We spend 80% of our classroom time on the skills needed for 10% of our jobs

80-10problemLinda Darling-Hammond notes:

The factory model high school as we now call it was designed in about 1910 or 1920. The idea of that comprehensive high school was to cream off about 5% of the kids for specialized knowledge work. They would go off to college and fill the very small number of jobs that required that kind of thinking. The rest of the kids were supposed to be prepared for the farm, the factory, the mills – for you know, fairly rote kinds of learning. And over time vocational programs were put in place and other kinds of general programs.

The notion of these schools was that they were to select and sort kids, decide who was going to go where in the economy. Most of the work was not going to be thinking work. And we were going to crank them out on this assembly line process.

Richard Elmore confirms that the factory-school model continues today:

When you code classroom practice for level of cognitive demand . . . 80% of the work is at the factual and procedural level. . . . [Teachers] will do low-level work and call it high-level work.

So does Robert Pianta:

The average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics notes:

Agricultural workers = 2.12 million
Manufacturing workers = 11.67 million
All workers = 138.98 million

Overall share of agricultural and manufacturing workers = 10%

It’s 2010, and the vast majority of American jobs are in the services sector. Yet we continue to spend 80% of our classroom time (or more) on the skills needed for 10% of our jobs.

Principals, superintendents, school board members, and policymakers: Could the problem be any clearer? Isn’t this a pretty damning indictment of our inability to change? Aren’t you all supposed to be leaders?

36 Responses to “We spend 80% of our classroom time on the skills needed for 10% of our jobs”

  1. Scott, once again, your disordered thinking is truly mind bending. First you attack High School with figures from 3rd and 5th grade, then you imply that Vocational education involves less problem solving? A skilled trade probably involves more problem solving in a day than is required by most service workers in a year!
    Speaking of which, exactly what “skills” are you suggesting that we teach people for the Service Industry? Really, I’m curious in a age where you can touch pictures on a screen and the register makes the change for you, what skills are those workers not receiving in their education? You can mutter and gesticulate about “Problem Solving!” all day long, without of course defining what you mean by that term or how they would be using it. It’s also truly astounding that you also think that people can solve problems without basic skills and knowledge. Rote learning is a huge part of medicine (most of the “hottest careers” are in the medical field). Would you let yourself be treated by someone who had not learned Anatomy and Physiology (which, last I checked did not involved a lot of Problem Solving, that comes after you have the knowledge base for it)

    • Bill, Elmore’s numbers pertain to secondary classrooms too, not just primary ones. There are lots of other studies confirming that students across the K-12 spectrum spend most of their time on low-level cognitive work. These are just indicative of a larger body of work.

      You say a lot in your comment that I don’t (or wouldn’t), particularly about the non-necessity of “basic skills and knowledge.” Please don’t put words in my mouth!

  2. @Bill:

    I can’t speak for Scott, but what I read this as (at least in the math classrooms that I teach in) is the tendency to value rote memorization and procedural fluency over conceptual understanding and adaptive reasoning skills; the tendency to value formulas and algorithms which require nothing more than memorization and application over concepts and connections which allow students to reconstruct new knowledge and adapt what they’ve learned to new situations.

    Problem solving in my mind is the ability to draw from what you know to do something new.

    Or maybe I’m way off the mark.

  3. Scott,

    Some interesting statistics here and really helps with where our focus should be in schools.

    What I am curious about is the very last statement you make:

    “Principals, superintendents, school board members, and policymakers: Could the problem be any clearer? Isn’t this a pretty damning indictment of our inability to change? Aren’t you all supposed to be leaders?”

    Many people I know that are in the groups listed above do focus on the things that you highlight in your post but you seem to generalize ALL of them (as a principal myself I know I try to lead my staff in this direction as well).

    I know that some professors ill-equip new teachers to develop these skills in students, but I don’t think condemning ALL professors is helpful or near the truth. Sharing examples of those that do prepare new teachers to work with students to develop in this area, and how they do it would be more of a benefit if we want change.

