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The Implacable Miss Hurt, Mozart, Okun's Leaky Bucket
In 1968, I was a first grader at a small private school for boys on the Upper East Side. Our teacher was Miss Hurt, a name so “on the nose” that it qualifies as Dickensian parody. Across from our classroom door, there were large windows with a view of the back of the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. One afternoon we twenty boys caught a glimpse into one of the hotel rooms of some adult activity or perhaps merely a female in a state of undress. The remembered bawdiness of our glimpse grew to become more graphic as we ourselves grew older, limited only by the pre-pubescent imaginations of our “wildest” classmates.
Our first grade classroom was arranged in precisely spaced columns and rows of desks. Precise also was Miss Hurt’s seating plan as she designated the intersection of the front row and first column (nearest the front door as I recall) for the best student, descending by student rank from there down the first column toward the back and then proceeding down each successive column from front to back until the worst student sat in the dreaded corner in the last row of the farthest column.
So ranked from one to twenty, we first graders had an indelible daily impression of our academic standing. Having come from a kindergarten that hadn’t taught math or reading, I started poorly ranked, but soon made my way up as a permanent fixture in the first column.
If I seem prideful it’s because after more than a half century, being near the top of my first grade class is my first remembrance of pride and confidence. One of Miss Hurt’s ranking criteria was based on a competition of who could write the most numbers in order. I was second best and could never catch my friend who was number one for the entirety of the year. I also remember a required nap time, extremely boring and inconsistent with the metabolic energies of six year old boys. Exemptions from naps, however, were given to the top few number writers, yet another way that devious Miss Hurt divided the class.
I’m sure Miss Hurt’s methods instilled in me a desire to compete academically, and a realization that successful competition could make me feel good about myself. I suspect it had the opposite effect on the laggards of her seating chart. In one sense, I view Miss Hurt’s methods as cruel, and I’m sure today’s parents (certainly of the laggards!) would never put up with her. On the other hand, educational attainment and talent, whether measured brutally or subtly, is always everywhere a competition. To deny that is to deny the nature of life.
It is a truism to say all students should learn to the best of their capabilities, but relative capabilities will always vary according to innate talent and life circumstances. I say relative, because there is strong evidence that the absolute level of childhood learning in America has improved over time. But what Miss Hurt measured and what’s ultimately measured by success in life is relative. If the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, it stands to reason that, so too, will a Mozart be king in a land full of Salieri-level competent composers.
Nothing can be done about relative differences in innate talent. What can be addressed are relative differences in life circumstances. All else being equal, a boy such as myself coming from an affluent two parent home and attending a well-equipped private school has a huge inherent advantage over a boy coming from an impoverished single parent home and attending an inner city school. Much of educational reform policy over the past decades has sought to use school funding to close that gap by pouring money into those inner city schools. This has had some success, albeit uneven, and the extent of success is still hotly contested. It’s important to remember that a relative “gap” has two sides, and if both sides move in lockstep toward greater academic proficiency, the gap remains the same.
I don’t question whether greater spending on schools can have a positive relative effect. For example, there are conflicting studies on the academic efficacy of Universal Pre-K. But at a minimum, Pre-K is a substitute for otherwise unaffordable childcare. Having a safe, reliable, and free space to bring your three and four year old children is itself a boon to families at various levels of poverty and income insufficiency.
What I do believe, however, is that if the goal is to attack poverty, especially childhood poverty, then much of educational reform spending aimed at that goal is delivered in what the economist Arthur Okun famously called a “leaky bucket.” Okun was an economist for the LBJ administration and a believer in LBJ’s Great Society program aimed at fighting poverty. Okun understood, however, that there was a trade-off between government spending and efficiency. Thus, his metaphor of the “leaky bucket,” with the size of the leak determining just how inefficient a particular policy might be. Too much leak and the policy might be unwise and the money better used elsewhere.
I don’t think enough policy makers consider the “leaky bucket.” Admittedly, it’s not easy to measure the leakage. That said, it seems clear to me that the more direct the transmission of a policy’s benefit, the more efficient it will be. So, it would be good to step back and compare the leakage of money spent on education as a means of reducing childhood poverty vs. the leakage of direct payments like refundable child tax credits.
A “leading the witness” question is to compare the benefits to children living in impoverished and stressed households (including shelters) from either increased school spending or direct payments that lift their households out of poverty. The evanescent 2021 Child Tax Credit reduced childhood poverty by a third. But only for a year, until it met its untimely demise.
Some leakage will always be inevitable, but a bucket that springs too many leaks ceases to be a bucket and instead becomes a colander.