The Key to Student Success

Applying the Perato 80/20 rules to instruction and student performance

By Philip Brown

Warning:  If you’re easily offended and unwilling to be challenged, this might not be a good article for you to read.  This article should make you a little uncomfortable because it will call into question the role you play in the success of students.  However, if this article challenges you to reflect and discover what it is you provide that produces the majority of student success, then your discomfort will be short-lived and worth the outcome. 

What percentage of the content your students are responsible for learning causes them the majority of their headaches?  Is it nearly everything you teach that prevents students from acing tests?  Or, is it just a few little things that frustrate students?”

As teachers, we spend an incredible amount of time following best practices.  We write content and language objectives, have a bell work activity, check in with each individual student to see if they’re okay, call parents, manage discipline problems, verify attendance, assign homework, comply with administrative expectations, and try to create lessons and activities that will be engaging to students.  That’s a lot of work.  The overwhelming majority of it is probably a waste of time. 


The Italian economist Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto, they like a lot of names in the old country, discovered what we now refer to as the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule.  In short, Pareto discovered that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by 20% of the people.  That must be greed, right?  Well, people are certainly greedy and the number one objective of a person in a position of power is to secure and expand their power.  However, there’s more to it than that.  Pareto also noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden were produced by just 20% of the plants.  We’ll come back to these ideas later in the article.

What percentage of the content your students are responsible for learning causes them the majority of their headaches?  Is it nearly everything you teach that prevents students from acing tests?  Or, is it just a few little things that frustrate students?

What about the volume of expectations placed upon teachers by administrative teams?  What percentage of that work really helps students perform better?  

Heather is a fantastic teacher. One of my daughters had her as a teacher and was greatly impacted by the services provided by the teacher.  Heather works tirelessly.  She grades, in great detail, about 300 essays a month.  Do the math.  If a single essay takes 15 minutes to grade and annotate, that’s about 75 hours a month spent outside of school just grading essays.  The results of her efforts are fantastic.  Largely due to her diligence students become highly successful in many classes.  Heather is, without doubt, one of the main reasons her school was awarded the Cambridge International School of the Year in 2017, as well as the College Board School of the Year in the same year. 

Heather teaches Cambridge IGCSE World History and is the last remaining of the original teachers in the IGCSE program at my school.  When my school adopted the program we knew nothing about it.  It was arranged that Heather could visit another school in Arizona to observe.  At that school, Heather observed a woman whose students had excellent results on the end of course examination in World History.  Such consistently high results are anomalous in IGCSE here in Arizona, so this teacher was touted as fantastic.

Heather reported back surprising news.  The teacher she observed was, in her words, “awful.”  The teacher wasn’t just disorganized. She was often sharing the wrong information with the students. 


How did the students do well on end of course examination?  They had access to the information and the grades were aligned with the expectation.  The students were motivated, they were collaborative, and the school had an academic culture.

What percentage of the content your students are responsible for learning causes them the majority of their headaches?  Is it nearly everything you teach that prevents students from acing tests?  Or, is it just a few little things that frustrate students?”

Nagesh, teaches AP Calculus. Nagesh is among the hardest
working people I’ve ever met.  He serves his students and community through effective and diligent application and effort.  As a result, he is loved and admired by his students, and respected by the faculty.

Nagesh’s students did noticeably better than was historically expected for our school on the AP Calculus exams.  But, the number of top category scores, fours, and fives, were a little disappointing to Nagesh.  The issue preventing better performance could be seen as another application of the 80/20 rule.  The students knew how to do 80% of the AP test very well, but the 20% was really hurting them. 

The difficult questions on the AP exams were practiced in class.  He’d offer re-takes, would review those problems, went through lots of effort helping students understand how to approach those issues, and so on. Regardless of his efforts the students did poorly and generally avoided engaging.  The test results reflected such behavior.  Top students would typically score well on the majority of the test, especially when it came to knowledge and procedure.  But when real problem solving and communication of thought were involved, the wheels came off, so to speak.


One day it all changed for Nagesh and his students.  He decided to increase the level of academic performance required to get an A.  Students
would have to take those difficult style AP questions on class tests and pass
them in order to get an A in the class.  The results were fantastic.  Of
course, students struggled at first but learned how to manage that level of
expectation.  The number of students getting 5s on the AP exam skyrocketed! 

The poor quality teacher had good results while the high quality teacher did not.  The difference was simply the expectations aligned with assigning grades to students.  

In the two examples shared we saw that the level of expectation is what drove the students to perform well.  In the first example, the teacher was not very good.  Yet, her students performed very well because they had access to the materials and the standard of the test matched the standard for their class grades.

In the second example, the teacher was an excellent teacher.  Yet, students largely struggled to achieve at the level they were capable of.  Once the standards set by the test were reflected in the class grade expectations, students started to perform better.

The question that seems to be asked here is, how well could the students for the first teacher have done had she been a better teacher?

What we have seen here is that in order for students to excel the standards for the class grade must match the standards for the ultimate measure of success.  So, if students are taking AP examinations, there needs to be an articulation from 5 to A, 4 to B and 3 to C, and so on.  Passing the test is the expectation.  Without this in place, many students will under-perform.

Part 5:  Let’s pull all of this together with the 80/20 rule.  It is most likely that a small percentage of the class content causes the majority of the frustration for students.  That frustration stems from lack of understanding and the existence of confusion.  Confusion occurs just before understanding.

Any teacher with at least one year of experience knows well that the majority of our time with students can be gobbled up by things that really don’t help students learn.  Sure, students have to take notes and practice problems, talk and try things.  But, until they break through confusion, they’re not really learning in a way that is permanent (unless you’re talking about rote memorization type learning).  The Pythagorean Theorem is very easy to use.  What’s difficult to do is recognize when it is useful and applying it without prompt!  How many minutes of an hour long class can you spend holding students in that cognitive space where they face such ambiguity? 

The 80/20 rule governs both of our situations, students and teachers alike.  Here’s the situation we face together.  A small amount of our times is truly useful towards helping students with the small amount of material they truly find troubling.  This is a good match, but because we have a small amount of time, we must be focused and have the students on board with us.  First, we need to make that small portion of difficult material mandatory for student to learn.  If they fail to perform up to the required level, their grades suffer.  If they perform as is expected with the difficult material, their grades improve.  The standard of proficiency with the testing tool must match the grades assigned in class!  Second, we must bend all of our focus during the critical 20% of time on helping students perform well on that difficult material.