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Civic Report
No. 28 September 2002

What Do Teachers Teach? A Survey of America’s Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers

Conducted by: The Center for Survey Research & Analysis, The University of Connecticut

Report Authored by: Christopher Barnes, Associate Director, Center for Survey Research & Analysis, The University of Connecticut
Foreword by: Chester E. Finn, Jr., Senior Fellow, The Hoover Institution; President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation


The report contains the results of a survey of America’s 4th and 8th grade teachers. Teachers were asked about their teaching philosophies, their classroom teaching methods and practices, their academic expectations for their students, and their opinions on other issues of education policy. Some of the survey’s most important findings are:

  • A clear majority of teachers surveyed (56%) describe their teaching philosophies as leaning more in the direction of student-directed learning, rather than in the direction of teacher-directed learning.
  • More than seven in 10 teachers indicated that they favor the premise that “learning how to learn is most important for students”; Fewer than 15% believed it is was most important to teach students “specific information and skills.”
  • More than half of fourth grade teachers say they do not expect their students to spell correctly at all times.
  • In evaluating student work, only about one quarter of fourth and eighth grade teachers place the greatest emphasis on whether the student provided the correct answer.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 fourth grade teachers say they base final grades for students more on each student’s individual abilities than they do on any “single, class-wide standard.”
  • More than 2 in 10 fourth grade math teachers report regularly permitting students to use calculators in class to solve math problems. By the eighth grade, the use of calculators has become widespread, with 70% of teachers reporting that they permit such use.
  • Many eighth grade students may not get enough writing practice to enable them to master composition. 15% of eighth grade teachers never give their students homework including at least one page of writing, and 31% require their students to write, edit, and complete a composition of at least 250 words (three to four paragraphs) no more than once a month.
  • Just half of eighth grade science teachers expect most of their students to know the general form, location and function of the human body’s major organ systems. Two in ten thought none of their students would know this by year’s end.
  • Only 70% of eighth grade history teachers expect that all or most of their students will know when the Civil War was fought.

Other important findings include:

  • Three in 10 fourth grade teachers and nearly 4 in 10 eighth grade teachers rated student feedback as the most important factor in personal evaluations of their own work.
  • 55% of the fourth grade teachers surveyed indicated that they prefer cooperative learning in small classroom groups, more than twice the percentage (26%) of those same teachers who indicated a preference for whole-group instruction.
  • Many fourth grade students may not be getting enough practice writing and learning new words. Two in ten fourth grade teachers say they assign their students lists of new words less than once a week or never at all, and 42% say that they assign only one writing assignment longer than a paragraph per week.
  • While five-sixths of fourth grade teachers expect that all of their students will master such basic tasks as adding and subtracting two- and three-digit numbers, teacher expectations drop as tasks get more complex. For example, 31% of teachers think half or fewer of their students will be able, by year’s end, to compare fractions with like and unlike denominators.
  • Eighth grade math teachers have expectations for their students similar to those of their fourth grade counterparts. While 80-90% expect all or most of their students to understand such concepts as calculating basic statistics or evaluating basic algebraic equations, the numbers drop off as tasks become more complex. For example, only 58% expect all or most of their students to memorize and use the Pythagorean theorem, and only 44% expect all or most of their students to convert measurements from one unit, such as feet per second, to another, such as miles per hour.
  • Eighth grade English teachers also show levels of expectations similar to their fourth grade counterparts. While 87% of them expect all or most of their students to write and speak standard English, only 65% expect their students to understand such underpinnings of high school and college English study as characterization in fiction and literary devices such as simile and metaphor.
  • Eighth grade science teachers have low expectations for their students. Only 65% thought that all or most of their students would understand Newton’s law of gravity; only 42% thought all or most would understand the theories of natural selection and evolution.
  • Judging from history teachers’ expectations, students will have large gaps in their knowledge about 20th Century America. For example, 77% of eighth grade history teachers say all or most of their students will know that Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream speech,” but only 27% say all or most of their students will know that the New Deal was F.D.R.’s program to cure the Great Depression. 49% of teachers say none of their students will know about the New Deal.
  • Nearly a quarter of the eighth grade science teachers surveyed maintained that their primary interest was to emphasize the role science plays in contemporary political debates.
  • Parents are considered an “asset” to the educational process by 81% of fourth grade teachers and by 74% of eighth grade teachers.
  • A substantial majority of the teachers surveyed favor ending the social promotion of students, even if that means significantly more students will be held back. Fourth grade teachers from urban and lower income schools are especially likely to favor ending the practice.
  • An overwhelming majority of teachers (92% of fourth grade teachers and 88% of eight grade teachers) feel their school’s policy gives them enough authority to effectively maintain order in the classroom.



