Social efficiency was a term educational scholars commonly used between 1895 and World War I to describe a number of different ideas affiliated with the emerging educational reform movement known as progressive education (1893–1958). Generally, the term referred to the degree and speed to which an individual intelligently socialized him/herself to the modern, cooperative, civilized world. Leading educators considered increased social efficiency to be a desirable outcome for students, schools, and societies. In this sense, pre-progressive and progressive scholars employed the term social efficiency to mean something similar to the act of conscious acculturation of mind and body to the actual conditions of modern cooperative society. Scholars as diverse as educational psychologist William Bagley, philosopher John Dewey, and President of Harvard University Charles Elliot employed the term social efficiency, although they often meant slightly different things by it. By the end of World War I, the term had fallen out of common use by educators.

The term social efficiency re-emerged in the 1960s as a historiographical lens for historians of education. First employed by historian Edward Krug, who recognized the frequent use of the term by pre-World War I educational reformers, he argued that social efficiency reflected an approach to schooling in which students were assessed, sorted, and provided with a purely vocational curriculum meant to fit them into the existing social order—an outlook many historians affiliated with progressive era curriculum theorists David Snedden, W. W. Charters, Franklin Bobbitt, and Charles Prosser. Adopted by New Left scholars in the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called social efficiency doctrine represented an approach to schooling aimed at intelligence testing, economic sorting, utilitarianism, anti-intellectualism, and social control—an approach they contrasted with a more enlightened vision for schooling aimed at liberation, critical pedagogy, and social justice. The historiographical application of the social efficiency idea reflected an overall critical stance toward the rigidity and excessively bureaucratic nature of schools common during the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.

By the 1990s and 2000s, some curriculum historians began to question the overuse and exaggerated claims inherent in the social efficiency doctrine and offered more nuanced versions of the term. By returning to the original uses of the term social efficiency by the pre-World War I scholars, curriculum historians decried what they considered to be the overextension of the term by the New Left historians and curriculum theorists. While not defending the often hierarchical, elitist, and, at times, racist ideas of those who originally used the social efficiency term, the critical scholarship pointed to the inconsistent, vague, and evolving nature of the term when understood in its historical context. The critical scholarship also emphasized that many of the major historical figures affiliated with the social efficiency doctrine, such as Snedden, Prosser, and Bobbitt, rarely used the term, while those educators who are commonly not affiliated with the doctrine (or in some cases affiliated with its very opposite), such as Bagley and Dewey, used the term in ways that diverged from the ideas of the so-called social efficiency educators.