More breathing space in the classroom


Last month, just before the new school year started in Japan, I ran into a neighbor at the supermarket. She’s a bit high-strung and gets worked up over school matters, so I try to avoid her. But she collared me by the cabbages and dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper. “Have you heard? The Suzukis were transferred to Sendai! If any more kids move away, we won’t have enough sixth-graders this year!”

I knew exactly what she meant. Parents at our school keep a close count on the number of students, and head count is a big topic of conversation in March. That’s when company employees get their transfer orders and families move in and out of the school district. My neighbor was worried that the number of students entering sixth grade would drop below 41 before the beginning of the school year. If it did, the school would have to put her daughter and all the other sixth-graders in one huge class.

That’s because the central government sets maximum class size and decides how many teachers a school can have. For many years, the Education Ministry has strictly enforced a “40 kids per class” rule, which works like this: Let’s say a school has 81 incoming first-graders. This group could be divided into three classes of 27 students each, and the school would be allocated three teachers for first grade. But what if there were just one child fewer? Then there could only be two first-grade classes, each with 40 students. The school would only get two teachers for that grade.

Class size has become an issue as Japan grapples with problems like gakuryoku teika (declining academic ability) and gakkyu hokai (breakdown of classroom discipline). When reform-minded local governments pressed for the right to reduce class size, the ministry granted a few exemptions for “special circumstances.” But ministry officials have resisted an across-the-board reduction in maximum class size as too costly. And unnecessary, they claimed, because not many schools actually have classes at the maximum level. The national average was 26.6 students per class in primary schools in 2002, according to ministry statistics.

But in 2000 the National Commission on Education Reform urged that local governments be allowed to reduce class size at their discretion. This panel is influential, and it’s hard for the ministry to ignore its recommendations. Thus, just last month, the ministry announced that local governments may reduce class size — if they pay the costs from their own coffers.

It’s only recently that anyone in Japan would think 40 kids is a lot for one classroom. In the years after the war, most classes had about 60 students. Those crowded classrooms came to be known as sushizume gakkyu, which is the Japanese equivalent of “packed in like sardines.” Literally, it means that the kids were pressed together like sushi rice. In the mid-1960s, after much research on optimal class size, the maximum number of students per class was reduced to 45. In 1993, it was reduced again to 40. And there it has stayed, despite calls for a further reduction to the levels of U.S. and European schools.

In the U.S., maximum class size varies by state and grade, but ranges from 24 to 32, according to a recently published compilation of international statistics. At the school my kids attended before we moved to Japan, parents got upset if their kids were in a class with more than 25 students. And in 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton launched a major initiative to bring the national average down to just 18 students per class.

Here in Japan, our school has relatively small classes because it’s located in central Tokyo where there are few children. Currently, we have two classes per grade, and 21 to 32 students per class. Unfortunately, my son is in the grade with the most students; there are 32 kids in his third-grade classroom.

As an American, my perspective on class size is that smaller is always better. So I was surprised at my son’s teacher’s reaction when I told him I was worried about the large class this year.

“I understand your concerns,” he said. “But there are also advantages to larger classes, you know. Many activities work better when the group is larger.” My son, who had been listening, spoke up enthusiastically. “Like dodge ball, Mom! Dodge ball games are a lot more fun with bigger classes.”

I rolled my eyes, but his teacher nodded seriously. “He’s right. Games like dodge ball work better with larger groups, and games are an important part of school life,” he explained. “Also, if the class is too small, there isn’t enough diversity for students to make different types of friends and develop socially.”

That was an interesting point. I thought back to all the research on class size I had reviewed for this article. Now that he mentioned it, most of the studies focused on academic achievement. Very few studies examined the effect of class size on other goals of education, such as the emotional and social development of children.

“Rather than reduce class size too much,” my son’s teacher continued, “I’d advocate letting schools use flexible instruction methods, such as having an extra teacher in the classroom for shoninzu shido (small-group instruction).”

That is exactly what is happening at our school this year. Our board of education earmarked extra funding for basic mathematics instruction. Starting this month, every elementary school in the district has been allotted an extra teacher who will rotate between grades to help just during math. This teacher will take a third of the kids in each grade into an extra classroom, thus reducing the number of kids the homeroom teachers work with. That means my son will learn math in a group of 21 kids instead of 32. That makes me feel somewhat better about the size of his class.

The other day at the supermarket, I ran into my neighbor again. She cornered me by the carrots and told me how pleased she is that the school year started with 42 sixth-graders. “There are just 21 kids in my daughter’s class,” my neighbor crowed. She looked so smug, I couldn’t resist:

“Well, I’m sure that’s wonderful for her studies,” I said. “But aren’t you worried about dodge ball games?”