FORGET smart uniforms and small classes. The secret to stellar grades and thriving students is teachers. One American study found that in a single year’s teaching the top 10% of teachers impart three times as much learning to their pupils as the worst 10% do. Another suggests that, if black pupils were taught by the best quarter of teachers, the gap between their achievement and that of white pupils would disappear.
But efforts to ensure that every teacher can teach are hobbled by the tenacious myth that good teachers are born, not made. Classroom heroes like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society” or Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” are endowed with exceptional, innate inspirational powers. Government policies, which often start from the same assumption, seek to raise teaching standards by attracting high-flying graduates to join the profession and prodding bad teachers to leave. Teachers’ unions, meanwhile, insist that if only their members were set free from central diktat, excellence would follow.