The relative decline of American education at the elementary-and high-school levels has long been a national embarrassment as well as a threat to the nation’s future. Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world. Now, ranked against European schoolchildren, America does about as well as Poland, behind at least 10 other nations. Within the United States, the achievement gap between white students and poor and minority students stubbornly persists.
For much of the last half century professional educators believed that if they could only find the right pedagogy, the right method of instruction, all would be well. Yet in recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, is the quality of the teacher. Much of the ability to teach is innate— an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess and some people definitely do not.