Chester E. Finn, Jr. is Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and is President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, of which he is also a Trustee. From 1998 through September 2002 he was the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and from 1995 through 1998, he was a Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute, where he now serves as an Adjunct Fellow. From 1992 through 1994, he served as founding partner and senior scholar with the Edison Project. From 1981 until 2002 he also served as Professor of Education and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

A native of Ohio with an undergraduate degree in American history, a master’s degree in social studies teaching and a doctorate in education policy and administration from Harvard University, Mr. Finn has made his career in education and government service. He served as Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement and Counselor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education from 1985 to 1988. Earlier positions include Staff Assistant to the President of the United States; Special Assistant to the Governor of Massachusetts; Counsel to the American Ambassador to India; Research Associate in Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution; and Legislative Director for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

His most recent book is Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education, co-written with Bruno V. Manno and Gregg Vanourek (Princeton University Press, February, 2000). Earlier books include The Educated Child: A Parent’s Guide from Preschool Through Eighth Grade, written with William J. Bennett and John Cribb (The Free Press, 1999) and The New Promise of American Life, co-edited with Lamar Alexander (Hudson Institute, 1995). Author of more than 300 articles, his work has appeared in such publications as The Weekly Standard, The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Public Interest, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Business Review, The American Spectator, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.

Christopher Barnes is Associate Director for both the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) at the University of Connecticut. Mr. Barnes is also co-founder of CSRA. He is responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations, including project development and management. Mr. Barnes has been the Principal Investigator on more than 100 survey projects at CSRA. His clients include various state, local government, and federal agencies, as well as leading regional and national foundations. Mr. Barnes has lead ground-breaking projects in the areas of education, philanthropy and children’s issues. Prior to coming to CSRA he was a Research Analyst with Millward Brown, Inc. and a Senior Policy Researcher with the Connecticut State Senate. Mr. Barnes is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science, and has earned his M.A. in Political Science with a concentration in Survey Research at the University of Connecticut.


CSRA would like to thank Professor David A. Yalof, Project Manager Lauren Packman, Rich Grousset,  and all the staff and interviewers who contributed to this project for their hard work and dedication. The Manhattan Institute would like to thank the experts who helped with developing the survey questions pertaining to teacher expectations: Mary Beth Klee of K12, Inc.; Lawrence Lerner of Cal State University, Long Beach (Science); Ralph Raimi of the University of Rochester (Math); and Sandra Stotsky of the Massachusetts Department of Education (English). The Institute also thanks Walter Mintz for his inspiration, encouragement and support, and the Smith Richardson Foundation for a grant that made this survey possible. The opinions expressed in this report are solely those of the authors.


In 2002, standards-based reform has become America’s main strategy for boosting student achievement, strengthening school effectiveness and renewing our education system. It undergirds President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act as well as the reform efforts of nearly every state and community.

