Class size

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A large class at the University of Ottawa
A small class at Shimer College

Class size refers to the number of students a teacher faces during a given period of instruction.[1]

Measurements and definitions[edit]

Some researchers and policymakers have studied the effects of class size by using student-teacher ratio (or its inverse, teacher-student ratio), but class size is not accurately captured by this metric. As Michael Boozer and Cecilia Rouse explain in "Intraschool Variation in Class Size: Patterns and Implications", student-teacher ratio gives an imprecise view of class size because teachers may be unevenly distributed across classrooms.[2] Some teachers have light course loads as they are assigned to spend most or all of their time coaching other teachers. These coaches would nevertheless factor into the calculation of student-teacher ratio. In other classes – say, an inclusion class with special education students – two teachers may jointly teach a class of thirty-four students. Although student-teacher ratio would describe this class' size as seventeen, these teachers continue to face thirty-four students during instruction. In general, average class size will be larger than student-teacher ratio anytime a school assigns more than one teacher to some classrooms.[2] In poor and urban districts, where schools enroll higher numbers of students needing specialized instruction, student-teacher ratios will therefore be especially imprecise measures of class size.[3]

Although student-teacher ratio does not measure class size, some important studies and surveys have used student-teacher ratio as a proxy for class size. Indeed, some critics of class size reduction, including Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath, cite a 1986 study by Eric Hanushek, "The Economics of Schooling: Production and Efficiency in Public Schools", that relies on a literature review of data on student-teacher ratio instead of class size.[4] See Class-size reduction for a full discussion of Hanushek's thesis.

Class size through history[edit]

Educators have noted the benefits of class size since classical times.

Isocrates opened an academy of rhetoric in Athens around 392 B.C.E to train Athenian generals and statesmen, and he insisted on enrolling no more than six or eight students in his school at a time.[5] Edward J. Power explains that Isocrates admitted "only a few students to his classes because of his extraordinary concern for care." Quintilian, a rhetorician writing in the Roman Empire around 100 CE, cited the practices in Isocrates' school as evidence that a caring education required small class sizes. Quintilian argued in Institutes of Oratory, as Edward Power summarizes the book's thesis, that "care had nothing whatever to do with discipline: it meant simply that only a few students at a time could be taught effectively."[5]

The twelfth century rabbinic scholar Maimonides recognized that class size was correlated with student achievement. He wrote: "Twenty-five children may be put in charge of one teacher. If the number in the class exceeds twenty- five but is not more than forty, he should have an assistant to help with the instruction. If there are more than forty, two teachers must be appointed.''[6]

Erasmus, the Dutch Humanist, wrote in his 1529 study of education De Pueris Instituendis about the advantages of private tutoring over ecclesiastic and public schools, where he believed classes had grown too large. He explained that "his standard of efficiency demanded a small school conducted by brilliant scholars…" Erasmus recognized that most parents would nevertheless have to settle for large class sizes because of the financial costs of such tutoring.[7]

At the turn of the 20th century, the philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey explained that in his ideal school, class sizes should be very small. "For the purposes of convenience, the children are divided into small groups of eight to twelve according to the kind of work and the age of the children. It is expected that the teacher will give attention to the specific powers and deficiencies of each child, so that the individual capacities will be brought out, and individual limitations made good."[8]

Around World War I, classes of 50 or more students were common in New York city, but dropping since that time. In 1930, the average class size in elementary schools was around 38 students, with classes for handicapped students averaging about 25 while other classes in the same building might be well over 45. This is set in contrast to some teachers in the 1890s facing 75 students daily. By the 1930s there was a public commitment to provide better individual attention to each student. Harold Campbell, the superintendent of New York city Board of Education at that time, opined that the ideal size of classes for normal students should be about 30 students.[9]

The author Kurt Vonnegut was a passionate advocate for class size reduction: "… we have some of the worst schools in the world…. The classes are too big. My definition of a utopia is very simple: classes of 15 or smaller – out of this, a great nation can be built. Classes have 35 students, for Christ's sake. The class ideally should be a family. Let's take care of each other. There's a person who can't get the hang of calculus? Someone should say, "Here, let me show you." A class of 35? Poor teacher." Likewise, in a 2006 interview with NPR before his death in 2007, Vonnegut was asked: "If you were to build or envision a country that you could consider yourself to be a proud citizen of, what would be three of its basic attributes"? Vonnegut responded: "Just one: great public schools with classes of 12 or smaller." Interviewer: "That's it?" Vonnegut: "Yeah….Just do this."[10]

Frank McCourt, a teacher in New York City public schools for thirty years and a Pulitzer Prize winner, also stressed the importance of smaller class size. In response to a radio interview question about what he would do first if he were named Schools Chancellor, McCourt answer that he would "cut the school day and certainly cut the size of the class because they're monstrous."[11]

Class size regulation[edit]

36 states in the USA have adopted provisions to require class size reduction. These laws may set caps on individual class sizes, on school-wide student-teacher ratio, or class size averages in one or more grades. Several states have relaxed those requirements since 2008. Florida's class size cap was established over the course of several years, in response to a statewide referendum in 2002 that amended its state constitution. Statewide, class size averages are 15.46 students per class in grades preK-3, 17.75 in grades 4–8, and 19.01 in high school. Some cities regulate class size as well. San Diego, New York, and Boston include class size caps in their contracts with teachers unions.[12]

Average values[edit]


In a 2013 survey, OECD reports the average class size of its member countries at 24.1 The complete results of this study are below. Note that class size averages in this study are based on reports from lower secondary school (middle school) teachers about a class they choose at random to describe. The study did not comprehensively survey school enrollment, which is why the United States' class size average appears differently here than in the previous chart.[13]