    You also wrote this in a post speaking about how technology integration specialists can help administrators:

    “Administrators are unknowledgeable, not evil.” http://bit.ly/9PjHut

    If we are talking about technology integration, I am neither as an administrator. In fact, I was the principal and technology integration coordinator for my school. Do I know everything about EVERY subject in our school? Definitely not and I have some areas that I really need to grow in just like all educators.

    I really think the ideas you share here are important. In fact, I have bookmarked this post to share with my staff at the beginning of school. The statement at the end though is something that I do not agree with and think it could turn many of the people you are referring to away from such great information.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Thanks for pushing back on that phrasing, George. It wasn’t meant to turn administrators off but rather to highlight the fact that we need to be LEADERS in this area. At our current pace of change, I wouldn’t call most principals or superintendents “leaders” in the area of moving their schools to higher-level cognitive work more often.

      I’m glad you’re seeing progess in your school / area. That doesn’t mitigate the larger, overall problem, however. Just because you’re moving in the right directions doesn’t mean most are…

  4. Scott,
    First, I don’t believe that the job of school is to produce workers. But I do know that is often used as an argument for change.

    I think that by pulling two categories of workers (your 10%) and then lumping everyone else into “other” you are setting yourself up to lose this argument. You’ll end up having to defend that service workers, for example, need problem solving skills just like stock market analysts. That’s never going to convince anyone. In fact, it plays into the notion that somehow schools are able to determine what careers kids should be trained for. We all know what happens then — poor kids and kids of color are somehow magically judged not worthy of the academic track.

    Is your wake up call to leaders really to just swap one type of workforce training for another?

    • I don’t think it’s schools’ SOLE job to produce little worker bees for the economy. We have other – what some might describe as “higher” – callings as well. That said, we ignore the economic preparation role of schools at our peril.

      Our society has allocated this role to schools, colleges, and universities. Parents and students have fairly strong expectations in this area as well.

      Look, I don’t want my school to turn out little worker drones for the larger corporate beehive. But neither do I want my kid living in my basement when he’s 40 ’cause he can’t get a decent-paying job…

  5. Thanks for the comments so far. Some further clarification may be helpful here…

    When I did this post, I was trying to put some numbers behind Darling-Hammond’s quote (“the farm, the factory, the mills”). Looking at the statistics from BLS, those numbers fall around 10% (maybe 14% if you include all goods-producing jobs). Thus the 10% figure.

    There’s a wide variety of research showing that – across all levels of the P-12 system – the vast majority of student time (80% to 85%) typically is spent on lower-level cogntive work (factual recall, low-level procedural knowledge, etc.). The studies I cited are emblematic of the larger whole. Thus the 80% figure.

    Finally, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately from demographers and labor economists. The overall picture is very clear: we long ago moved to a services economy, not a manufacturing/agricultural economy. See some of these other posts of mine:


    Many of us know this in our gut, so I’m a little surprised that there’s pushback. As seen by the links above, this is not the first time I’ve blogged about this. I thought I was just reiterating in a different way points made previously.

    Maybe you want to include some lower-level service jobs and increase the 10% total. Maybe you want to take out certain kinds of manufacturing work that utilize higher-level cognitive skills and decrease that number a bit. Have at it. These are just some basic numbers to illustrate the larger problem. You’re welcome to play around with the occupation employment data from BLS, which are quite robust. I’m sure that whatever you come up with will be very helpful and informative to all of us.

    Maybe the mix is different in your school or community or local workforce. Maybe it’s 80-20 or 70-30 or whatever. Whatever your local context, the bottom line nationally is that our schools were designed to prepare mass numbers of workers for a factory-driven economy. Manufacturing and agricultural jobs now represent a proportion of the American economy that is only one-third (or less) of what it used to be. That should constitute a serious call to action to school organizations and their administrators. But it doesn’t, which either means that we can’t do this (as Clayton Christenson says) and thus schools are toast, or we won’t do this, which calls into question our very purpose and our inability to change to meet the needs of society. Either way, it’s not good…

  6. I read this an thought… is that me? I think I do really high demanding work, but I am not really sure. I try to use PBL’s, Webquests, wiki’s, google docs, ect. But in the end, I feel I am forced to have them memorize facts…state tests, districts report cards they all push us that way.