We normally describe standards-based reform as resting on a tripod of academic standards, testing and accountability. The standards spell out the skills and knowledge that schools are supposed to impart and students are meant to learn, grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject. The tests or assessments inform parents, teachers and policymakers as to how well those standards are being met, child-by-child, school-by-school and state-by-state. “Accountability” signals an array of incentives, interventions and sanctions meant to encourage progress toward the standards by rewarding those who succeed in attaining them and making life less pleasant for those who do not. Thus a student gets promoted to the next grade, or given a high-school diploma, if he meets the academic standards, but is held back or sent to summer school if he does not meet them. A principal gets praise and, perhaps, a bonus if her school attains the standards, but may get re-assigned or even fired if it does not.

Standards-based reform is thus an elaborate and deeply behaviorist scheme for altering the actions and priorities of students and educators in order that the children end up learning more and the schools end up producing stronger results.

But standards-based reform works only upon the outside of education’s “black box”. It deals with goals, measures and consequences, not with what happens inside the classroom. It does not tell teachers what to do differently when the door is closed and it does not cause students to learn. At the end of the day, therefore, the success of standards-based reform will be determined not by the policymakers who shape it but by the teachers and pupils whose everyday decisions and priorities actually shape what is taught and what is learned.

What goes on inside the education box? And to what extent does it advance or retard the hopes and intentions of the standards-writers and policymakers beavering away on the outside? Everyone knows that, once the classroom door is shut, the teacher is in charge. What she deems important, what she knows, what she cares about, how she spends her time—all these have immense impact on what her students end up learning (and valuing).

One way to find out what teachers believe and judge to be important is to ask them. Though plenty of teacher surveys have been conducted over the years, few have probed teachers’ views of the key elements of standards-based education reform.

This study is different. Working with a carefully chosen national sample of 4th and 8th grade classroom teachers in America’s schools, it inquired into their educational philosophies and instructional methods, about their view of standards and their curricular priorities.

The selection of fourth and eighth grade was no accident. For many schools and educators, those years mark the end of “primary” and “middle” schooling, i.e. major transition points in children’s passage through the formal education system. Moreover, they (along with twelfth) are the grades when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) regularly appraises and reports on student achievement in core academic subjects, both for the nation as a whole and for individual states. Even more emphasis will be placed on NAEP testing in those grades under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, as NAEP results will serve as a kind of external audit of state-level progress toward that statute’s ambitious goals. But we already have mountains of NAEP data, accumulated over three decades, as to what youngsters in grades four and eight actually know and can do, how many of them are “proficient” (usually fewer than one-third), how many are “below basic” (30-50%), etc. We are regularly alarmed by press accounts and solemn emanations from Washington concerning the latest gloomy NAEP results at these grade levels. Mindful that NAEP results are the cumulative product of several years of instruction, it nonetheless made sense to select these same transition grades to inquire of classroom teachers what they think about education, what they value and how they use their time.

The results are revealing, fascinating and more than a little alarming. Though there is some good news here for devotees of standards-based reform, five of this study’s findings seem to me particularly vexing because of the chasm they display between the views of teachers and the expectations of reformers.

First, a majority of teachers in both fourth and eighth grade opt for “student-directed learning” rather than “teacher-directed learning”. No more than two teachers in five affirm a philosophy of education in which they, the adults in the classroom, are supposed to set the agenda, decide what youngsters will learn and usher their pupils toward that destination. “Student-directed” learning is an old progressive-educator notion, a variation on “child-centered” education, that traces back to John Dewey and his apostles. It means that children’s own interests and stages of development matter more than mastery of subject matter in shaping what teachers and pupils work on in class each day. Yet it’s nearly impossible to imagine standards-based reform succeeding in classrooms where students direct the key decisions about what will be learned. Standards-based reform presupposes that teachers will take charge of prescribing what skills and knowledge must be learned—and that they will persist until their young charges have in fact learned those things.

