Defying Pareto's Principle

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In his outstanding summary of ideas that change lives, 100 Greatest Ideas for Personal Success, John Adair tackles the implications of Perato's principle. He gives a neat synopsis of the concept, so widely dropped in to conversations by people who have little or no idea about it other than the 20:80 thing. It's such a clear description that it's worth quoting verbatim.

The Pareto principle, named after an Italian economist, states that the significant items of a given group form a relatively small part of the total. For example, 20 percent of the sales force will bring in 80 percent of the new business. As that ration seems to hold true in many areas, it is often called the 80:20 rule of the concept of the vital few and the trivial many.

Now that raises an interesting question or two for teachers and leaders in education. Let's divide the work of a school in to two aspects: pastoral and academic. In the pastoral area, do 20% of the students occupy 80% of the operational time of the pastoral staff? Do 80% of the meetings, phone calls and emails revolve around just 20% of the families? Are 80% of the sanctions targeted at 20% of the student body? In the academic area, is the percentage of underachieving students around the 20% mark and do they receive 80% of the interventions? Do 20% of the students achieve highly and acquire 80% of the rewards? Is 80% of teaching time spent supporting and 20% challenging?

Certainly, that matches the majority of my quarter of a century as an education professional.

Now comes the tough part what about the students who are neither 20 or 80? I know, it always adds up to 100 so there can't be anyone missing but there is. Pastorally there are young people who never have problems so significant that they pop up on the radar, who don't break the rules and rarely incur sanctions. Academically, there will be students who don't seem to excel but neither do they slip into a danger zone. It's possible not to be in the 20 or the 80, to get all the way to prize evening at the end of the academic journey and not actually be known by anyone very well.

Perhaps that challenge for school leaders is to make education great for the young people who are neither 20 nor 80.

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