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EDUCATION INDICATORS: An International Perspective

Indicator 21: Class Size

Class size in the United States and Japan

In the United States, class size is an important issue for policymakers and education practitioners, some of whom argue that small class size will facilitate student achievement. Its importance can also be attributed to the desire for more individualized student attention and a reduced workload for teachers./1 While class size has important policy implications, other important policy questions include what type of learning and instructional activities can take place in classrooms of differing sizes.

The average class sizes of all of the countries reported in figure 21 are similar to or larger than those of the United States. These numbers are a reflection of the social, cultural, and organizational factors that exist in the different countries. Class size in Japan is a case in point.

In the United States individualism is prized, while in Japan group orientation is emphasized./2 To foster individualism, teachers in U.S. classrooms focus on individual student needs and abilities and may develop varied lesson plans to serve students with different abilities; with a larger class size, it would therefore mean more work for the teacher to do that.

In Japan, classrooms have a distinct group orientation which is supported by the use of a uniform curriculum and instructional methods that minimize the need for individual curricular requirements./3 The whole group receives the same lesson and is expected to master it. In Japan, therefore, a larger class size does not necessarily create more lesson planning work for the teacher./4

Teachers in Japan employ several strategies to ensure that larger class sizes do not translate into more discipline problems or time spent on transitions between activities in their classrooms./5 Beginning the first day of elementary school, teachers introduce techniques and skills that will allow their students to function effectively in a group. Students learn and practice repeatedly how to move from one activity to another, how to organize their desks for study, and how to come to order. Each classroom also has a rotating student class leader who cues the students to perform the various routines. As a result, responsibility for classroom discipline and management is not solely the teacher's burden. Rather, it is shared by the class, as students view themselves as responsible for their own behavior.


1/ U.S. Department of Education, Class Size and Public Policy: Politics and Panaceas (Washington, D.C.: 1988).

2/ H.W. Stevenson and J.W. Stigler, The Learning Gap (New York: Summit Books, 1992).

3/ U.S. Department of Education, Class Size and Public Policy: Politics and Panaceas, op. cit.

4/ U.S. Department of Education, Japanese Education Today (Washington, D.C.: 1987).

5/ U.S. Department of Education, Class Size and Public Policy: Politics and Panaceas, op. cit.

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