We’d Be Better Off If Every Human Were As Good As the Top 10 Percent of Humans

James Pethokoukis comments on an Economist cover story making the case that teacher quality is important:

Among the many studies cited: a University of Melbourne review of more than 65,000 papers on the effects of various classroom interventions. It concludes that what matters most is teacher expertise: “All of the 20 most powerful ways to improve school-time learning identified by the study depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.”

Another paper found that students taught by teachers in the top 10% for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material in an academic year, three times as much as those taught by teachers in the bottom 10%….The big question, then, is to what extent good teaching can be taught. Are high-quality teachers born that way or can they be made?

I’ve been hearing about this approximately forever. And I don’t really doubt it. Some teachers are better than others. Duh. The most effective 10 percent of teachers help their students more than the other 90 percent. Duh. It would be great if we could train all teachers to be as good as the top 10 percent. Duh. We ought to fire the really bad teachers. Duh.

Here’s what I don’t get: Why is it that this frenzy about “quality” is mostly reserved for teachers? Isn’t it true of literally every profession? Some prison guards are better than others. The most effective 10 percent of accountants will do your taxes better than the other 90 percent. It would be great if we could train all police officers to be as good as the top 10 percent. The Senate would be a better place if we could fire Jeff Sessions and train all the rest to be as good as Ron Wyden.

I’m all for training teachers to be as good as possible. But the existence of a bell curve of quality is pretty much inevitable everywhere. So why are politicians and academics so obsessed with teachers? Why not a national campaign called “A Nation at Risk” declaring that policing is in crisis and we won’t rest until we’ve fired all the bad ones and put in place a comprehensive quality testing regime that rates every single police officer in the country?

I’m serious about this. Every profession has a top ten percent and a bottom 3 percent. Every profession would be better if more of its members were as good as the top 10 percent while the bottom 3 percent were systematically fired. This is, frankly, so obvious, that it barely even deserves to be called an observation, let alone an insight. And yet, we all ooh and ah when these banalities are applied to teachers. What’s the deal with this?


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Give a Year of the Truth

at our special holiday rate

just $12

Order Now

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.