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Bones: The Complete Seventh Season

By David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, Michaela Conlin

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Mark Twain allegedly quipped once that “I’ve never let my school interfere with my education” [1]. There are any number of specifics to which he may or may not have been referring, but I think the appropriate corollary is the realization that just throwing money at schools, and even improving school performance (e.g. test scores) isn’t the real goal, nor is it necessarily progress towards that goal. Although the semantics and specific details may be up for debate, indubitably, the goal needs to be giving youth the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in adulthood.

My wife is a preschool teacher, so this is a topic that comes up a lot in our apartment. This series will explore some of the topics we’ve discussed. My goal isn’t to spell out all the solutions, so much as it is to articulate the problems’ though, as an outlet of my recent target of self-growth, I will be attempting to provide some alternatives to the current system that I believe are viable and an improvement over what we have. There’s a lot of talk about “fixing” America’s education system, and some pontification of the issue of “teaching to the test,” but it seems to me that the discussion could use some public choice [2].

What are the incentives that teachers face?

What are the incentives that parents face?

What policies have created these incentives, and what unintended consequences do these incentives imbue?

And where to start?


Let’s start with what’s possible. What can we do? How much influence, objectively can teachers have? 

I’m an economist, so I’m going here: on the one hand, yes; on the other hand, no. Studies have shown that a good teacher can push kids a full 1.5 grade levels (where average gain is standardized to a grade level gain of 1)[3]. On the other hand, studies have also shown that parents have very little effect on long-term success of their children [4], so how much more can teachers possibly have? Assuming the quality of teacher is roughly normally distributed within each school, any gross benefit a given teacher teacher may give a child gets averaged out to make the effect regress to the mean; any negative effects a bad teacher has on a child is made up by subsequent, above average teachers so as to be deemed inconsequential; and any short term effects a good teacher has on a child at best atrophies over time to become null in the long run. Cynical? Perhaps. Rooted in peer-reviewed Economic theory? Yes.

Here’s the point of the Dismal Science: individuals don’t really matter that much [5]; institutions matter far more (granted, institutions are set up by people, but never within a vacuum). Given that, let’s run through the premises again:

  1. The effect of any given teacher on a child’s whole life is effectively moot

  2. The effect of that teacher on the child’s education is non-trivial

  3. The effect of the child’s education on his/her life is also non-trivial

  4. The effect of the school on the teacher (and therefore teacher quality) is substantial [2][3][6]

Ergo, the effect of the institution on the child’s life is notable.

There’s an important thing to clarify here. An institution is more than the bricks and mortar, and it’s more than the formal code of conduct. It’s the whole system: both supply and demand [6]. Both the pedagogy and the parental involvement [7]. Both of which are influenced by incentives, which in our current society are set up largely by the State. Not to sound like a broken record from previous posts, but we’re back at iterative effects, which is just another name I have for what I’ve previously called aggregate effects, especially for Part 1 of On the Margin; In the Aggregate [8].

So since we’re back at aggregation and the effects of institutions rather than individuals, what are different facets of the prevailing pedagogy and the current educational system—including all schools that employ state-endorsed teachers—that affect honest-to-god learning? And how?

So begins my next series: How to stop School from getting in the way of education. Topics so far:

  • On broken windows and utilitarianism

  • On play

  • On metrics

  • More on broken windows

  • The seen and the unseen

  • On value

  • On privatization

More topics likely to be interspersed


The tattooed Economist sends his love.


[1] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/marktwain109621.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_choice_theory

[3] Haneshack; http://www.econtalk.org/archives/_featuring/eric_hanushek/

[4] Bryan Caplan; http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/05/caplan_on_paren.html

[5] Although not an economist, Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel refers to people as “wild cards” in history. There is an almost infinitesimally small probability that any one individual will knowingly and intentionally change the course of history according to his/her own volition, but a substantially larger probability that an individual will dramatically, though unintentionally affect the course of events; for example: Nelson Mendela intentionally affected South Africa for a few generations; Genghis Khan unintentionally affected Europe through the weakening of Rome for the last 800 years and the US-influenced future.

[6] Russ Roberts, various podcasts available at www.EconTalk.org

[7] Freakonomics podcast; http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/04/08/freakonomics-radio-smarter-kids-at-10-bucks-a-pop/

[8] sheepthatsblack.xanga.com