13 A Little More Homework Mp3 Rocket

Eric Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his new book, Endangering Prosperity (co-authored with Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann). Hanushek argues that America's educational system is mediocre relative to other school systems around the world and that the failure of the U.S. system to do a better job has a significant negative impact on the American standard of living. Hanushek points to improving teacher quality as one way to improve education.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: August 5, 2013.] Russ: So, what's the cause for alarm? Why do you think our schools and our school system--why are they endangering prosperity? Guest: The simple fact is that our schools don't produce the very high quality output. Our achievement levels, as measured by international tests, is considerably below what we see in other developed countries. And many developing countries. Russ: And why is that so important? Guest: If we look at the last 50 years, we see that countries where the population has higher achievement, knows more math and science, grow faster. And their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) gets larger because they have a more skilled population. Anything that affects the growth of GDP has huge implications for future well-being of societies. Russ: There are many, many questions raised by those ideas. One being: How do we know? How do we know that our schools are doing a bad job? Casual, empirical, anecdotal evidence--casual evidence--suggests that that's the case. There are a lot of horror stories that we hear. How do we know that those horror stories are real? And how do we get an idea of the magnitude of what we are talking about? Guest: About 1965 a group of international people said: Why don't we test people in different countries and find out what the level of math skills is across the different countries? And they had a set of, what I think it is, 9 countries that volunteered to initially take a common test, where you just have a math test that you translate into the native language of a different country and walk around the world. It turned out that the United States didn't do particularly well on that. Russ: We were one of the first 9. Guest: We were one of the first 9. The United States has participated in all these tests, even though people have not paid much attention to them until quite recently. Since then there have been a large number of tests given--over a dozen different testing occasions, different grades, different subject matters--that allow us to get a good fix on what is the achievement level of people in different countries. Russ: Now, one of the tests that you mainly focus on, although there are many other pieces of evidence, but the test that you focus on that's given internationally is the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test. Talk about what that is. Is that the same test from 1965, or is it a variation? Who writes it? Who takes it? Guest: It turns out that that there are two different international testing consortia. The PISA test is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is the club of developed countries. And they started this test in 2000. It was an offshoot of the original test, which is now called the TIMS test--the Trends in Mathematics and Science study. The PISA test is designed to measure practical knowledge of people in math and science and reading, so it gives them a lot of word problems of practical value, and then tries to assess how much do people know. The United States is below average among the OECD--among the developed countries of the world. Russ: How much below average? How bad is it? Guest: Just slightly below average. But that misses the fact that there are some countries that are way ahead of us. Including our northern neighbor in Canada, which is noticeably ahead of us. Russ: So, one obvious question when you are talking about these kind of international comparisons is who takes the test. So, what is the universe of people who take the test in the United States? And is it the same approximate kind of universe of people who take the test in other countries? Guest: The PISA test is given to 15-year-olds. And it looks for a random set of 15-year olds who are in school around the world. But it turns out that at least across the developed countries, almost all 15-year-olds are in school. So it's a random sample of the population of these countries. Russ: Public and private? Or just public schools? Or is it just public schools? Guest: Public and private. Russ: Because none of my kids have ever taken it as far as I know, for what it's worth. Obviously that brings the scores up--just kidding.
5:51 So, the United States doesn't do very well. And then the question is: You made the claim earlier that there's a relationship between--which there obviously is--human capital, that is, knowledge, some measure of knowledge, and growth. One thought that crosses my mind is, you said in 1965 the scores were--the United States didn't do particularly well. We've had a good run over the last 50 years. Is that run about to end because over the last 50 years our schools have not done a very good job? And before I go on, I want to mention--and you also make this very clear in the book--you can rank countries according to how they do on a score on some test, but it's not a zero-sum game. We don't really mind if other countries get ahead. It's good that everybody gets smarter and wealthier. I think the real point here is that we're not just "behind". We're not doing very well. Having made that point, which you make also--over the last 50 years--we're probably the most innovative country in the world; we're a big country, but certainly on lots of measures of innovation we're number 1. The school system doesn't seem to hold us back so much. Guest: Well, I think that we've had a number of advantages that we've been exploiting over this time period. To begin with, back in 1960, the United States was practically the only country that had universal secondary schooling for its population. And we just had more years of schooling, more school attainment, than everybody else. But more than that, other things affect economic performance and economic growth. One of which is the character of the economic institutions. So, we've had free and open labor in product markets, we've had limited intrusion of government, and a variety of other things: good property rights. A variety of other things that people generally attribute as being good institutions. And this has allowed us to use our resources better than most other countries in the past. And then, by other measures, we probably have the best higher education in the world, still, today. So that our colleges and universities are superior. And then finally, we allow a lot of good foreign people to come into the United States and work here. We have a good immigration policy. Russ: And study here. Guest: And study here. And then stay here. Now, the important thing about that list, which I think explains pretty well why we've done better than you'd expect given our achievement, is that all of those advantages are going away compared to other countries in the world. Everybody looks at the United States; they say: The United States is a rich country. How did they get rich? They say: Well, they've got a lot of education; let's have education. They have good economic institutions; maybe we should improve our economic institutions. And all of the other countries in the world are now trying to emulate the United States, and some of them are doing quite a good job at it. Russ: And that would be fine. And going back to my earlier aside of a minute ago--that would be okay. It would be great if other countries emulate our economic policy, try to create similar economic institutions. I think the more disturbing concern is that, it's again, it's not just that our lead has gotten smaller or we're behind in some international test competition. It's that our schools aren't very good. Our kids are not learning what they might be able to learn. Guest: No, absolutely. What the international tests show very clearly is what is feasible. You can look at these tests and say: As I look around the world there are people in many other countries that can do a lot more math problems than our kids can. They have the skills to know the science better than our kids. And eventually it looks like, according to all past history, this is going to catch up with us, and our growth rate is going to be slow compared to lots of other countries over the long run. What that means is that our economy will not be so dominant in the world. And that has ramifications for our foreign policy, for defense policy, and for the wellbeing of our population. That's what we are endangering. That is, the future is going to haunt us if we don't do something to fix our schools. Russ: I think, when I looked at the national comparisons that you present, I think Singapore is number 1. Am I getting that right? Guest: Well, it varies by who you include. In the last PISA test, Shanghai--the city--took these tests and were way ahead of everybody else. But who knows who was taking the test in Shanghai. That's an open question. But Singapore has done well, Finland, South Korea have done remarkably well compared to us. Russ: And 'well' here is--there's a measure of proficiency, say in math, where I think it's in some countries it's 60% or 70% of the students taking the test are proficient. Whereas in the United States the number is quite a bit lower. What's the number in the United States? Guest: Well, the U.S. proficiency rate is 32%; and Singapore has 63% proficiency by the standard set in the United States of what proficiency means on our national assessment of educational progress. Russ: But they are using the same scale there, comparing the different nations. Guest: Absolutely the same scale. Russ: And that's alarming. Only in a sense, like you say: the glass could be a lot fuller. One thought I had is that it wouldn't surprise me that in certain cultures and in certain countries that they might teach to the tests a little bit. In an urge to get a higher international score. Do we know anything about that? Guest: I don't think there's any reason to expect countries to try to teach to these tests. It's taken by a relatively small portion of the population of a random set of schools, and schools don't know that they are preparing to be tested on these tests. They teach to the test in the sense that they teach a curriculum that, if taught well, supports good performance. But that's what we really hope that all countries do; if they announce what kids should know and kids know it, then they do well in these tests.