    The 80-10 problem will be something I think about for a long time. Thanks for bring this to the surface. I have not thought of it this way before. Garth

  7. Hi Scott,

    Garth make a great point – teachers teach (and administrators expect teachers to teach) what will be on state assessments.

    I think you are picking on the wrong people. Aim your outrage at those who create the standards and assessments that ask for low level skills – not at those folks who are doing their jobs.


    • Hey, I included policymakers!

      I don’t want to minimize standardized testing pressures, but let’s also don’t create a false dichotomy: I believe that most schools that more often do higher-level cognitive work find that their students do just fine on the assessments of lower-level skills. Also, at some point we have to what’s right for kids’ futures, not what a bubble sheet tells us to do. What good is current “success” if we fail them for their future needs? Similarly, we Educational Leadership profs need to get our heads out of our ___ and do what we need to for practicing/preservice administrators rather than continuing to teach and work in ways that don’t impact the field. A little civil disobedience, anyone? =)

      • You say that you don’t want to “Minimize standardized testing pressures” but you also have to look at rewards as well as pressures. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I lost over 20 instructional days last year (out of 180) to Standardized Testing (and Prep Days). If you want to evangelize a powerful message, your reply to Doug is the message that we need right now!

        I teach science (Physics, Astronomy, and General) and have students design their own labs, write reports and have them evaluate other groups’ reports and results, do video analysis, project based learning, as well as labs, simulations, and use online weather stations and telescopes. Why? Because I want the students to know how Science works, have a passion for it, and learn how to analyze and think. How is a year long period plus every other day lab course assessed by the State? Three Multiple choice identification questions on the “Science” exam. Makes it hard to try to justify a budget for the course (that I already spend hundreds of dollars out of pocket on supplies each year as well as spending my time and money on summer courses and workshops looking for new and better ideas), especially in this economy. We need much more than a little civil disobedience, and things are actually going completely the wrong way with both NCLB and RttT.

      • Hi Scott,

        Points well-taken.

        I still think that we don’t blame the soldiers on the front line when the war isn’t going the way we want or chastise the sales clerks when the company isn’t profitable.

        I am fine (and advocate) subversion, but let’s call it that straight out rather than suggesting people aren’t doing their jobs.

        Good discussion!


        • I’m not willing to exempt anybody. Whether we call it “blame,” “responsibility,” a “need for improvement,” or “an opportunity for growth,” we all share in the creation AND solution of this issue. Whether we be administrators, board members, parents, policymakers, or, yes, teachers, we all must own this.

          • Hi Scott,

            Sadly, human nature shows that when everybody is responsible, no one accepts responsibility. (If you ever need help, don’t say to a group “Call 911” – point at one person and say “Call 911.”

            I am happy to hold teachers responsible for effectively carrying out policy and teaching a set curriculum. What those policies are and what constitutes the curriculum is the responsibility of elected officials and administrators, however.


  8. Scott,

    I agree that we in public education have been guilty of not pushing our students and institutions in a way that they are in line with the needs of the current times. I would argue that higher education is guilty of the same. As I push my school to become more problem based where students need to demonstrate competence beyond rote memory and lower level skills, I get push back from parents and former students who say that what students are learning in a project based curriculum does not prepare them for college where they sit and take notes from a screen based outline presentation and regurgitate it on a test.

    I agree with you whole heartedly that it is on us to lead our schools. Are institutions of post secondary education changing at the pace they need to?

    • Oh my word, no! See my previous comment to Doug Johnson. I tell people, “If you think K-12 moves slow, come to higher ed.”

      We are pathetically behind when it comes to our instructional and technology integration practices. And I see no hope of that changing anytime soon.

      So many battles to fight, so little time (and so few people)…

  9. Scott,

    Your post here is spot on. School did almost nothing to prepare me for the work I do today. Nor did it prepare my wife.

    When I read these critical comments coming from “educators”, I wonder if they’ve ever listened to the students or the parents and if they even care.

