No, Public Schools Are Not ‘Jammed’ with Students

by Jason Richwine

It’s remarkable how often the conventional wisdom conflicts with data and evidence. A recent article in the New York Times illustrates the case of public-school class sizes. It describes schools as “jammed” because of an up-tick in student-teacher ratios coming out of the recession. It’s the type of story that fits comfortably within the (erroneous) conventional wisdom about underfunded schools.

How about some long-run perspective? Student-teacher ratios — not the same thing as class size, but a similar concept that’s easier to measure — have dropped substantially in the last 50 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. There were 26 students for every teacher in 1960. The ratio was reduced to 22 by 1970, and then it went down to 19 in 1980, to 17 in 1990, and to 16 in 2000.

The long-term declining trend line is bumpy, of course, and once in a while it will plateau or even briefly tick upward. After dipping to a little over 15 in the middle of the last decade, the student-teacher ratio was back up to 16 in 2010. Each time something like this happens, the media tell alarming stories about “overcrowded” schools and “exploding” class sizes. The Times article, for example, is full of anecdotes about students sitting in closets and the like. The long-term data on class size is given only a vague and cursory mention at the end of the piece, long after the misleading narrative has been established in readers’ minds.

For what it’s worth, the NCES projects a continuing decline, to 14 students per teacher, by the end of this decade. But because the gradual fall in student-teacher ratios over the past half-century is not considered newsworthy, the public is left with the impression that the teacher workforce is stretched thinner than ever. Needless to say, the public-education establishment, which constantly demands more money for schools, is in no hurry to clear up the misconception.