The opportunity costs of progressive education

Larry Sanger



I have created a video version of this post!

There is a surfeit of great ideas in education. They are “great ideas” for various reasons: children will learn a lot; they’ll be really happy or enthusiastic; they’ll have vivid memories of what they are taught; or they’ll learn very efficiently. It is easy, as an educator or homeschooling parent, to get excited about ideas for education. Heck, every good (level-appropriate) book and every good experiment is a “great idea.” Yet there is such harsh disagreement over educational methods that debates could be called a “war over educational reform.” Why?

There’s a conundrum here, but I’m not explaining it well enough, so I’ll elaborate.

Goals and opportunity costs: what the war over educational reform is about

Theorists have posited many different goals for education. The explicit purpose of progressive education is to “socialize” students by teaching them practical knowledge, and to do so as equally as possible. The purpose of liberal arts traditionalists like myself, by contrast, is something like developing the liberating potential of as much knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual skill (reading, writing, calculation, etc.) as possible. Of course, as you can see in any number of laundry-list “goals for education,” educators love to endorse all goals. If asked, they will say, “Of course we want your children to learn as much as they possibly can. What, do you think we’re stupid or crazy or something? We’re doing our best at teaching them, using all the latest techniques. We’re professionals, of course!”

This sounds very reasonable. It is difficult to contradict.

Here’s the thing: as a critic of public schools and a supporter of liberal arts education, I don’t need to contradict it. I believe the professional teachers completely. I think they want our children to learn as much as they can. Of course they do. And of course they’re doing their best (many of them, anyway), with the latest techniques, and they’re professionals (mostly). All true.

The problem is not with their willingness to endorse the goals of a liberal arts education, their intentions, or their professionalism. The problem is with overriding goals: contemporary U.S. teachers want their students above all “engaged,” to be motivated and paying attention and excited—and, in the interests of equal educational opportunity, to be following roughly the same curriculum as other kids in the same grades following the same standards. This too sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. It’s so reasonable-sounding that it sounds radical, or at least unreasonable, to object very strongly to it.

Therein lies the problem. On the surface, everybody agrees. If we’re not thinking too hard, we can endorse a huge variety of educational tasks, methods, and goals. But beneath the surface is a little thing called opportunity cost. This, of course, means basically “what you’re missing out on by doing this rather than taking another opportunity.”

Every time Mrs. Brown’s third grade class puts on an exciting, interdisciplinary, highly educational drama project—great idea!—that occupies two hours of class time for two weeks in a row, she’s choosing not to let her students read twenty easy picture books, or a half-dozen easy chapter books, etc.—another awesome idea. But that’s only one example. There are many, many more.

The opportunity cost problem is about much more than individual tasks. It’s really about the entire system. As I said, a core feature of education systems that make Deweyan “socialization” an overriding goal is that all the kids have to follow roughly the same curriculum in the same grades. But this means that, for example, even if Jack read Tom Sawyer last summer, he will still have to re-read it if the class is reading it, or maybe he’ll just twiddle his thumbs. Or if Sarah is two years ahead of her peers in math, because she loves math or because her parents are afterschooling her, maybe she’ll be supported by her teachers and principal, but it’s also very possible she’ll be made to do work that is two years behind her current skill level, suffering in boredom.

I’ve mentioned some examples of opportunity costs in education. Let me elaborate.

Example 1: the benefits of Latin as the opportunity cost of doing anything but Latin

Consider this. I know talk of Latin sounds ridiculous in the 21st century to some people, but please hear me out. A very strong case can be made that getting several years’ worth of Latin under one’s belt produces a much better scholar. Latin improves English vocabulary and grammar, teaches mental discipline and acuity, gives students an intimate familiarity with Western civilization, and in particular, the origins of its core concepts, its intellectual and rhetorical traditions, and the works that originated many disciplines and written forms. I might go on, but suffice it to say that setting time aside to learn Latin in some depth will make much better scholars out of many students. If the goal is to foster academic skill, learning the classical languages is among the very best of ideas.

But there is today virtually no chance that public schools would, in any great numbers and anytime soon, introduce Latin except as a high school elective, mostly for honors students. I suggest two reasons. First, Latin is a “dead language” and has no obvious “practical applications.” So it runs counter to the Deweyan emphasis on practical knowledge, on “know-how.” Second, it is too difficult for many ill-prepared students, who already struggle with more difficult, technical subjects like math, hard science, and grammar. So it also runs counter to the goal of equalization.

We could teach our children, or at least some of them, Latin when they’re ready for it; it might be difficult, but it’s also extremely efficient to do so; but it won’t happen because progressive educational goals make the suggestion completely untenable.

Example 2: “language arts,” or the low-literature costs of basal readers

One educational practice I love to hate is the use of basal reader systems. You know—that series of “language arts” textbooks you suffered through from first grade through fifth or sixth grade. These are written with the very best of intentions, I’m sure, and they look impressive. Crack some open and you might find a first grade explanation of what a noun is, a third grade reading selection that seems perfectly reasonable and interesting for that grade, a set of challenging fifth grade vocabulary words, and various explanations of the conventions of poetry and drama. All seem like meaty, necessary, excellent topics for study. What’s not to like?

