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The law of the vital few

By Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer

Teachers regularly report that they have more skills to teach students than the time necessary to teach them. Therefore, teaching often requires making tough choices about which skills to focus on and which to minimize or skip entirely. How do teachers decide which skills to teach?

In resolving this tension, Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi (2012) suggest guidance from “the 80/20 rule” or the “law of the vital few.” They note that this is “a pattern that holds true again and again” and that in many endeavors, “80 percent of results turn out to come from 20 percent of the skills you learn.” With this in mind, they assert that educators should identify and focus most intently on “the 20 percent of things that most create value” rather “than the other 80 percent of things [they] could plausibly spend time on” (Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi, 2012).

“80 percent of results turn out to come from 20 percent of the skills you learn.” – Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi (2012)

A clear example comes from mathematics. Basic math facts would clearly qualify as part of the “20 percent” or “vital few.” When they are well known, all other studies in mathematics are facilitated. When they have not been mastered, everything else is encumbered.

However, the “law of the vital few” is simply a theory. Can we test its validity?

Work in the emerging area of learning progressions often includes the identification of essential skills that are necessary prerequisites for subsequent ones, sometimes referred to as “focus skills.” Might an expert review of standards confirm or refute the law of the vital few?

Consider work done by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in developing a learning progression for the national curriculum of England as profiled in Kirkup et al. (2014). Their detailed analysis of the entire mathematics curriculum revealed 1,000 specific teachable skills across all years of school. Of these 1,000 skills, 30% were identified as focus skills. In reading, 1,100 overall skills were identified, with only 29% of those being noted as focus skills.

In the United States, Renaissance® has undertaken similar analyses of learning progressions based on both the Common Core State Standards and the standards of non-adopting states (Alaska, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia). Across all these analyses, it is clear that a minority of skills represents the most significant prerequisites for other skills. The assertion that this minority represents 20%, however, appears to be a low estimate. Though they vary from a low of 29% to a high of 42%, most standards sets contain about 30–35% focus skills.

“Across all these analyses, it is clear that a minority of skills represents the most significant prerequisites for other skills.”

For Renaissance customers, focus skills are clearly identified in reports and dashboards in Renaissance Star Assessments®. This information is helpful to teachers as they attempt to prioritize their efforts with students. For customers without access to Star solutions, Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi (2012) suggest that when in doubt, we can “consider harnessing the wisdom of crowds” by “[assembling] a group of relatively informed people and [asking] them to name the top five. Using the top five cited ideas as your answer won’t be perfect, but it will be darned good.”

We believe a knowledge of focus skills is invaluable as teachers prioritize their efforts. Check out our on-demand webinar as we dive into learning progressions, focus skills, and variances between standards sets.

How familiar are you with focus skills? Let us know in the comments!

Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to his K–12 administrative experience. As Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, Dr. Kerns advises educators in both the US and the UK about academic trends and opportunities. Previously, he served as the Supervisor of Academic Services for the Milford School District in Delaware. He is the co-author of three books: inFormative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade; Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise; and Literacy Reframed: How a Focus on Decoding, Vocabulary, and Background Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension.


  1. Dvawn Maza says:

    Skills we teach are prioritized. This helps keep us focused!

  2. Rita Platt says:

    YES!!! Years ago, we called these the “Power Standards.” We cannot teach EVERYTHING! What we need is Focus. Mike Schmoker’s book by the same name is a great read.

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      Thank you for sharing, Rita. I’ll make sure to add this to my list.

  3. David Keech says:

    Essential skills are determined by using Common Core State Standards. We then teach units with standards and learning targets specific to our grade level as the focus, in a spiral approach. Too often, teachers have used textbooks as curriculum rather than identify the skills and concepts students need to know and let them drive instruction.

  4. Carly says:

    Certainly in math there are some foundational skills that drive success for other skills. However, students who struggle still need to be exposed to higher-level expectations even though they are not accomplished in their foundational skills. No teacher is going to “resolve tension” by just focusing on 25 or 35% of the most important skills required while expecting that students will achieve mastery on the remaining percentage. It’s not going to happen. Too many times I have seen students show mastery on a skill but fail that same skill simply because the information was presented differently.

    I agree with others who say that we have too many standards to teach in the time allotted. I need more time to help students learn to dig deeper into an idea. They need time to “play” within a standard if they are going to be expected to apply their knowledge in unexpected ways.

  5. l Shultz says:

    Focus Skills never change even when the standards we are required to teach do. That is encouraging to continue to focus on those skills to build them to the standard.

  6. P R says:

    I teach the basic skills that will form a solid foundation for the standards that are required for my specific grade level.
    Top 5 basic skills: basic math facts, spelling patterns, phonemic awareness, oral reading fluency, subject area/content specific vocabulary development

  7. Renee Graham says:

    When we went to standards-based report cards, we decided on power standards. We realized that there were many of our standards that even if they were not met, a child would not be retained for not meeting that standard. But there were standards, that they must be able to master before moving onto the next level.

  8. Lloyd says:

    There are so many standards that are expected to be taught to mastery, but some are clearly more important, and some are just not developmentally appropriate for the age. Principals, and more accurately test creating companies, need to prioritize and not give equal weight, and therefore require equal instructional time to meaningless concepts.

  9. Lisa Capon says:

    Great article. It is definitely a challenge to prioritize skills.

  10. S.Bellomo says:

    I have signed up for the webinar to learn more about what Renaissance believe are focus skills and how they will improve reading scores.

  11. Angela says:

    In order to prioritize skills I look at the common core standards and our curriculum that outlines the major content, supporting content, and additional content. I also look at Accelerate Math at the core standards that allow students to master many other skills throughout the year. In teaching math everything is built on the previous skills they have learned so the foundation is so important.

  12. Sarah Swanzy says:

    Good article to reflect on.

  13. Francine Canarios says:

    It is impossible to teach each standard in isolation. I believe in the integration of my subjects.
    I look forward to your webinar.

  14. Amber says:

    Though we are required to teach all of the standards, there are focus skills to stress in our pacing guides. These skills are the important ones to focus on for students to be able to master other standards later on.

  15. Kelsie says:

    It is so important to build a solid foundation. Nothing can be built with any stability if there is no solid foundation.

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      Great point, Kelsie. A solid foundation is extremely important.

  16. R Smith says:

    Without a focus, we’re back to a mile wide and an inch deep. Very little depth to student learning.

  17. Ashley Bratton says:

    Great article to remind us what is important and focus on that.

  18. Virginia Travis says:

    I focus on the skills that are the core skills required by our second grade state standards. This was a great article.