12:48Russ: So I want to take an example that you give of a question from the test. I may butcher the question, so it's not going to be representative of how easy or hard it is to read the question. But the gist of it is: If you have to stack three tennis balls and each tennis ball has a radius of 3 cm., how tall does the can have to be to hold 3 tennis balls? So to answer that question, you have to know what 'radius' is--that's a big thing. So that's half the diameter, half the span of the ball. So that's 6 per tennis ball, if the radius is 3. And you've got to stack them; there's three of them, so 6 times 3. I know that you've either got to see the three of them stacked on top of each other, or just do the mental 6 x 3, and that gets you to 18. And I think that's the correct answer, right? Guest: That's correct. Russ: That's a pretty easy question, you'd think, more or less easy question. You could debate whether that was easy or not. But evidently it's hard for some people; they don't get it. And one thing you hear sometimes, and you and I have talked about this before on this program, I think, but there's a trend in mathematics education in the United States away from rote, away from drilling, away from multiplications tables, with a big emphasis on intuition and understanding. I'm a big fan of intuition and understanding, but I'm also a big fan of believing--my wife is a math teacher; we talk about this a lot--I'm a big fan that intuition really grows out of some drilling and rote. You've got to have some basic facts. There's a lot of romance in American education right now about--you probably know the buzz words--but about thinking about things holistically and the right answer isn't what's important; it's how you can get there. So, it wouldn't surprise me that that kind of question, that some Americans--it does require some intuition. It's not a pure rote question. It's not 6 x 3. It's a little bit of piecing together a set of things, a bit of problem solving at a simple level. Maybe other countries' math systems really emphasize calculation and that kind of thing, and maybe our math program emphasizes something else. Now, I think that's a mistake, personally, in math, maybe in other areas. Maybe we've gone off the rails in our math education. One, do you agree? And, two, is this a broader problem than just our math scores on the PISA test. Guest: Well, back on the original question, is this a problem that we are facing in the United States that other countries don't face: I think it's one that we might increasingly face because there is a new movement that essentially has something close to a national curriculum, called a 'common core' curriculum. And that is emphasizing deep learning, conceptual ideas, and so forth, and trying to de-emphasize anything that looks like mechanical or so on. And I agree with you in the sense that we want people to be able to be innovative and to be able to think creatively, but my view of this is that you have to build on what you know. That creativity springs from starting at a high level and then thinking of something different from the high level. Not that we want 15-year-olds to reinvent Newton's calculus. Because they are not prepared to do it and it took him a long time to do it. So we might face that problem in the future. I don't think that's been the key issue in the past. I think the key issue in the past has been that we have asked people to know a range of both actual ideas, like multiplication tables and ways to solve problems and to think broadly just hasn't been taught very well. Russ: Do you want to comment on the other part of the question, which is--in your mind, this is more than just a math problem, right? Guest: Oh, absolutely. It turns out that scores are pretty highly correlated with math and science scores and general other ideas, problem solving in other areas. There are also reading tests, I should say. But I don't understand how you do an international reading test so I don't spend a lot of time on that. Russ: That's tricky. Guest: How do you translate a passage into different languages and get equal difficulty in the problem so that you can equate scores? I don't know how to do that. But in math and science, the scores are pretty highly correlated across countries, and they are highly correlated with any other measures we have. Russ: I want to raise one other issue which I think we've probably spoken about this, but it just fascinates me. When you made your list of advantages that America has had, that of course interplay with the quality of our school system, one you didn't mention was our culture. And there are aspects of our culture which I think enhance our economic productivity and the richness of our lives, and there are some that are maybe not so good for it. We have, I think, over the last 50 years, gotten more egalitarian. Which has many plusses and many minuses. We've gotten into self-esteem, which has many plusses and many minuses for education. But one thing we do have is, I think, a tolerance for creativity and an admiration for creativity that other cultures don't seem to have. One thing I hear over and over again when foreign students come here is that the students challenge the teacher. And they find that shocking. In other cultures, you write down what the teacher says. In our culture, you are allowed to ask questions. And I think that's a huge advantage. I think. Most of the time. As a teacher, it's got some challenges. But I like that. And I think that carries us a long way. It makes up for a lot of problems elsewhere. Guest: So, I don't think this is just an issue of schools, frankly. I think it's a matter of our entire economy based on the fact that people who innovate can get rewards for innovating. Which is not the same in other countries. A number of years ago I went to a conference in Korea, and the Koreans were very worried about what they perceived as a lack of creativity in their students, even though their students were performing very well on these tests. And their response was to think about, well, maybe we'll just stop testing students; we'll open up our schools and have free-form schooling as in the United States. And my response was, that might have something to do with that, although we don't know how to redesign schools for creativity. But we do know that their economy doesn't reward creativity in the same way. One of my best graduate students ever was a Korean who got into trouble when he went back to Korea to work and his boss told him the answer to a problem, and he basically said: I don't see that; I don't think that's the right way to think about this problem. And he got into serious trouble. Because the economy doesn't reward young people questioning, challenging, coming up with new ideas that are different from the way that has been declared as the right way. Russ: Yeah. And as you said, that's much broader than the education system. It cuts through all kinds of aspects of a nation's culture.
20:37Russ: Now, at one point you try to measure some of the potential gains from improving our scores on our ability. Give us some of the magnitudes. At one point you wonder whether--let's be as good as Canada. We're not going to be as good as Shanghai or Singapore or South Korea. But can't we do as well as Canada? So, what kind of gains are we talking about here and what kind of change would that involve--how big a change are we talking about? Guest: Well, Canada performs right now slightly below Massachusetts, which is our best state. So it's not entirely away from us. But it basically says: If our entire country could get to the level that Massachusetts has gotten in mathematics, what does history suggest about the economic implications of that? Russ: Having gone to high school in Massachusetts, albeit in 1968-1972, I think, obviously it's a huge advantage for me. It explains a lot of my success. Guest: It shows up all across, Russell. There's no doubt that your Massachusetts education comes through. Russ: I hate to tell you what I didn't understand as a high school student. But carry on. Guest: So, I suggested that there was a clear relationship between performance on these math and science scores and the growth of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It's actually a little bit broader than that. We can explain almost all of the differences across countries in their growth rates of GDP by two factors. One is: Where did they start at the beginning of the growth period? So, I'm looking at GDP growth between 1960 and 2000. If we measure what the level of their GDP was in 2000 and we measure their achievement score, we can explain almost all the differences. Now, we measure where they started for a very simple reason. If you start way behind, all you have to do is copy somebody else in order to grow fast. If you start ahead you have to innovate and invent things. If you take the relationship that historically was there between achievement scores and growth rates and ask the following question: What would happen to our GDP over the lifetime of somebody born today if, in the next 20 years, we could get to a level of Canada? It's not an immediate thing; we don't change our schools overnight. But we ramp up to Canada over a 20-year period and then use the historical relationship to project out what that would mean for the U.S. economy. The answer is stunning. It says that the average paycheck of all workers in the U.S. economy over the next 80 years would be 20% higher. That's everybody-- Russ: So, give us a 20-year period to get things fixed, and then the benefits of that flow over the next 60 years. And it even ramps up to then because even once we have our students up to this high level it doesn't really count until they get out into the labor force, so these projections assume that we wait till they actually become a significant part of the labor force, effectively, and we allow for the growth of what happened; and then we look at the present value today of this. And we see that everybody's paycheck would grow by 20%. Now this solves all of the fiscal problems that have been plaguing Congress over the last 5 years as they debate. Russ: Well, as long as they don't know that it's going to get fixed it would. But don't worry. I look at that problem as more of an incentive problem than an, 'Oh, we've got a shortfall.' But I take your point. It would make life easier in many dimensions. It does raise the question by the way--what's the gap between, say, Massachusetts and the middle? What's Massachusetts's test score proficiency versus say the middle or toward the bottom? How big a gap? Is it 42 down to 34? What's the range, within the United States? Guest: The gap with California, which unfortunately has near the bottom of the rankings in this performance--the average student in California is at the 24th percentile of a Massachusetts student. So, if we looked at the entire distribution of Massachusetts kids in terms of their math performance, the average kid in California is only at the 24th percentile. Russ: So we're talking about a big difference. So, it raises the question: What's Massachusetts doing well? Is there some secret? You said in some ways it's easy to get better because you can copy. You think California could copy something Massachusetts is doing and get there? Guest: Well, it's always hard to say what precisely did Massachusetts do, because they tried a lot of things; and they actually improved over the period after you graduated from public school. Russ: Yeah. It was easier. Those were the golden years, after I left. They started improving when? Guest: Well, we only have actual data from 1990 at the state level. But they were not at the top in 1990; I think they were about 10th in 1990. As compared to Iowa, which was 1st in 1990. Today, Massachusetts leads all the states and Iowa is 18th. So that there are movements that occur. The people in Massachusetts relate a lot of this to an improved accountability system where they had high standards set up and they tested these standards and held kids in school systems responsible for them. So, graduation of students was dependent upon passing a fairly tough graduation test, and the performance