Country Average Class Size
Flanders (Belgium) 17.3
Estonia 17.3
Latvia 17.7
Finland 17.8
Slovak Republic 19.1
Iceland 19.6
Croatia 20.0
Cyprus 20.7
Czech Republic 21.1
Denmark 21.2
Poland 21.4
Sweden 21.4
Bulgaria 21.7
Italy 21.8
Serbia 21.9
Norway 22.5
Portugal 22.6
Spain 23.6
England (United Kingdom) 23.9
Average 24.1
Australia 24.7
Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) 25.1
Netherlands 25.4
France 25.5
Canada 25.8
United States 27.0
Israel 27.6
Brazil 30.8
Japan 31.2
Chile 31.8
Malaysia 32.1
Korea 32.4
Mexico 33.0
Singapore 35.5

In the United States[edit]

Historical data on United States class size average[edit]

National class size estimates date back only to the late 1980s. Available historical data appears in the table below.[14]

Year Elementary Class Size Average Secondary Class Size Average
2007-2008 20 23.4
2003-2004 20.4 24.7
1999-2000 21.1 23.6
1993-1994 24.1 23.6

US elementary averages by state[edit]

Based on most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.[15]

Place Average Elementary Class Size
United States 21.1
Vermont 16.6
Wyoming 17
Maine 17.6
Tennessee 17.7
North Dakota 17.8
Nebraska 17.9
Texas 18.2
Alaska 18.3
New Jersey 18.5
West Virginia 18.7
North Carolina 18.8
Montana 18.9
Louisiana 19
South Carolina 19.1
Alabama 19.2
Connecticut 19.6
New Mexico 19.8
Massachusetts 19.9
Missouri 20.2
Delaware 20.3
Iowa 20.3
Arkansas 20.4
Kansas 20.4
New Hampshire 20.4
South Dakota 20.4
Virginia 20.4
New York 20.7
Oklahoma 20.7
Wisconsin 20.8
Georgia 21
Ohio 21.3
Indiana 21.4
Mississippi 21.6
Pennsylvania 22.4
Colorado 22.8
Minnesota 22.8
Illinois 22.9
Kentucky 23.3
Washington 23.7
Michigan 23.8
Arizona 24.1
Idaho 24.5
California 25
Nevada 25.3
Oregon 26.4
Utah 27.4
District of Columbia reporting standards not met
Florida reporting standards not met
Hawaii reporting standards not met
Maryland reporting standards not met
Rhode Island reporting standards not met

US secondary school averages by state[edit]

Based on most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.[15]

Place Average Secondary School Class Size
United States 26.8
Alaska 18.7
North Dakota 19.2
Wyoming 19.6
Vermont 19.8
Maine 19.9
Montana 21.7
New Hampshire 21.7
Connecticut 22
South Dakota 22.3
Mississippi 22.8
Louisiana 23.4
Nebraska 23.5
New Mexico 23.7
Oklahoma 23.7
Virginia 23.8
New Jersey 23.9
West Virginia 24
Massachusetts 24.5
Kansas 24.6
New York 25.1
Pennsylvania 25.2
Arkansas 25.4
Idaho 25.4
Delaware 25.8
North Carolina 25.8
South Carolina 26
Kentucky 26.6
Ohio 26.7
Missouri 26.8
Tennessee 26.9
Texas 26.9
Indiana 27.3
Alabama 27.4
Iowa 27.4
Georgia 27.5
Arizona 27.7
Illinois 27.7
Wisconsin 27.9
Michigan 28.9
Colorado 29.1
Washington 29.7
Minnesota 29.9
Oregon 30
Utah 31.5
California 32
Nevada 34.5
District of Columbia reporting standards not met
Florida reporting standards not met
Hawaii reporting standards not met
Maryland reporting standards not met
Rhode Island reporting standards not met

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Condition of Education" (PDF). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  2. ^ a b Boozer, Michael; Rouse, Cecilia (2001). "Intraschool Variation in Class Size: Patterns and Implications". Journal of Urban Economics. 50 (1): 163–189. CiteSeerX doi:10.1006/juec.2001.2216.
  3. ^ "Monitoring School Quality" (PDF). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  4. ^ Hanushek, Eric (September 1986). "The Economics of Schooling: Production and Efficiency in Public Schools". Journal of Economic Literature. 24 (3): 1141–1177. JSTOR 2725865.
  5. ^ a b Power, Edward. "Class Size and Pedagogy in Isocrates' School". History of Education Quarterly. 6 (4).
  6. ^ Angrist, Joshua; Lavy, Victor (1999). "Using Maimonides' Rule to Estimate the Effect of Class Size on Scholastic Achievement" (PDF). Quarterly Journal of Economics. 114 (2): 533–575. doi:10.1162/003355399556061. S2CID 149871459.
  7. ^ "Desiderius Erasmus concerning the aim and method of e education".
  8. ^ Boydston, Jo Ann (2008). The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 1. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0809327966.
  9. ^ Cuban, Larry (1993). How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780807732267. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  10. ^ "Kurt Vonnegut Live in Second Life on NPR's "The Infinite Mind."". NPR. Archived from the original on 2021-12-15.
  11. ^ Haimson, Leonie. "What Frank McCourt Could Teach Joel Klein and Arne Duncan". Huffington Post. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  12. ^ "Setting Class Size Limits". Education Week. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  13. ^ "Table 2.18". The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013 Results - Excel Figures and Tables. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  14. ^ "National Center for Education Statistics" (PDF). Monitoring School Quality: An Indicators Report.
  15. ^ a b "Table 209.30". Digest of Education Statistics. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 31 July 2015.

External links[edit]