Anew study in the New England Journal of Medicine has a surprising conclusion. It finds that over the past decade, 1 percent of physicians accounted for 32 percent of malpractice claims. In other words, health care providers could eliminate one-third of malpractice and its associated health, legal and economic costs by removing the worst 1 percent of doctors.
It’s called the “law of the vital few” — better known as the 80/20 rule. It states that a disproportionate impact comes from a small input. Eighty-four percent of total income tax payments, for instance, are paid by 20 percent of earners. And more than two-thirds of all drunken-driving fatalities are caused by the tiny fraction of drivers with at least a 0.15 blood-alcohol level (the hard-core drunk drivers).
Perhaps nowhere is this rule more apparent than in the U.S. education system. Education economist Erik Hanushek has found that a small percentage of teachers are responsible for virtually all of the United States’ poor global education ranking. (U.S. students score worse on international tests than students from countries like Vietnam, Poland and Latvia.)
According to Mr. Hanushek, replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the United States near the top of international education rankings. A 2013 study by a different group of researchers found that replacing the bottom 5 percent of teachers with average teachers would increases students’ lifetime income by approximately $250,000 per classroom per year. Getting rid of the worst teachers would improve productivity and economic output by trillions of dollars, says Mr. Hanushek.
Subpar teachers are complicit in poor student performance. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, one-quarter of eighth grade students do not have basic reading skills, and two-thirds don’t have “proficient” reading skills. About one-third of high school graduates who try to enlist in the armed forces are rejected for insufficient reading or basic math abilities.
Unskilled people have few employment prospects. As a result, there is currently a youth unemployment crisis in this country. The youth unemployment rate is more than triple the overall one and is much higher than that in certain parts of the country. In Washington D.C., whose schools are notoriously bad, the current youth unemployment rate is 30 percent.
The value of early-career work experience is well covered. Thomas Mroz of the University of North Carolina and Tim Savage of Welch Consulting find that someone who is jobless for just six months at the age of 22 will earn 8 percent less at 23 than someone without an employment gap. Economists at the University of Bristol found that men who were jobless in their youth earn 13 percent to 21 percent less at age 42 than their employed counterparts.
On the flip side, Christopher Ruhm of the University of Virginia and Charles Baum of Middle Tennessee State University conclude that those with early-career work experience — even a part-time or summer job — earn about 10 percent more per hour throughout their careers than those without such experience.
It’s said that there are three ways people leave a job: some quit, others are fired, and some quit and stay. It is this last group that is most troublesome in any workplace. To solve this youth unemployment crisis and its associated ramifications, teachers who quit and stay must be fired.
But it’s easier said than done. Militant teachers unions like the American Federation of Teachers led by Randi Weingarten make it virtually impossible to fire the worst teachers. Less than 0.1 percent of teachers are fired each year in major districts nationwide. As a colleague of hers once said, “Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.”
The single most effective reform to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers is ending tenure, which virtually guarantees teachers jobs for life after as little as two years in the classroom. “Teacher tenure, and the related onerous and costly requirements for dismissing an ineffective teacher,” says Mr. Hanushek, “have evolved into a system that almost completely insulates teachers from review, evaluation, or personnel decisions that would threaten their lifetime employment.”
The concept of tenure for grade school teachers is taken from the university system, which needs to protect professors who promote nontraditional theories and views in courses like religion and political theory. But there is no justification for this level of employment protection for people who teach junior high algebra or geography.
The end of teacher tenure is overdue. Doctors, lawyers and first responders are all accountable for results and failures. Why do grade school teachers get a pass? The sorry state of our schools and the reasons for it should be a 2016 campaign issue.
• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co., a Washington public affairs firm.