rating given the schools that had some impact on their future depended upon students getting up there. But it's hard to pin down precisely what they did. They also spent a lot more money. Then there are other states like Florida that actually grew a little faster than Massachusetts over the 1990-today period, and they spent virtually no more money. Russ: Than they did before. Guest: Than they did before. In 1990 in real terms they are spending about the same. They emphasized accountability and particularly reading performance in early grades. When Jeb Bush was governor, he had 'Florida Reads' as the headline on every scrap of paper written in Florida. Maryland and Delaware have done a lot better. They've emphasized other things. So it's not a single thing that stands out as, if you do this you'll perform better. To me, it's actually only one single thing. It's that you somehow end up with better teachers. Russ: I want to come back to that in a second; first I want to compliment you because as many listeners know--I think we did a podcast on this maybe 7 years ago--Rick, you are probably the most well-known skeptic about the value of more spending as a way to get better educational outcomes. So I think it's nice that since most of our listeners don't have the data at their fingertips that you did concede that Massachusetts did better and did spend more; then you add the point that other states did better and didn't spend more. And I just want to digress for a second. Your confidence in the lack of a relationship between spending and educational outcomes I think has not changed in recent years. And it's always good when I talk to you just to mention the level of spending in the United States in the past. So, a lot of people think: We know how to fix the schools; just spend more money. And that's often a good way to get more of something--buy more of it, spend more on it. But you remain skeptical of that, correct? Guest: Absolutely. Since 1960 till today, spending per pupil in real terms, inflation-adjusted-- Russ: Corrected for inflation-- Guest: has increased more than fourfold. So that we are spending a lot more money. Russ: We just didn't spend enough, obviously. That's one possibility. Guest: My interpretation, my follow-on to your general statement is that on average we don't get any results from just putting more money in. That doesn't mean that money never has an impact or that it can't have an impact. It just says that the current incentives in schools aren't aligned with using funds in schools in a productive way. And so we don't see, create, gains in performance of students just by putting more money in without doing other things.
30:48Russ: So let's get back to your--I was going to ask a more general question and you can get back to your point about teachers. School in the United States generally is a local issue. When I think about my own kids' schools and when I think about being a teacher, it's really local. One bad teacher can ruin a year. One fabulous teacher can change a kid's life. The generic phrase 'better teachers' is a nice idea. What do you have in mind when you say that, and how would we get there from here? If you are interested in the book, it's a nice book that Rick has written with his co-authors. It's very short. It's pithy. It's got a lot of interesting charts. And it's not a long read. You can learn a lot in a relatively short period of time. And you try to answer a lot of the objections, some of which we've talked about already. But it does raise the question: How do we do better? Guest: Well, in my opinion, all of the research points to the fact that the teacher is the essential ingredient and effective teachers are extraordinarily important. To put this in perspective, what we talked about before, in terms of Canada, I did the following calculation. We know a lot about how much difference there is between the more effective teachers and the less effective teachers in terms of student learning. We know how much more a good teacher can get out of a class compared to a bad teacher. For example, a study I did a long time ago suggested that the best teachers in an urban district, all urban district, were getting a year and a half worth of learning in an academic year. The worst teachers were getting half a year of academic learning in a year. So that in one single academic year, say 5th grade, there can be one whole year difference in the amount of learning at the end, depending upon what classroom you are assigned to. Russ: If you get in the good one, you get a free year--you get a year ahead. You get the equivalent of a free year. Guest: Absolutely. Think of doing the following. Rank order all of the 3.5 million teachers in the United States in terms of how effective they are, and start at the bottom end and say: What would happen if we replace the bottom 2% of the teachers with just an average teacher, not a superstar, or the bottom 4%. Well, the currently available evidence, which is pretty consistent across all kinds of schooling situations, is that if we could replace the bottom 5%-8% of our teachers with just an average teacher, we could beat Canada. We could get this 20% per year increase in everybody's paycheck for the next 80 years by thinking of replacing just the very poorest of teachers. Now if you have a school with 30 teachers, we are talking about the bottom 2-3 teachers in the school. And these are ones that aren't unknown. If you walk into almost every school in the country and ask people about the range of teacher effectiveness, very quickly they point to the 2 teachers that they don't think should be there. Everybody consistently--the principal, the teachers, the parents--everybody points to the bottom 2 teachers. It's just that we don't have any system that leads to replacing those bottom 2 or 3 teachers with an average teacher. Russ: So, let me push you--I want to--we're going to go into this in depth, but I want to push you on this for a second. You could take any field--rocket scientists, economists, fast-food checkout people--there's a range of skills. There's a range of ability. Major league baseball players. There are some at the top; there are some that are lower. If you said, if you took the bottom 5-8% of baseball players on a team, on their offensive ability, and you could upgrade just to the average player, it would be so much better. But there aren't always enough to go around. So, sometimes some people are better than others. You are saying something more than that, I assume. Guest: So, I am saying something more than that. This is not the General Electric program of every year lopping off the bottom 10%. I'm saying if we could do it once and increase essentially the average quality of the teaching force, we could get our students up to the level of Canada. So, it's a one time thing that's behind this calculation. Of course as you get teachers retiring and new teachers coming in, there's a small percentage--5-8%--of the new teachers that probably don't make it and you have to worry about that. But every industry in the United States makes decisions about who is in their field and who stays in their firm. Most firms don't go out and just willy nilly hire people. But they do make adjustments and convince people and counsel them out of the firm, or sometimes fire people, if they aren't up to the standards of the firm. And this happens all the time, outside of the public sector. Russ: So again, your claim is not just that there is a group of teachers at the bottom, but that there is a group of teachers at the bottom who are doing a really awful job. Guest: They are harming kids. There's a group that's harming kids. And they are well recognized. And when you ask officials in schools or other teachers they sort of shrug their shoulders and say, yeah, they shouldn't be here but what can you do? Russ: So, one of the things you hear sometimes when you talk about for example, merit pay, meaning for example the idea that good teachers should make more than bad teachers, one of the arguments against that is: Well, it's too hard to measure. We don't know who the good teachers are. We don't know who the better teachers are. You are suggesting that there's nothing tricky here. In any school, there's a consensus that there are a few teachers that are not doing their job. Guest: I think it's very obvious who they are. Now, designing a system that uses that information is what we have had trouble doing. What you need is an evaluation system that is viewed as reliable and fair and that you can use for these personnel decisions. We haven't had that in most schools until recently. We are starting to get that, actually, in a large number of states now because state legislatures are demanding that the evaluation systems for teachers be improved. And that's why I'm somewhat optimistic at this point, because we've seen some fairly significant changes in attitudes toward evaluating and using evaluations in personnel decisions across a large number of states. Russ: Why do you think that's happened? Do you have any idea? Guest: I think that it perhaps is somewhat random, from a larger sense, in that we've had a few governors that have taken leadership positions on this and that individuals have had an influence. I think that many people are now aware that our schools aren't up to snuff, that they are not competitive internationally, and they see on the other side that the economy is in international competition and what's being bought and sold depends upon the quality of the firms in the economy. And all of a sudden people are more alert to the fact that the PISA scores and the TIMS scores in the United States are not competitive. And so legislators and policy makers and parents and others have started to beat a drum to try to get some improvement.