    The kid next door dropped out of his G&T program because he wasn’t being challenged, instead he was getting mass amounts of rote busywork piled on him.

    Right now, I have my kids in a small non-sectarian private Montessori school, and even there it seems they waste enormous amounts of time on things that provide no value to the student or anyone else.

    They should be blogging and creating and designing and programming and innovating and thinking and discussing and inventing and growing. They should teach children to resolve conflict and how to treat each other with respect. But instead they sit in semi-circles, daydreaming, listening to the teacher read 100 year old stories.

    When I talk to the teachers and the administration and I tell them they should be blogging, they don’t even know what I am talking about and why it might be valuable. They impugn wikipedia and facebook.

    If big education doesn’t wake up and grow agile and innovative they will lose the best and brightest to home schooling and co-ops.

    If my kids graduate from college, they would be the first in either of our families to do so. But all things considered, I question the value of a higher education. I’m frustrated with the situation. We are teaching children the wrong lessons.

    This post from the Last Psychiatrist sums up the the frustration better than I ever could.

    Thanks for all you do here, Scott.

  10. Scott,

    You reference difficulty in change in higher ed, and obviously we are discussing difficulties in PK-12 too. Then, you reference Christensen (and others) who theorize why public education has difficulty.

    How much would you attribute the lack of movement to “cannot change” and how much of it is “will not”?

    I honestly think the best portion of Christensen’s book is the chapter on both the complexity of the organization and it’s currently interdependent architecture. I actually think “cannot” has a great deal of weight – more than what most people will give credit. Of course there are hurdles to change that involve leadership too.

    For simplicity sake, let’s take the school year (which is infinitely less complicated than change teaching and learning to reflect increased higher order processing). Of course every school system in the country has made the completely common sense move to year ’round schooling. It makes sense to almost anyone that 3 months of downtime is less effective than time spread out through the year.

    But aren’t most of us still using the summer off model?

    Is it because of poor leadership, or is the issue extremely complex with multiple interfaces including legal ones, political will of parents, negotiated contracts, HVAC systems ill-prepared for summer use, (and the list goes on).

    Simple change, even the most common-sensical change, is not very cut-and-dried even when it makes incredibly good sense.

    I wonder if a lot of educational change has a high degree of “cannot do” – or maybe that is “cannot do alone”.

  11. Scott – I would add that at the elementary level (especially “at risk” elementary) your arguments are used to continually narrow our curriculum. Not saying you are doing that, but so many believe that if only kids could read better and do math better in early grades we could spend more time on the 10% stuff – so let’s only do reading and math until they “get it”. Point is, when students don’t have schema for the world, they don’t understand what they read even if the can “sound it out”! For reference see this:

  12. I think about this often while in the classroom trying to get kids to see the importance of World History. I know that not all of my students are college-bound and that many will enter the workforce as soon as they graduate from high school. The state standards in Ohio say that all 9th graders should be able to analyze the causes and consequences of the Russian Revolution. How will this benefit those kids entering the workforce after they graduate. Wouldn’t teaching something like citizenship – how to be a productive member of society, or service learning be more beneficial to a kid like this?

    It is our job to find a balance in order to meet the needs of all students and to make the material relevant to all students. Are we doing a disservice to the non college-bound student? I’m not sure. I suppose it depends on the subject and the student.

  13. @Lauren,

    Those are the kinds of question educators need to ask. Most people in my peer group have graduate level degrees, and I would guess if I asked them when the Russian Revolution occurred and what it led to, few could tell me it was in 1917 and led to the Soviet Union. Even fewer could tell me causes. So my question is… what good does this kind of knowledge do the average person? Now, I’m a huge history buff, and historical knowledge has benefited me in business when I find another history buff at a conference and I can discuss the Boer War, Cecil Rhodes, and the formation of Rhodesia, or when I am interviewing for a position and I comment on the model Spitfire on the executive’s desk, but mostly being interested in these things and knowing so much about them makes me odd in the business world. I would say forcing children to learn these things creates negative outcomes. It appears arbitrary – and they don’t see how they could ever apply such knowledge, and in most cases they are right. It appears to them as a waste of time. This problem leads many students to believe that all learning is a waste of time, which clearly isn’t true. But it is the message too many are getting.

