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

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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?

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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