40:06Russ: You picked an example which was getting rid of the worst teachers, which could make a big difference. I'm sympathetic to that argument. It seems plausible to me. Of course, that's just scratching the surface. You could obviously motivate, inspire, lead, good teachers in any school system become great teachers; if they don't want to be that maybe replace them with better teachers. There's an enormous range of potential improvement. But you point to a very dramatic example, which is: Bad teachers don't get fired in the public school system in the United States. Is that undeniably true, is it usually true? Is it true in some states? And then my next question would be: Is it true in Shanghai? Is it true in Finland? Is it true in South Korea? Guest: I think it has been nearly universally true in the United States that we do not fire the teachers that shouldn't be there that are obvious. I don't think many other countries explicitly say: We have a firing policy. I think what you see internationally is that the best school systems, one way or another, don't let bad teachers stay in the classroom for very long. Now, one way or another means there's lots of counseling, they move them to other jobs, there's training that goes along the way, whatever. It's hard to sort of think of emulating what different countries do. But I think other countries have found that one way or another they can do this. Now, it's a hypothesis, but I think that the unions in some of our competitor countries have become more accommodating to the idea that you have to have a good product. Our unions are only slowly getting around to the fact that having a good product might be important to their future. And I think that other countries--all countries are unionized in terms of teaching--but other countries have moved to the position where unions are working with the school systems to try to ensure that there's a high quality product. Russ: It's a remarkable thing. There are obviously variations in pressure, political competition of various kinds that are going to make a difference in how unions respond to the competitive environment, whether they are willing to embrace it and how much. But it is disgusting to me and shocking to me how badly run some of our schools are. I'll be open-minded--I shouldn't say that; I'm not open-minded about it; that's not quite the right way to say it. I'm open to the possibility that there are many explanations for why public schools do very poorly in the United States in certain places. There's culture. There's home environment. There are a thousand things. But the unwillingness to embrace change in the face of poor performance is a scandal to me. And I find it remarkable that people put up with it. I don't; I send my kids to a private school. I'm able to. I'm grateful and blessed that I'm able to do that. But it seems to me that parents--they don't burn down the school. These are their children. If their children came home hungry every day and in rags after they sent them out well clothed and fed, they wouldn't just say, Well, there's nothing you can do about it. Why isn't there more outrage? Because I don't think you are at the extreme of people who are upset with the current system. The current system is atrocious. Guest: So, let me--I think we're on the same page, but let me just expand a little bit on what you said first. This is not just a problem of inner city schools, of places where society and the schools have broken down. It turns out that variation in teacher effectiveness is found across the board, in some of our best public schools. Now in the suburban public schools there may be a little bit more movement of the worst of the worst teachers out of the schools. But in general they tend to argue: Well, we are doing well on our state tests, so how can you object to what we are doing? And they also make it clear that they could do a better job if in fact we just funded the schools a little bit better. And they sort of co-opt the parents into working with the schools, because their kids are in the schools and they can't really get into a huge fight with their current teachers, and so forth. But this is a problem where our kids, our white kids, don't compete very well internationally, our kids of college-educated parents don't compete well internationally. So that the test score story I told you before is not just one that we have more minorities-- Russ: Which is a common argument some people advance to explain some challenges we face. Guest: That's the argument that people use all the time in California, even though the-- Russ: Kind of a racist argument, it seems to me. Guest: It's a racist argument, to suggest first that we can't education people that aren't white children of college-educated parents; and secondly it's incorrect. That's not what's driving the situation. Russ: I was struck--there's a fascinating chart in your book that looks at proficiency on one of the exams just based on parents' education. And it's a pretty dramatic relationship. If your parents didn't finish high school, you do very poorly. I think it's 12%. If your parents went to college, the average proficiency is 44%. So you have a huge advantage if your parents went to college. You still don't do very well. But you do have a dramatic advantage. So there are--and of course there are a thousand things going on at the same time. There's where you live and what kind of school your kids are in. Guest: Can I jump on that for a second. Russ: Yeah, go ahead. Guest: It's absolutely clear that parents are really important in this whole thing. And we haven't discussed that. But what all the data suggest is that if you are a parent, are more educated, and in general higher-income that goes with that, the kids do better. But the data suggest that that is not completely determinative. Good schools, as I mentioned about this inner city school where some of the teachers were getting this year-and-a-half worth of learning gains each year: goods schools can make up for the difference in family background. It takes extra work. And some of these schools are really hard to work with because the parents aren't being very supportive. But we know how to deal with our schools. We know how to improve our schools. That's where we have to work. We're not going to go in and have the government intruding into the families and trying to change what the families do. Russ: Correct. There's a point I'd like to come back to which is somewhat related to this, but I'd forgotten this point I wanted to make earlier. I'd like to come back to it and get your reaction to it. Which is that: you had mentioned in other countries, unions have gotten more interested in other outcomes and maybe a little less interested in job security. Or realized that there may be a relationship between the two. What interests me, strikes me, is that in the United States, you have this wild thing called home schooling, which is really a fascinating cultural movement, somewhat based on religion but not entirely. We have vibrant private schools, which a lot of other countries don't have; we are wealthy enough that we can have a very vibrant private school system. So in many ways the public school system is under some competitive assault. Not much, because they've insulated themselves from quite a bit of it. But overall, there is still a lot going on that you'd think would cause there to be some movement toward more accountability, more caring about outcomes. And with the advent of the internet-based educational opportunities, the massive open online courses-- so-called 'MOOCs'--Kahn Academy and immense resources for self-education, that I think are only going to get better, you'd think that this would start to put some pressure on the public school system to be a little more motivated. Guest: I think that the public school system, at the very minimum, is going to change dramatically. We do have technology that can dramatically improve over the instruction that we see in some classes. And I think that we'll see that more and more. We haven't quite figured out how to harness that yet. Russ: True. Guest: We haven't figured out how to get classroom teachers using technology to be more effective. I think this is partly an incentive issue. Russ: It's also--[?]--people are going to learn a lot in the next 10 years. Guest: I think we are. In general, nobody wants their kid to just sit in front of a TV screen for 18 years. Russ: Yeah. But they might prefer it to sitting in front of a really unmotivated teacher for 18 years. Guest: Well, there are some teachers that they might prefer it to. And they might not do it for 18 years, but they might substitute for 1 out of 5 teachers that is doing a really bad job. And we are going to see a lot more of that. How quickly we see it and whether that brings the United States back into line with what other countries have shown they can do is an open question. Russ: Yeah, I know. I agree.
50:32Russ: Let's put some closure on this teacher discussion and move on to a final topic. And actually, one more thing though, first. I think I mentioned Finland; you had mentioned it before. And occasionally, I get emails, and EconTalk listeners email me when we talk about education: If private incentives are so powerful--which I believe they are--and if a private school system with charity providing scholarships potentially for poor kids would do better than the current system. And I want to move to a fully private system and be able to say, what about poor kids? And poor kids are being served very poorly by this current system that's supposed to be for the general good. It's atrocious. So, my listeners then will say: What about Finland? Finland, that's a government system. They are doing well. So, you know more about Finland than I do. Tell me a little bit about Finland. Then we'll close on this teacher quality issue. Guest: Well, Finland is this tiny little cold country at the top of Europe that has, over the last number of years, at least over the last 30 years, managed to lift the achievement of its students. There is a lot of controversy and a lot of people want to draw different lessons for how they did it. We have basically one data point, one observation. And we have about 15 lines that we can draw through that data point, and everybody chooses their favorite line. So some say: Well, it's all that they don't test students. And others say: It's that they start school late. Others say that it's teacher quality--and I tend to agree with that. For some reason, being a teacher in Finland seems to be very, very attractive. And more attractive than you would guess, given the relative salaries, which aren't all that high in Finland. So lots of people want to go into teaching. How they did it, I'm not sure; how they maintain it. Others say, well it's the fact that teachers can make their own decisions about what they teach; they have a lot of autonomy and aren't pushed by rigid things. Others say, well, it's that Finland is very homogeneous as a society without any poor people. Russ: Finland starts with the letter 'F' and we should change the 'United States' to 'Finited States'. Guest: Of these arguments, it's clear that if teaching was a more attractive profession and we had a wider choice in our schools, we could probably improve. How we do that is unclear. Finland is a successful story. As are several other countries that have improved over time. Canada has improved over time. Germany has improved in recent years, after being flat. Again, there's some research that suggests a number of things that are consistent across a wide range of countries. One is having more choice, that you mentioned about, where parents have more ability to choose what schools they are in. Another is pay for performance, or some relationship between rewards in teaching and rewards in school, seeing the performance of schools. Another is having a good accountability system where you measure what performance is and hold schools somewhat accountable for it. And a final, at least within the most developed countries, is having more local decision making. This is actually the model that is in the back of my mind. You hold schools and teachers responsible for the performance of their students--for their value added of the school--and then let them make decisions about how to get there. Which seems like the right answer that we see throughout most of the U.S. economy. Russ: Right. We don't tell auto makers that they ought to hire so many people per shift and have the equivalent of so many students per class. We let them--competition forces them to find ways to do better. Guest: And then there's the accountability system of the economy that sorts out who is doing a good job and who isn't, and which the consumers like and which they don't like. But we don't have that well developed in schools, so we say: How can we run a school that looks like that? In fact, talking about using market forces is a pejorative term in education, even though the U.S. economy has thrived by in fact having market forces making decisions about where things are produced and what's produced.
