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The 80:20 Rule

by Terry Freedman on June 6, 2017

The 80:20 rule states that 80% of the outcome stems from 20% of the causes. In business, for example, it’s a commonly-held belief that 80% of sales comes from 20% of the customers, 80% of complaints arise from just the most difficult 20% of customers, and so on.

Obviously, in different contexts the actual proportions might vary, but the general principle is that there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between effort/expenditure and results. Far from it, in fact.

So could this rule, which is often known as the Pareto Principle, be useful in a school context?

There are a few ways in which knowing about this principle might come in handy. First, let’s take attendance. Clearly, the school wants to ensure that the attendance rate of every pupil is excellent, and preferably 100%. However, if you wish to make an impact on the figures very quickly, one way of doing so, suggested by the 80:20 rule, is to identify the minority of pupils who are responsible for most of the absences, and target them, and their parents.

This is very different from addressing all of the parents or most of the parents, for whom a message about attendance would be, hopefully, irrelevant. Moreover, you could bring into play a second principle, which is…

You can pilot new approaches with the worst attending pupils because, in a sense, you have nothing to lose. For instance, you may wish to try out an approach based on Nudge Theory, as described in an earlier article, Using Nudge Theory to improve attendance and punctuality, which was based on research carried out in the USA.

One thing to be clear about here is that we’re not saying target the worst-attending students  and leave the rest to their own devices. What we are saying is that trying an intervention like Nudge Theory with the lowest 20% gives you scope to broaden it out to the rest of the school, or the next 20%, if you find that it works. It’s a good way of trying something different without incurring huge costs, and testing whether it works before applying it more generally — or ditching it because it failed to live up to expectations. Groupcall Messenger allows a school to identify those students who are persistently absent / late, and directly communicate with the student or parents. It has inbuilt analytics that can be much quicker that running complex MIS reports.

The 80:20 rule applies in other contexts too. For example, what takes up most of teachers’ time? It’s probably marking, and recording those marks, and making grade predictions based on those marks. If you can set up a system in Groupcall Emerge to make the recording of marks less onerous, by enabling teachers to record marks in the lesson rather than afterwards, that will be a great help.

Furthermore, you could set up a rule whereby certain bands of marks suggest particular grades, which would at least give a starting point to busy teachers. Emerge can also be used to write assessment results directly into a schools’ MIS, saving teachers from having to physically enter individual scores. If you want to look further afield, there are ‘self-marking’ tests available- while these won’t be suitable for every type of assessment, they are very useful for finding out if, for example, the students understand the concepts and terminology associated with a particular topic.

Another way to utilise the 80:20 principle is to ask where most of the school’s costs are coming from, aside from staffing. One main culprit is probably paper usage, but to have a blanket assault on all paper usage might prove ineffective. You would probably achieve a larger reduction in a shorter time by identifying the 20% of people or functions responsible for most of the usage. In one secondary school, for example, the huge printing costs incurred by the computing department were traced to the English department, who were using computer print-outs as a cheaper (for them) form of photocopying. Once that was discovered and addressed, the printing bill for the computing department became much more manageable.

There is no reason that the task of identifying where the Pareto Principle might apply should fall only to the senior leadership team. Perhaps a staff training day could be partly used for the purpose. After all, doing something about the most troublesome or costly 20%, whatever the context, potentially benefits everybody.

Even if the 80:20 rule does not apply precisely in a particular set of circumstances, it’s a good way of starting to address what may otherwise seem an intractable problem. There’s an old saying: What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The 80:20 rule is nothing more than a more formal way of saying the same thing.


Topics: Groupcall Emerge, Data