of a close game – they huddle up and start killing the clock; except that teenagers will do this when they don’t have the lead. Sometimes I intervene; sometimes I let them make the choice to go into “victory formation” and take a knee when they are clearly behind. Too much guidance and the joy of discovery and the creative process of problem solving are lost.

I default to the personal approach; I know my students and I know when they are struggling. When the kids are knee deep in inquiry, I spend most class periods hustling around interjecting support when they need it, providing materials, suggesting possible next steps. Sometimes I let them lean on me too much though. That’s when I feel like I’m spinning. The kids are clamoring for my attention and get angry when I don’t help them. This happens most when I’ve given too many choices and not enough support.

How do you balance freedom with support in your classroom?

Image used under cc license from the Flickr photostream of thelastminute

“It’s complicated. And we need to move on.”

Michael Doyle (Science Teacher) inspired this post with his post “If Randall Munroe were Secretary of Education” If you don’t know who Randall Munroe is, he is the creator of the brilliant web comic xkcd.

The crux of Michael’s post:

“It’s…complicated. And we need to move on” kills inquiry, kills science, but apparently not science education.

In the quest for rich inquiry (easier said than done), this is a core goal. Student questions and curiosity must drive the curriculum awhenever possible.

When I, or the state standards, drive the curriculum train with what we think is important, engagement is a fickle mistress. Often, key topics bore many (most?) students to tears. Sometimes, students are hooked by topics I expect to incite mutinous apathy.

I’m getting better at knowing the difference but it varies dramatically from student to student, group to group, year to year. Every time I think I’ve found a topic that kids love or a method that keeps them engaged, I’m brought back to earth by a group (or a vocal minority) that reminds me I don’t have all the answers.

Better to let student interest drive the train, methinks.

Getting back to the basics

The phrase, “getting back to the basics,” conjures up images of teachers lecturing students endlessly; pouring mind-numbing minutiae into their mental receptacles.

I’m getting back to the basics right now with my chemistry class.

This has nothing to do with textbooks or lectures; no connection to facts; no memorization.

We are getting back to the basics of science.

The students generated questions about a phenomena. Their questions led to hypotheses. They are testing those hypotheses with experiments that they designed. When they have their data, they will use it to make a conclusion about their hypothesis.

Sure, they are learning about the Ideal Gas Law through this experience; they just don’t know that yet.

However, if I were to ask one of my students right now about the relationship between temperature, pressure, volume and the number of molecules of gas; they could reason it out.

Back to the basics!

Make time for… FRUSTRATION!

My students were frustrated yesterday and today. I let them wallow in it.

This is a good thing.

Yesterday, I started the group on a whole class inquiry challenge with minimal direction from me. Students had to lead their planning discussion while I observed and took notes. This discussion didn’t go very well – especially from the perspective of the two class leaders.

In fact, they left my room a bit angry.

This is a good thing.


I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

Because they were frustrated with their classmates. They were frustrated with those who were not engaging in the process – those who were not participating. They were frustrated with the complexity of the process and the lack of easy answers from the teacher.

Today, the students came in with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to collaborate. The discussion was much more productive (even though there was one emotional outburst).

I love to cultivate an healthy level of frustration in my classes. I love to see my students struggle, fail, regroup, and try again. My students need this. So do yours.

Some of the most powerful learning I have seen has occurred when students were frustrated – angry even! – and were able to achieve a breakthrough on their own.

Do I need to step in sometimes? Of course. One of the best lessons that experience is teaching me is exactly when to intervene. Jump in to soon and the student never learns independence and the joy of the epiphany. Wait too long and many students will quit. Usually, though, a teacher’s instinct is to give the kids a boost way too soon.

We all need to learn how to deal with frustration, in school, in work, in life.

image used under cc license from the flickr photostream of MarkKelley