55:46Russ: My sarcastic response to that, of course is: But education is different. Maybe. But I think the serious response I had to that came up in a conversation I had with Diane Ravitch a long time ago, which is that I think importing market mechanisms into non-market processes can be problematic. But to me market means voluntary; market means competitive. And adding more voluntary choice and competition in the school system I think would be a good thing. To come full circle now, back to this question how to get better teachers: giving public school principals the right to fire teachers, I can understand that might not be the right way to get there. Which is what a private system would do. That's a good example of the point I'm trying to make, which is: In a private system, the private teacher has to face the threat of dismissal. 'So let's give the public school principal that right and he'll solve it.' Well, if you don't have everything else that goes with it, maybe it won't. So, have you thought about ways to improve teacher quality that might be politically plausible and realizable in this current environment? Guest: Well, there are several forces that are starting to push us in that direction. Whether they'll make it or not is unclear yet. But the best example is actually Washington, D.C., where Washington, D.C. has, by its contract 4 years ago, put in place a teacher evaluation system that actually leads to serious personnel decisions. The best teacher as measured either by student performance or outside ratings, can get huge increases in their base salaries. And the worst teachers get fired. So that in the last 3 years, Washington has given bonuses to some 1000 teachers, and they've fired 300 teachers. Russ: Which is amazing. Guest: Which is so different from history. Russ: How did that happen? How did the teachers' union in Washington, D.C. accept that bargain given that they fight it relentlessly everywhere else? Seem to. Guest: Well, they fought it in Washington, but the school system in Washington is a peculiar one because it's actually run by the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Congress has an influence on it. But what we've seen is that another dozen states or so have dramatically changed labor laws as applied to teachers. They have lessened the impact of tenure. They have increased the time till somebody gets a more permanent job. They have called from the state capitol that each school district has to have a serious evaluation system that takes into account student performance. There have been a series of actions by state legislatures that I think suggest that we might have some movement. The other thing that these actions of state legislatures do is that they put pressure on the teachers' union to cooperate and to participate in designing a system that everybody can live with. Until now, if somebody said, well, the evaluation system isn't very good, let's sit down and have a plan for how to improve this; and the teachers' union would say, yes, it's really important to have a good evaluation system , let's have a committee. And the committee meets for 5 years and may or may not have a conclusion at the end of 5 years; but nothing happens. Now the legislators and the legislatures in different states are saying: You've got to have a system in place. And this leads to some more serious discussions about how should we evaluate our teachers. Russ: Well, that's encouraging. I think. Guest: I have to add one other thing. We keep saying 'teachers'. We shouldn't say teachers. We should say 'teachers and administrators'. Because you can't have the principals of schools and the administrators operating with a different set of incentives than the teachers. So you have to reward and punish principals who get the same kind of success that we are looking for in teachers. Otherwise, then, principals could, if they wanted, hire their cousins or whatever. Russ: Yeah. You could imagine a test that would see whether teachers are keeping up with the field, are staying current or at least paying attention or have some basic proficiency in mathematics or science or anything. But it would be harder to test administrators to see what their proficiency is in administration. But you can, perhaps, measure some outcomes for the school as a whole, I guess. Guest: It's measuring the outcomes for the schools that is the key. And it's also for the classroom. It turns out--you mention, we could test teachers or find out if they have the right professional development or so on. All of the research suggests that not of these are very predictive of effectiveness of teachers or whether they get better or worse. And so, there appears to be no substitute for paying attention to what you care about. And that's student learning and student achievement. Russ: Yeah. I was talking to my wife yesterday; we were taking a hike together and just chitchatting about the challenges of improving one's own teaching. And her bottom line, which I think is so true, is: It's just really hard: Really hard to be a great teacher, to be a good teacher. And it's not something that's easily--you are not born; it helps; there are some genetic advantages that a good teacher can have. But it really is a craft that requires focus and a desire to improve. That's not easily done. So that's part of the challenge. Guest: Well, that's part of the challenge. It is a craft. But it's not clear how you develop that craft. If I were talking about woodworking, I would know how to put together a course that taught people how to do good woodworking. Now, there might be differences in the quality that you get at the end. But I would know the basic ideas. When we look at schools, education schools, we don't see that they have a good idea of what to do in order to create good and effective teachers. So, you said they're not born. But at some point, you might say that the ability to teach is pretty fixed in teachers and we ought to just hire on the basis of that and not other things. Russ: That would be part of it. I really do think that a great teacher--let me try to say it a little more carefully. It's easy to--not easy, but you and I can identify a great lecturer. Somebody who is a great public speaker. And I think a lot of people from their college experience think of their favorite teachers as the people who were spellbinding or funny or passionate. All of which are useful in a college setting, in a lecture setting. We're thinking about K-12, which we tend to forget because it was a long time ago for some of us. It's so much more complicated than that, and the skills--I would say one of the most important characteristics is devotion. There are devoted teachers who, even in the worst environments, even with the worst colleagues, that work hard no matter what. But there's a huge range of folks who will only work hard if they are motivated. And need to be motivated. And I don't think our school system does a very good job of that. And that's hard to do. Guest: There's a little bit of that. I'm not sure that I agree completely with you on that. What we have had is a few experiments where we offer fairly sizeable amounts of money to people if they do a better job. And what we've seen is that student learning hasn't increased that much. Russ: Has not. Guest: Has not. In these experiments. And my interpretation of this and some other evidence is that the vast majority of our teachers today are trying really hard to do a good job. And they are doing the best they can. I mean, they could do a little bit better, of course. But they are working as hard as they can and trying to be effective. They don't want to be a failure. And some are just better at it than others. You and I were together at the U. of Rochester a long time ago. And I remember that I was in charge at one point of assigning people to teach. And I had you teaching the Intermediate Microeconomics course. Russ: 151 if I remember the number correctly. Is that right? Guest: It may or may not have been. Russ: I'm not sure. 151. Guest: I didn't know beforehand that you were going to be the spectacular lecturer and spectacular teacher you were. And I don't think you were trained. At all. Russ: No. For sure, not. Thanks for the kind words. But I certainly wasn't trained. I don't know if I was spectacular or not. Guest: I, when I taught your students after you had them in Intermediate Microeconomics could tell the students that had had you and those that hadn't, because they could think through economic problems. So I have always rated you highly in your classroom teaching. But it's not something that is due to the U. of Chicago providing you with a lot of training in how to teach microeconomics. Russ: Well, thanks for the kind words.
1:06:01Russ: I do think it is an interesting phenomenon that at the college level we certify people as qualified to teach because they've finished a Ph.D., and watched a bunch of other people teach; and then we say, Good luck. Whereas at the K-12, we reward people for getting a degree in something called Education, which we don't require a college professor to have--good or bad. Which you'd think would make you a much better teacher. As you said, if you knew what the craft required--you majored in it. The craft, not the subject matter. You majored in the craft. You may have even gotten a Master's Degree. You've specialized in the craft at an advanced level. And I don't think there's any evidence that training of that kind is useful in the classroom. Guest: No, that's what we've found. All of the studies of teacher performance have tried at the same time to identify what are the characteristics or the background or training that make for people that are particularly effective or not. And this research has been a dismal failure, in the sense that it has not identified a set of characteristics that you want to develop in your education school or that you want to sort on or look for. In fact, it's worse than that. It's all of our standard measures of teacher effectiveness, which include years of experience in teaching. It includes whether you have a Master's degree or not. It includes whether you are fully certified according to the state standards. It includes whether you've got some amount of professional development. None of these things are closely related to effectiveness in the classroom. So we go around in--sometimes we even reward those things, like salaries are determined by experience in academic degrees, even though they have nothing to do with effectiveness. Russ: So, we're way off the subject now, but it's interesting so I'm going to push on. Do you think there is--if you were running a school, if you were a principal, how would you staff? How would you hire? What would be the criteria you would use, given that everything you say suggests that the research says we can't identify those and can't figure them out? Guest: I'd make my best guess at who would do well in the classroom. I'd have an interview system and maybe even have a practice lesson or something like that, recognizing that I'm not going to be very accurate in that guess. I would then evaluate who does well in the classroom and who doesn't, and I would give large rewards to those who did well in the classroom to try to keep them in the classroom. And I would make decisions that some people should be doing other jobs. Russ: Which is, I think what a principal at a private school does. And probably is not very much what a public school principal does. Guest: No, precisely. That's precisely the case.

Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is proud to welcome the creative team behind our favorite animated series, Creature Comforts. If you haven't seen it, get thee quickly to their Transom pages and catch up. This series comes from Aardman Animation in England (home of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, etc.), and is inhabited by claymation animals whose identities are derived from audio interviews with real people. There's a kinship between radio and animation, because we all imagine the source of voices we hear, and if our imaginations are free-ranging and whimsical, the voices might look like this. Kit Boss, Richard "Golly" Goleszowski, and Dan Sinclair talk to Transom's Samantha Broun. The conversation is transcribed, illustrated with audio/video, and is downloadable in MP3. There's also a "Making Of" video, and all sorts of background and technique, including interviewing. And you can ask questions. This is good stuff. You'll like it.

Eyeballs and Fiships: The Making of Creature Comforts

Sound and Voice

Samantha Broun from Transom.org spoke with Supervising Director, Richard “Golly” Goleszowski; Executive Producer, Kit Boss; and All-Star Interviewer, Dan Sinclair from the Aardman animated television series, Creature Comforts.

Transom: As radio folks we’re all for things that start with sound and voices. My first question is, is this the only piece of animation that’s sound driven? Where the soundtrack is unscripted and comes first?
Golly: [Nick Park and Aardman Animations have] a massive history of using vox pop type material. We recorded stuff in old peoples’ homes, and a radio station, and a local magazine. One of the films was an interview with a, a petty criminal that was just reproduced. It was a guy talking about his criminal past.

But Creature Comforts was the first one to subvert what had been recorded and turn it into something else. That was a brand new idea at the time.

Kit: Golly, I don’t mean to contradict you, and I could be wrong. Wasn’t there an Aardman short [prior to Creature Comforts] where old people were talking about going on holiday?
Golly: Oh, of course, yeah, sorry. Ignore everything I’ve just said. It’s complete bullshit. [Laughter] Yes, there was the one in the old peoples’ home. It was in an old peoples’ home, but for the purposes of the film it was set on a desert island. So, it was plane crash survivors talking about how they actually quite liked it now on this on the desert island, which was old people talking about the old peoples’ home. Yes, sorry Kit, you’re right.
Kit: Nick definitely took it and pushed it further and then Golly, when you did the first Creature Comforts in the U. K. I mean, Golly thinks in this kind of lateral way of taking audio and sliding it sideways. We kept talking about taking things that were meant for one context and ripping them out of that context and putting them in a new context that gave them a lot of humor, and a whole new level of subtext.

Golly’s the best at it. One that I remember distinctly, Golly, you were in L.A. listening to audio that we had just brought in. There was a guy from San Francisco, I believe, who was being interviewed about very mundane things, and he was really ill at ease and would laugh nervously after everything he said.

Golly: He came across as sounding dishonest. He was asked a question about birds and he said, “I don’t know anything about birds,” and kind of laughed nervously. So it was kind of useful to have him as a fox. “Birds? Why, I don’t know anything about birds, no.” And then in his shrug the fox momentarily produces two chickens from behind his back, so we can physically see he’s lying.
Kit: It was one of those interviews where there was that moment of magic, you know. It was just a coming together of his discomfort and the right topic, and it was completely spontaneous and unplanned. Although Dan, I have to say, is really good at getting that out of people.
Dan: And sometimes the interviewer will be surprised by what Golly and the team think of. I interviewed these people in an Indian restaurant and they were talking about how many Indians they’d had — they’d had three Indians on the premises that week. They were turned into two tigers in an Indian village, with little huts in the background. So when they were talking about how many Indians they’d had, they’re literally talking about eating Indian people, rather than Indian food. I think sometimes what I do is try out lots of different ideas. I might go through five or six different animals in my head that I think they might be, and go down different lines of inquiry.
Kit: I have one, Dan, though you weren’t the interviewer. The idea was to get a couple of wine snobs to talk about wine, and taste some wine, and do the actual inhaling of the bouquet of the wine. And then turn them into dogs just hanging out on a street corner, sniffing each other and being very snooty about it, very kind of high-minded. Talking in these lofty terms about the bouquet, and the scent of raisins or whatever.
Golly: “Hint of cassis” was my favorite line. “Hmm, hint of cassis, hmm, perfect.” [Laughter]

In Search of Good Tape

Transom: When you guys send interviewers out, what kind of qualities do you tell them to look for in people?
Golly: My favorite line, and you said it, I think, Kit, was: I’d like you to record people that you wouldn’t normally sit next to on a bus.
Kit: It’s funny because Dan had the exact 180 degree opposite opinion. He was like, “Oh, I love to sit next to these people on a bus.” [Laughter] So, people who never give a short answer to anything; people who, you ask them the time of day and they tell you their life story.

A lot of it had to do with trying to break interviewers of standard, run-and-gun, man-on-the-street interviews that they might do for radio stations. To just take the time to find people who have nothing on their resume that would make them an interesting feature topic. We wanted normal people who happen to have interesting opinions, or who happen to have really interesting voices. That was part of it too.

Golly as an animator and a director knows that what the animators love is to have subtext, and to have the sound of acting that they can then animate to; where you imagine the expressions on the person’s face, or you imagine their body language. There are some people who are very animate-able, who are very animated when they speak.

Golly: The real magic, in animation terms, is when you can make somebody say something, but you believe they’re thinking something else. That’s the subtext thing, of which the fox would be a good example.
Transom: So you’re sort of animating what’s not being said.
Golly: In an ideal world, yes. And sometimes it’s just in a funny way. Sometimes it’s just pricking pretension.
Kit: I like to find people who take things seriously because we can sort of undercut that a little. People who are full of themselves, but don’t have a reason to be, is inherently funny.

On Interviewing

Transom: What qualities make Dan your all-star interviewer?
Golly: Well, I thought Dan was actually very brave, quite sort of fearless. He’d go into situations where a lot of interviewers wouldn’t want to go to because it was just too much effort to interview people. And he wouldn’t let a subject go. If he felt he was onto something he would absolutely mine it, and plumb it, and milk it for everything it was worth. Which was terrific for us because then we had lots of great material about one subject that we could piece together.
Kit: Like any great interviewer, he was not afraid to make himself look stupid.

One thing Dan was so much better at than the average interviewer was not just talking to a small circle of friends. Part of that is about not just going to interview people that you would naturally spend your time with in your social hours. Find people who are of different social classes, whose sense of humor maybe rubs you the wrong way. Or somebody who’s old enough to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, or young enough that you feel a little bit awkward around them. Dan was great at moving out of his own class and age, and he had an amazing ability to bring in really good interview subjects. Partly because he would do a lot of pre-interviews, you know, so he was willing to do his homework in that, too.

Golly: He’s also good looking and slightly built, so he could get into lots of situations.
Kit: Right. I swear to God, women just wanted to wrap him up and adopt him and take him home. Older women especially, just wanted him to be their grandson/boy toy. And I know there were some circumstances where, talking to older interviewees, he didn’t go out of his way to make his British accent easier to understand. He didn’t go out of his way to speak at the top of his voice so someone could hear him at all times. He knows that it can be really funny if someone misunderstands a question or has trouble hearing something. He was always hyper-aware of the possibilities that surrounded him, and of not leaving anything untried.
Kit: Have you thought of a particular place you went into that made you feel a little uncomfortable?
Dan: I think probably the place I felt that I stuck out the most, and looked the most absurd, was the wrestling place in the British series.

It’s an incredibly masculine environment, very butch. What they’re doing would probably be described as very homoerotic, but they would never see it as that. I just could not have fit in any worse. Everyone was very aware that I was there, everyone was looking at me like, what on earth is he doing here? That meant I had to work a lot harder to try and get the trust of the interviewees, so that I could get what I needed.

You can never sit back and think, oh, I know that I’m a good interviewer. I don’t think it’s a learnt thing. You can’t learn to be a good interviewer for Creature Comforts, you can improve, but I think that either you can do it or you can’t. If you can — and I don’t want it to sound pretentious — but if you can, if you are naturally a Creature Comforts interviewer, you just have a sixth sense for what is a Creature Comforts interview. I still think in those terms now. If I’m on the bus or in the London Underground and I’ll see someone and hear their voice, hear how they’re talking, and everything that’s non-verbal, their mannerisms and things like that.

