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?

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

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

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

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

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.