Posted by: crudbasher | November 11, 2011

Has The Education System Reached The Point Of Diminishing Returns?

I remember reading a study a few years ago that said that men’s mental capacity tends to peak at age 38. Well, today I turn 39 so this post could be kind of interesting. 🙂

If you listen to some education reformers, all teachers unions, and nearly all politicians the big problem in public education is a lack of money. Now, when I say problem, what I am referring to (as they do) is a lack of improvement in standardized test scores in the US. Right or wrong this is how most people measure progress in student learning. I think this is a bad way to do it but let’s roll with it for now.

777 Assembly Line

When you have any kind of system, it initially works fairly badly. With iterations, it will become more efficient. We call that the learning curve. For example, Boeing recently boosted production of their 777 airliner. You can see why here:

The rate previously reached the seven-per-month mark in July 1997-Feb. 1998, Aug. 1998-Oct. 1999 and Nov. 2006-May 2010. Boeing said it “incorporated lessons learned” from the previous increases and, this time around, reduced production flow from 52 to 49 days from start to finish. “Days of flow were removed in wing spar, service-ready wing and final body join areas,” said Boeing. “The flow reduction is attributed to increased productivity in those areas.” Loftis added, “We are experiencing some of the all-time-best metrics.”

Most assembly line operations tend to become much more efficient over time but there comes a point where further improvement is harder and more expensive. This is called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

The tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved. 

So can we apply this to the public education system? Well, first of all, it seems obvious it is an assembly line type operation. Children are processed in regular batches at regular intervals. The line workers (teachers) each focus on a particular specialty. Remember though the education system performed a miracle about 100 years ago. It transformed a largely agricultural society (US) into an industrial powerhouse the world had never seen. It produced vast quantities of products not just for the US, but the whole world. To be clear then, this revolution would not have been possible without the education system.

So why all the fuss about education reform? Well I think it’s because of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

This graph explains what is happening.

Education's Diminishing Returns

We are spending vast, and ever increasing amounts of money and not seeing any improvement in test scores. I think you could double spending (again) and not see any change.

So why is this? I think there are several reasons.

  1. Students aren’t buying into the notion that they need a good education to be successful.
  2. School work is much less interesting than all the other distractions in their life.
  3. The school system was designed standardized in order to be very scalable. This very quality make it very resistant to perturbations (reforms).
  4. An assembly line produces a standardized product. This is good when you are making factory workers, but not so good for making creative types for a knowledge based economy.

Feeding a bear doesn’t make it drive a car, it just makes it bigger. If we keep feeding the school system it will get more technology, more buildings, more administration, but student achievement will stay about the same. The system has reached the point of diminishing returns.

“And now, it’s time for something completely different. ” – Monty Python

So how did I do? Have I lost my mind due to advancing age? 🙂



  1. What would this graph look like for Finland? A country that decided, 30 years ago, to start investing in education, especially in quality aspects rather than quantity, in teachers rather than in tests, and in teaching rather than ‘the educational infrastructure’. This policy was supported by all political parties. Finland’s learning results have steadily increased and are now on top of all western countries in PISA and TIMMS.

    So if the graphs for the US and for Finland are quite different, what can we deduce from *that*?

    • The interesting thing is, the US spends much more per student than everyone else in the world. Are we getting our money’s worth? I’m not convinced that doing well on international testing is the goal though.

      Thanks for commenting! Great point!

      • Yes Crudbasher
        Then what will we do to motivate children .

        Your horse example is really cute.

        That is the reason I do not use the word TEACHING ( you force somebody )
        there is LEARNING . ( somebody does is by himself )

        Let us just create the right athmospher , right environment for the learners.

  2. Yes, more people should read why Finland is ahead of USA in education.
    Rich American students can not be motivated for schools
    Poor American students cannot afford to go to schools.
    Therefore there is no body in the schools.
    Sure there are but not their souls .

    • That really is a good point. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. You can force a student to sit in a classroom, but you can’t make them learn.

  3. I agree Muvaffak, keep thinking about learning, rather than teaching. Great point!

  4. “…Remember though the education system performed a miracle about 100 years ago. It transformed a largely agricultural society (US) into an industrial powerhouse the world had never seen. It produced vast quantities of products not just for the US, but the whole world. To be clear then, this revolution would not have been possible without the education system…”

    Really crudbasher? So no one knew how to read or learn before public schools? By 1870, literacy rates in America were already at 80% for whites. The industrial revolution happened here in spite of public education, not because of it. Relatively less money confiscated from the productive and spent on public schools back then left more for private sector investors and entrepreneurs to produce. Less taxes then meant more incentive to overproduce, creating Ameican abundance and wealth. The main accomplishment of public schools was to freeze in time the educational model that existed at the turn of the previous century. Their main goal is to teach kids how to bow to authority (the state) and accept slavery.

    • I’m sure you don’t think I believe nobody knew how to read or write before public schooling. Hyperbole aside, according to the USDA, in 1900 about 41% of the labor force was involved in agriculture. In 2000, it was about 1.9%. That is unprecedented in human history and I’m not sure that would have happened without the production of standardized workers.

      I don’t contest the rest of your argument. I do think around 1950 the education system pretty much froze in place and I do think it’s a very labor intensive and wasteful system today. Government is always a negative factor in economies. The bigger it is, the slower the economy. Witness the Soviet Union. There is also some very good thinking about how the school system is used to create a controllable population (J T Gatto comes to mind). It is very illuminating that see that the “elite” in this country mostly send their kids to private schools.

      The good news is that the kinds of technologies that are evolving are mostly about individual empowerment. I think these next few decades will see a new renaissance in education. The focus of education will return to the learner.

      Thank you for speaking your mind, it helps move the discussion!

  5. Hi there,
    I think we are getting what we want. Not really that all the investment is there for making education better (talking about the purpose we are investing in education here). Purpose is to make money, do you get the point. It is for attracting students and in many cases international students.

    Government supports organizations and businesses (talking about educational institutes here) for its own political reasons. Colleges and schools invest heavily in technology due to competition and for their own benefits, in most of the cases. There are only countable numbers of institutes which are really seeking to make a change in the life of other people.

    If we were into making real change, we would have worked wonderfully together all over the world, without making everything so complicated with copyrights, etc. We would have made everybody’s life simple by making material available accessible to everyone online (not much construction you need for that, not much printing you need for that and huge favor to our mother earth too.
    Your point is great but clean like a child who can not see the clever tacts of an adult. Otherwise we all know system is full of corruption and almost everyone is there for themselves.
    Please criticize me if I am wrong as my knowledge is very limited and most likely less than anyone else here. I am here for learning…and yes Learning word really has a magic with it!
    Thank you 🙂

    • I agree with you Andy! It really depends on how to measure progress. In a lot of ways the system is working exactly how it was intended. It certainly supports a huge bureaucracy and a standing army of unionized teachers right? From a political perspective, why change anything?

      Thanks for commenting!!

  6. […] is going to be replaced, not just improved. Back in 2011 I asked if mass education as reached the point of diminishing returns. It is becoming more clear to me that it has. We spend more money on mass education for essentially […]

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