Although you want the sound, it’s someone’s mannerisms and the way that they’re interacting that gives you all the clues. I still think of people as Creature Comforts characters. And I think you either get that or you don’t.

Kit: It’s great when you find people who will reveal themselves and reveal their relationships. Because there’s no reason that they should, and there’s so many reasons they shouldn’t let somebody with a microphone know what really makes them tick. Dan and the good interviewers are the ones who make the person feel like they’re really interested in what they have to say no matter how mundane. It’s so unusual for some people to find anyone who wants to hear them, who really wants to give them the time to say what’s on their mind. A lot of people open up really wonderfully when you do that.

Working with Strangers

Transom: Dan, how do you approach people you don’t know? And how do you get people to relax and be themselves?
Dan: How I approach people, I don’t know, there’s just no easy way around it. I’d say that’s probably one of the hardest bits, ironically. It’s just going up to someone that you don’t know and asking if you can interview them. And if I’m doing vox pops, I might want to interview them there and then. You’re always thinking, you know, are they thinking I’m just some absolute weirdo. [Laughter] So that’s the biggest thing in my mind.

When I approach someone cold, I’m just quite serious about it, and explain what I’m doing and tell them quite a lot about the TV show. It was harder in America because many people haven’t heard of Creature Comforts. You just have to be brave and be prepared that some people might reject you, and think that you’re weird, and that you’re trying to rob them or do something bizarre.

Kit: I think they assume that you’re some kind of leprechaun or some kind of elf from a magical kingdom.
Dan: Yeah, so they’re thinking what’s he trying, what does this one want? Once you’ve got the microphone out and you’ve started recording, then they’re fine because they realize what you’re doing. They very quickly get distracted from wondering if you’re for real, because they start to enjoy that someone is actually interested in what they’re saying.

Putting people at ease, I think humor is my best weapon for that. If you can just make someone smile or chuckle then they automatically warm to you. I won’t put on an act because if you’re not yourself, people pick up on that, and they probably won’t be their selves either, because they’ll have some type of guard up. But what I do is allow the more bumbling side of my personality to come out, and there is an enormous bumbling side to my personality. They feel at ease because I come across as a normal person who’s a bit bumbling and possibly even a bit incompetent.

If I just went in as this media savvy, straight-to-business, know exactly what I’m doing sort, that’s the worst thing you could do for a Creature Comforts interview. That would make them feel very self-conscious: “Am I going to say the right thing?” I try and make sure that they don’t have any expectations of the interviews being a certain way, a certain standard. That gives them permission to, oh, well, he doesn’t really quite know what he’s doing, doesn’t know what he’s looking for, I can just be myself, it doesn’t matter.

Kit: That same technique always served me really well when I was a newspaper reporter and doing feature articles, profiles about people, where you just let that side of you come out. I would let myself be a bit more Columbo than I would naturally be in real life. Ask things in a roundabout, “Oh wait, I forgot to…” kind of way.

What I saw happen with Dan, and I’ve seen it with myself too, is that people start to feel a little bit sorry for you, like they need to help you make this work; like they feel you might get fired if it doesn’t turn out well.

The Gear

Kit: We tried to get everyone using the same type of digital recorders. We gave a lot of advice about what sort of mics, in our experience, work the best, what formats work the best, what kind of file transfer protocol to use, all that stuff. That being said, we had one interviewer who was using analogue tape in some of his interviews, and we had others who were using top-end, NPR type recording gear because they worked on the side as network, or NPR correspondents. It definitely wasn’t very high-end stuff that you were using, Dan.
Dan: The digital technology has got so cheap and so good now that you can actually get a decent Sony microphone and a minidisk recorder. The way that we did it was to record on standard minidisks. Then they’d be digitized in real time, which was really time consuming because you’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio. Now these little digital recorders you can actually plug into the computer and transfer it across a digital file. Literally, it cuts the time down enormously.

The kit that we use is not expensive. What’s the priority there is the technical competence of the interviewer. It’s not rocket science, but if they don’t pay attention, if they haven’t had some type of professional training, then it can make the interviews really difficult to use.

Golly: Yeah, we had a few disasters, didn’t we? The other thing I wanted to add is, I personally like the varying quality of recordings, as long as they’re audible. It kind of adds to the realism. When we had a sound editor and he’d clean all the tracks up, I said actually I’d prefer it left because it sounds like what it is. If you clean it up too much, it all sounds too studio, then you pull people out of the realisms and they start thinking of it as a drama.
Kit: When you leave some of the ambient noise in, or some of the stuff that an audio engineer would try to clean up at the final mix, there’s something about it that makes your ears perk up a little bit and say, wait a minute, this does not sound like everything else that I’ve watched on TV. Even down to the level of the audio being a little bit dirty, to me it sells the realism of it and the fact that we didn’t make these things up.
Transom: When you would have a group of people you were interviewing, how would you mic that?
Dan: That was really tricky. The interviewer does need to be pretty competent with what they’re doing. There was a situation I remember on the U. K. series where we put multiple mics, and had a sound mixer, and the interviewer. That went against a lot of what we were trying to do with people being at ease and natural, because there was equipment and an extra person making them hyper-aware they’re being recorded. The mic frames that we use have a setting where they can pick up sound from a wider angle. I would interview quite large groups and just use one mic. You just have to predict who’s going to move next and actually move the mic to pick them up. That was the best way.

Creature Comforts is sort of different from anything else I’ve worked on where you’d put radio mics on them all and then have a boom mic above, and get perfect sound from everybody. But it’s about people being themselves, so you have to compromise a bit. Like Golly and Kit were saying, if the sound’s a little bit dirty, and not perfect, and rough around the edges, it adds to the atmosphere.

Kit: I think Dan may have done the interview where two old guys were talking in a retirement home and one of them leaned forward and actually touched the mic. He either bumped into it or he turned the mic to himself so that he could make his point. And Golly had seeped enough into my head by that point that you hear that and go, oh, that’s going to be great to animate to — to have the animator have this lion lean forward and adjust the microphone so he can make his point.
Transom: It sounds like you leave a lot in, but do you ever add additional ambience or even a sound effect?
Kit: We would add some source music sometimes, coming from afar, you know, radio or boom box. We would occasionally add traffic noises to things that were set outside. Or barnyard noises to something that was in that kind of soundscape. So yeah, we would try to richen the environment sometimes with noises like that. It’s not like we had somebody in the room doing foley to picture, but we had someone at another location that our sound guy would call and say, “OK, we need four good sounds of a door slamming.” And he would create some of those sounds himself. They weren’t just things that he pulled off a hard drive somewhere.
Dan: The foley would never leave the narrative. I think it would exaggerate what was already there, but maybe wasn’t picked up very well in the original recording. Or if someone’s environment had been changed and they were suddenly in water, well, obviously the interview wasn’t done in water. Extra sounds would be added just to help contextualize it so the sound would be consistent with the image.

On Becoming a Creature

Behind the Microphone

Transom: How do you decide on animals for people? What it is that you hear in their voices that helps you decide what kind of animals they’re going to be? And do you know what people look like when you assign them an animal?Kit: I can answer the second one first. Except for those interviews that I conducted myself, I never knew what somebody looked like and I was a bit of a nut about avoiding any sort of on-line image. A lot of the interviewers in the office got really got into their characters, into the stuff they would listen to. They would occasionally start surfing the web trying to find some kind of image, to see what they really look like. I did not want to see what these people look like. But Golly, why don’t you start talking about pairing voices with animals because you’re the master of it.Golly: A boring answer is that I kind of go on what people say. I always take the compliment when people say, “Oh, that fits great. The character looks just like the voice.” But usually it’s the performance; it’s the acting that matches the voice.

For the second series we were testing animators. We were giving them clips from series one and we were pairing them with different animals from the series that the voices didn’t come out of, and golly, they nearly all worked. It was very rare that they didn’t work. It’s hard for it not to work, if the acting is good.

I suppose design-wise I’d always choose a character based on what the character said. But occasionally you have a voice and it’s great to match it. You spend a lot more time on particular ones. I think the lions in Creature Comforts U. S. A. were great designs for the voices. They just matched so perfectly these kind of old, noble, and quite scary guys. So we made them into old, noble, scary animals. It worked really well. Sometimes it’s fun to subvert it. You get a very small character with a really deep voice, or a big character with a high voice. There’s all kind of permutations.

