My School Is Worse Than Yours; Class Size – Part 1

In December 2004 the Seattle Post Intelligencer ran an article titled “State slips behind in school spending” subtitled “Administrators release study, call for Legislature to act.” The article begins:

Washington ranks 34th in the nation when it comes to funding K-12 public education, according to a study spearheaded by school administrators.

State and federal support for education is so insufficient here, the study said, that many school districts must rely heavily on voter-approved levies to meet basic needs – even though the state Supreme Court has deemed that approach unconstitutional.

and closes by quoting the administrator:

“You’ve got to keep the lights on, you’ve got to keep the heat on, but you have to stop doing some things.”

“And that’s hard, because whatever we stop doing affects programs for children.”

That’s right, the administrator pulled the “think of the children” card which should immediately raise a red flag, so let’s look a little more deeply at their complaint. Among the numbers quoted in the article are these:

  • Washington (State) is #5 in the nation for class size. (5th largest)
  • Washington ranked 34th in the nation for per pupil spending during the 2002-03 school year.
  • Washington teachers rank 18th in the nation for wages. (Average teacher pay is more than $10,000 below the pay in California)
  • Spending per pupil was $7597 compared to a national average of $8428

In summary, Washington is significantly below average in spending per pupil, Washington has very large class sizes and Washington’s teacher pay isn’t commensurate with the class size. The implied conclusion is that student education will suffer. Let’s examine whether this conclusion is valid when put into context for the rest of the country.

Class Size

Some people, when reading the first bullet point above probably created a mental picture assuming that class size followed a nice smooth curve, such as the one shown at right, with most class sizes being moderately sized, some being large and some being small.mindseyethumb

Statisticians call this the “bell curve” because it looks like a bell. There are a variety of bells, illustrated below, ranging from short and wide to tall and thin.

Of course, other people may simply have read that bullet and not drawn any sort of mental picture at all. Regardless, lacking additional information, most people would rely on the “ranked fifth in largest class size” quote and exclaimed “Ranked fifth!?! Oh my gosh then your state has classes far larger than the average (assuming average to be 25th place), how awful for you.” But in truth, without knowing anything more it’s hard to make any accurate conclusion.


Ideally the class size would be exactly the same for every student in the US. Each state would be tied for first place as well as 50th place in size.

classsizeidealthumbIn such a world, discussions would center around the actual number of students in a class not on the rank in the list; on whether the class size, 15 students per teacher in this example, was too big not whether it was the largest in the nation; and on what the ideal class size should be.

Studies show the ideal class size is in the 13 to 17 students per teacher range. These studies also indicate that smaller class sizes are more important in elementary school than in middle and high school, however there are only a few studies on this topic and the results can not yet be considered conclusive. But if we accept these results then we should also be content with a more realistic but somewhat less ideal class size distribution such as the one shown below. If every state is within the acceptable range, then does it really matter if your state or your school is above or below average?classsizenearidealthumb

What does the real data indicate? The actual data for all 50 states for the 2003-2004 school year is shown below. It does indeed appear to follow a bell shaped curve. Some details may be odd, such as the fact that none of the 50 states have an average class size in the 18-19 students/teacher range, but in broad terms the curve is bell shaped as discussed earlier. Thirty-four states fall in the ideal range of 13 to 17 students/teacher. Washington, with an average of 19.3 students per teacher in the 2003-04 academic year resides in the hashed box. The height of that box is 2, meaning that 2 states have average class sizes in the 19-20 students/teacher range. Here the other state is Nevada with an average class size of 19.2. It appears Washington does indeed have a problem. Not only is it nearly last in the nation, but Washington’s average class sizes are well outside the optimal range.


To Be Continued

Next time we’ll look at the spending per student statistic.

3 comments for “My School Is Worse Than Yours; Class Size – Part 1

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