Yet, when a child emerges from careful study of such systems, do they end up knowing about all those things? Not very often.

Suppose instead that you were to take the same ten hours per week spent on language arts and instead do just two things: read books chosen by the students themselves (perhaps from a list), and write daily on topics of student choice (with some specific assignments mixed in). This is essentially what I’ve done with H., age seven, since he was five. As a result, he is now reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a children’s book usually assigned to high school students, and writing things like this composition (randomly selected) that I was rather surprised to find in his writing folder, which I reproduce here verbatim:


An adjective is a describing word. Here are some examples: thin, tall, short, long, wavy, soft. These words can be used to describe a great many things. Now, there is something special about adjectives: they come in 3 forms, which are called positive, comparative, and superlative. Here are some examples:

















more circular

most circular





more frightening

most frightening

 In advertisements, superlative adjectives are used to exaggerate the quality of things that are on sale: books, toys, video games, or even rides (rides aren’t for sale) or circuses (they aren’t for sale either, rides and circuses just cost money to ride or look at)! Here are some examples of the words they use: biggest, greatest, fastest, cheapest.

 Nouns are words that mean a person, place, or thing. Here are some examples: library, Jane, John, garbage dump, house. Nouns are very important, too. Without them, you couldn’t even say your name (because all names are nouns)!

Verbs describe action, possession, or existence. Here are some examples: throw, catch, mine, yours, his, hers. [sic!]

Conjunctions are used to connect strings of words and make sentences make sense. What sentence is really a sentence if it doesn’t have a conjunction like, for example, and?

I was surprised to find this composition in my second grade son’s writing folder, I say, because I didn’t assign it and in fact I don’t think he ever even showed it to me. As you can see, he was correctly using (and explaining) some pretty advanced words, in excellent grammatical sentences, with flawless spelling. (Although his examples of verbs did contain a couple howlers.)

My point is that after we assigned an hour of reading many classics and other high-quality books, while assigning 30-60 minutes per day for daily writing (mostly on topics of his own choice), our son’s abilities in reading and writing have blossomed, and he has quite naturally picked up everything taught in the basal readers, and more.

We could slog through basal readers and grammar workbooks and do long, regular, boring spelling and vocabulary tests. But it would be a comparative waste of time. Instead, he spends a substantial amount of time reading excellent books, and writing a lot; the result is a far better and more efficient method of learning “language arts” than school language arts programs provide. His intuitive grasp of grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and spelling results from extensive reading and daily practice writing hundreds of words. He does study grammar from time to time, albeit not from workbooks that (in the early grades) teach students what proper English is. Our son already knows that from copious reading. Instead, he studies the fundamentals systematically, as older students do.

Example 3: the high costs of grade tracking in math (and other subjects)

One more example.

The equalization goal of education entails that we teach the same level of math to most students, that we don’t let them work at their own pace, and that we don’t tailor our textbook choices to them. If our overriding goal were to teach our students as much math as possible and as well as possible, then we would toss grade levels and track students by ability. As soon as a student passes a test on some material with a 90% grade, the student proceeds to the next level. Meta-analysis reportedly shows that ability grouping works wonders.

This makes sense. Kids finish stuff at different speeds. Grade level tracking, especially in subjects like math, ensures that smarter kids will spend much time in class bored, while slower students will constantly be playing catch-up, naturally getting discouraged, and not getting the help they need. Consider this: homeschooling parents tailor textbook choices to their children, of course, who are not forced to complete exactly one grade level in exactly one year. Just look at the average math scores of homeschoolers, who are naturally tracked by ability in each subject: 84th percentile, on average.

One guess as to why ability grouping is so rarely tried.

As this NEA page helpfully explains, ability grouping discourages more poorly-performing students, never mind that those students benefit from extra time and help where it is really needed. Are they really much more discouraged than in classrooms where they are constantly trailing their age peers, rather than doing as well as others in the room?

Grade level tracking might support the overriding progressivist educational goal of equalization, but the opportunity cost is students that are learning less, and less well, than they do when forced to learn all at the same time.

My point here is that the “war” over educational reform is not about whether various practices are good ideas, and whether various goals are worthwhile. In education, ideas and goals are abundant and easy to endorse. The war, instead, is ultimately about the enormous burden in terms of opportunity cost that contemporary educational practices place on the student. If you think education should be about knowledge, wisdom, and academic skills, the situation is appalling.

The bottom line for me is that the total opportunity cost associated with the overriding progressivist goals for public schooling (and this would also apply to a lot of charter schools and private schools) means that most of our students are simply not learning nearly as much as they could be.

We could see to it—if we were committed first and foremost to teaching and not just entertaining students, if we wanted to help each student achieve his or her best potential and not just equalize them, and if we chose the most efficient methods for making learning happen—that all of our students would learn far more than they are now.

Some day, I think we’ll look back at the period from the 1920s or so until the early 2000s as a sort of “dark ages” of education. I just hope real change comes sooner rather than later.

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