Kit: What is rare is finding animators who are talented enough to make a creature come alive. If an animal doesn’t have any life to it, the animator hasn’t been able to imbue it with a sense that it has weight, and that it gestures in a natural sort of way, then it would seem like a bad pairing for that voice. But because the animators are so good, and they fill these things with life, people respond that way and say: oh, yeah, that was such a great choice, to have that animal for that voice.Transom: Were there ever voices that you loved and you animated and they just didn’t work?Kit: There were certainly voices that we loved initially, and then they just didn’t quite pan out for whatever reason. But that again, I think, speaks to the high standards at Aardman — we had built into the process the freedom to try a few things that we would then throw out because they just weren’t good enough. I never really learned a lot of lessons from the ones we threw out, other than make sure when you say you want a character designed you really want the character designed. Because otherwise they’re going to get mad when you tell them you didn’t want that character built after all. It takes a lot of people a lot of time to make these things.Transom: Do you ever find that people are offended by what you end up turning them into?Golly: I don’t think anyone was offended, but no one likes the sound of their own voice, that’s a given. But when they see their voices put into the mouth of a slug or something, oh-h-h… We don’t make our animals particularly good-looking, nothing you’d find sexy.Kit: We didn’t have anyone who took exception to any of it. I think it’s just that the character design is so great. It’s like, oh wow, what an honor to be turned into an Aardman animal…. Aardman historically is always very good-natured in their sense of humor. They don’t kick the little guy when he’s down, they have a very generous spirit about things, and I think that comes through.


Transom: Last question, I’m curious what your sources of inspiration are – beyond Aardman.Golly: I’m a big fan of Gary Larson, which sat very squarely with Creature Comforts. Talking animals. He’s been a big influence on me. And silent comedy. This could all go back to Laurel and Hardy particularly and the rest of them. I like silent slapstick comedy. You can all wake up now.Kit: I would say that’s not boring at all.Golly: [Snores, all laugh]Kit: I grew up on the Merrie Melodies cartoons and can’t get enough of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner and all of those. That was what I had drilled into me as a kid after school. So that’s a huge source. As an adult, I’ve been a big fan of documentary filmmaking — the Maysles Brothers and anyone else you care to name who’s doing interesting documentary work. I tend to draw inspiration from filmmakers who take a documentary approach, who are concerned about making it feel real. Anything from Mike Nichols and The Graduate, to more recent Alexander Payne movies Election and Sideways. Movies that are concerned with trying to capture realistic, feeling characters, and find the humor in real situations.Dan: I feel very inspired by everyday situations. I’ll see someone in everyday life that I don’t know, involved in some type of situation, and I’ll imagine what life they come from, what they do, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what motivates them. And that makes me excited about the possibilities. That person on the street you could see as just a mundane person, or you could see it as it’s this whole, if you open up what’s inside, what’s happened to them in their life… So I guess it’s the human condition I find inspiring.Golly: Or talking, it sounds like to me. [Much laughter]

Part 2: How Dan Does It

Dan Sinclair sent us two of his favorite clips from Creature Comforts America. Read about them below, and then check out the raw interview tape, the transcript of the interview and the final animated clip.

Here’s what Dan has to say about these interviews:

Both interviews were carried out in a quiet room in old people’s homes in LA. I found the interviewees by asking a few simple questions of a staff member who was very familiar with the residents of the home.

For example, I asked “who stands out as being a character?” If they instantly said, “Oh, you’ve got to speak to Joan,” then I knew I was on to a good thing, i.e. if a person came into their mind that quickly I knew they must be a strong character. The great thing about this is the staff member acted as a sort of filter – they were familiar with hundreds of residents and only named a few. Rather than interviewing many people with the hope of finding the odd good one, I found people who could act as a gatekeeper.

Food Fuse

Read the transcript of the “Food Fuse” interview

When I started interviewing Gita I realized she was a great character – however her English was not that good and she was a little hard to understand. I also quickly realized she was finding it difficult to understand my English accent. I did not change the way I spoke to make it easier for her to understand. It was actually quite funny when she was asking me to repeat myself. As a result, when we came across a word or question she could not understand I stayed with it – which is how we ended up with the “Food Fuse” clip. I think this is a good example of how the interviewer can sometimes interact in the interview and actively create material.

Rhino & Bird

Read the transcript of the “Rhino & Bird” interview

Another question I asked the staff was: “Which people bounce off each other and have an interesting relationship?” In this case, I wasn’t looking just for characters but for people that had a dynamic between them, and not just those that argue and are funny, but perhaps subtle unexpected relationships too. That’s how I found Roland & Wilma, the couple in the “Rhino & Bird” clip. I was told they had a close relationship and quite a touching story. I had to work hard to gain their trust, and I did this by simply being myself and not acting too professional. Being natural and being myself created a relaxed atmosphere. It did not feel like a formal interview, which allowed Roland & Wilma to open up and say what they really felt. I tried to make it feel like we were all having a chat and I happened to be holding a microphone! I think this is a good example of getting the interviewees to drop their barriers and bare their souls.

About Kit Boss

Kit Boss was raised in Michigan surrounded by farm animals and religious zealots, then worked as a print journalist in Seattle for most of a decade before selling out and becoming a TV writer. He won two Emmy awards for his work on Disney Presents: Bill Nye the Science Guy. Since then his credits include a long stint on the animated series King of the Hill, a much shorter stint on HBO’s attempt to re-invent the dirtiest sitcom ever, Lucky Louie, and the shortest stint yet as executive producer of the U.S. adaptation of the much-lauded, much-loved Aardman animated series, Creature Comforts. He currently pickets with his fellow striking WGA members in Los Angeles.

About Richard Goleszowski

Richard Goleszowski (aka:Golly) was born in Suffolk, England in 1959. After completing a degree in Fine Art at Exeter, he spent some time working as an illustrator and DJ before joining Aardman in 1893. During his first nine years at Aardman he worked on several short films and promos including Morph, sledgehammer for Peter Gabriel, Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse in New York, his own film Indent and Rex the Runt pilot films.

His commercial work includes Domestos Big Dom, Grolsch, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, Weetos and Maltesers and several commercials for the European market.

In 1992, Golly left Aardman to pursue a freelance career during which time he worked in New Zealand as Production Adviser for Oscar and Friends, and wrote and directed 13 episodes of Rex the Runt for BBC2, winning the Carlton Award for International Animation at The Indies in 2000.

He then went on to direct Robbie the Reindeer in 1999 for the BBC Animation Unit. Robbie went on to win 19 international awards including a prestigious British Academy of film and Television Arts award (BAFTA).

Following the success of Robbie Golly worked for two years developing projects for Aardman’s feature film department a s well as overseeing the second series of Rex the Runt as Executive Producer.

From 2003 he directed two series of Creature Comforts — 2×13 episodes for ITV based on the Academy Award winning Nick Park short film. The first series went on to win 17 awards, and both series were nominated for BAFTA. The second series includes a half-hour Christmas special.

In July 2005, Golly rejoined Aardman as Creative Director of the busy Broadcast and Development team, writing scripts, and overseeing new projects in development as well as working on his own ideas.

Destined to be a huge success is Aardman’s first TV series for kids, Shaun the Sheep. The series is inspired by Nick Park’s A Close Shave but it is Golly who devised the 40 part series and has overseen the project as Series Director. Shaun the Sheep debuted on BBC1 & CBBC in March 2007 and has already been sold to 150 countries around the world.

About Dan Sinclair

Dan Sinclair was born and bred in North Yorkshire. Dan’s first job in television was directing short community based films for regional television in his university town of Bournemouth. He then spent over a year in Bristol at Aardman Animations as an interviewer on the UK series of Creature Comforts. After this he travelled the world as a field producer for Discovery Channel’s ‘Reel Race’. Dan moved to London in 2005 and has worked his way up to producer & director roles. During this period he worked in LA on Creature Comforts America. Daniel recently co-directed a 30-minute documentary for channel 4 television. He is currently working as a producer on channel 4’s flagship factual entertainment series ‘Gordon Ramsay’s f word’.


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