    • @Steve
      Sadly I think that asking ‘what good is studying history[social studies]?” Is brilliantly demonstrated by the often disastrous policy decisions made (and continuing to be made) by the US. From repeating mistakes of the Great Depression to thinking that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were good ideas, we have refused to learn from history, so we repeat the mistakes.

  14. @Bill
    Agreed. But didn’t the people that made the decisions that led to these policy disasters go to the finest educational institutions in America? I’m assuming they received oodles of History and Social Science. And for the most part, when it comes the US fiscal, monetary, or foreign policy, we aren’t talking about blue collar kids from Ohio that are just looking for a way to contribute.

    BTW, over lunch I asked a couple of my peers who have a higher education the question about the Russian Revolution, one got the date wrong but knew that it led to communism (he has a history degree) and the other said he didn’t know. I would consider both men highly successful. Their lack of knowledge of the Russian Revolution hasn’t hurt them.

    What they do know is how to provide value to others, to organizations, and to their communities, which is what we need students to learn at one level or another.

    • @Steve
      The policy makers attended those institutions, what they actually learned is a different matter entirely

  15. my kids have been home educated and mainly autonomous learners although my 14 year old son now attends online school as i found he needed more structure in his learning.

    the thing i have noticed about them is their advanced ability to reason and be independent thinkers by not being constantly exposed to the peer group mentality.
    we have a living room without tv which is our talking room and when we go into that space we talk about things that concern them at a very deep level which has resulted in a high degree of what i can only call wisdom.

    surely the aim of our society for children should be to increase their wisdom along with the flexible thinking needed for tomorrows careers. maybe our schools should be structured more along the lines of the old greek centers of learning which spawned the worlds great philosophers.

    imho it is wisdom children badly need at an earlier age along with independence of thought.

  16. @Bill & @Doug
    Even though it would be most helpful for our teachers and administrators to have the freedom from state testing, we know it isn’t a reality. So we can continue to blame policymakers, education depts., etc. or WE as educators can change our teaching practices to better meet the needs of our children. Let’s stop blaming and start working toward changing what we do have control over. Too often, we think our hands our tied. Are they really tied that tight?

    • @Julie
      I don’t know about where you teach, but I lose about 20 days a year of instruction to mandatory testing and another 2-4 days to district mandated “test prep” programs or instruction. When I started teaching 15 years ago, testing was 3 days. My students are losing a month’s worth of classes. I’ve had to drop an entire unit in Physics because I do not have time to teach it. That is the reality on the ground, and the consequences of the Standardized Testing Mania.

  17. “The education system was deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens in order to render the populace ‘manageable.’” — Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt, Sr. Policy Advisor for the US Dept. of Education, and whistleblower on government activities to deliberately dumb our children down.

  18. I think this article does throw up some valid points although producing a whole individual is one of the aims of an education system not just a “machine” who has the skills to fill a job.

    One point possibly not discussed is the way in which students and employees spend possibly less than 10% of their time learning the skills required to find and get a job even though these skills will actually change the course of their life over and above the skills to actually do the job (although these skills are important too)

  19. Scott,

    Above all, thank you again for forcing so many of us to think. I appreciate your posts every time because they encourage us all to get off the fence and agree or disagree – and then to defend our position. And that is good for all.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Bob. I encourage you and others to push back when and where you think it’s necessary. I’m usually just thinking out loud here and am ready to converse and learn!

  20. I agree with quite a bit of this post. As a school leader I feel one of my most important responsibilities is taking mandates imposed at the state/national level and adapting them to the needs of our students and staff. We didn’t adopt the Common Core. We used it as a framework to develop grade level targets that push our students beyond national standards. I disagree with those who state they spend to much time on standardized test prep. If you instruct students in higher-level thinking, the tests will take care of themselves. It is on US to create the environment that will allow students to be successful. Thanks to everyone who replied. It’s always interesting to hear the thoughts of others on these issues. @kylemoore20

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