Second, three quarters of teachers have embraced the college-of-education dogma that the purpose of schooling is to help youngsters “learn how to learn” rather than to acquire specific information and skills. Barely one teacher in seven holds the view that educators’ core responsibility is “to teach students specific information and skills”. When evaluating student work, just 25 percent of fourth grade teachers (and 28% of eighth grade teachers) place primary emphasis on whether pupils supply the right answer or correct information. Yet standards-based reform is all about the successful acquisition of specific information and skills. Few would argue that schools ought not also assist their pupils to “learn how to learn” more in the future. But standards-based reform cannot succeed where that is deemed to be the school’s chief mission. Nor can it succeed where teachers put greater stock in student creativity and effort than in accuracy.

Third, not even two out of five teachers in fourth grade base their students’ grades primarily on a “single, class-wide standard”, while the majority place heavier emphasis on individual children’s abilities. In other words, they opt for a relativistic, child-centered mode of evaluating pupil achievement instead of an unchanging objective standard. (This is also the case with nearly half of eighth grade teachers.) Yet the essence of standards-based reform is judging youngsters according to their success in meeting a fixed standard of learning or reaching proficiency in particular subjects. How odd it will be, to say the least, if children grow accustomed in class to relativistic grading practices and are then hit by an unyielding standard on the statewide exam at year’s end. How confusing that will be for children and parents—and how damaging to the cause of standards-based education reform.

Fourth, teachers do not seem to have terribly high expectations for their pupils when it comes to how much and how well they will end up learning. Despite the popular educationist mantra that “all children can learn” and notwithstanding the core principle of standards-based reform that no child will be left behind and that every youngster will attain his state’s core academic standards, teachers do not quite buy that. Fewer than half of those teaching fourth grade expect their students always to spell correctly. Less than half of eighth grade math teachers expect all of their students, by year’s end, to be able to show why the angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees. (One quarter of eighth grade math teachers do not even expect this from a majority of their pupils.) Only 70 percent of eighth grade history teachers expect that, by the time they enter high school, the majority of students in their classes will know when the Civil War was fought. How can Congress enact a law mandating that every child in every state will (within twelve years) attain “proficiency” on state standards if many of those children’s classroom instructors have no such expectations?

Finally, and most bluntly, one third of fourth grade teachers and 30 percent of eighth grade teachers do not agree that “a teacher’s role is primarily to help students learn the things that your state or community has decided students should know.” In other words, these instructors seemingly don’t believe in state academic standards or, at least, they don’t see helping youngsters meet such standards as the single most important mission of the school.

There is much, much more in these data, including some good news for education reformers. (Teachers don’t believe in social promotion, for example, and they view parents as primarily an asset in their work.) We find tantalizing differences between new teachers and their more experienced colleagues. We are treated to  revealing glimpses of the instructional practices that teachers select for their classrooms. One should by no means castigate teachers, much less the conscientious instructors who cooperated with this survey, for harboring wrong attitudes or using ill-chosen methods. They are what they are. They are what they’ve been told to be by those who trained them yesterday and who supervise them today. For the most part, I believe, the attitudes, expectations and priorities of teachers, as well as the methods they employ when the door is closed, reflect above all the influence of their ed-school professors and their mentors and peers within the education profession.

The problem—a big one—is that the professors and the profession have not entirely bought into standards-based reform. It goes against their grain. It contradicts their own philosophies of education. Never mind that it’s the law of the land, the principal public education dynamic of nearly every state, and the strong preference of most parents. It hasn’t permeated the education profession. Hence it hasn’t percolated into many of our teachers. The problem ahead is that policymakers—and parents, voters and taxpayers—are destined for another huge disappointment if what happens when the classroom door closes does not advance the goals that were so hopefully enshrined in those statutes, those hard-fought standards and those sometimes onerous accountability systems. An education train wreck may well lie ahead.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Senior Fellow, The Hoover Institution;
President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation



Educational reform is among the chief domestic policy concerns in the United States today. Debates over the merits of school vouchers, mandatory student educational testing, heightened teaching standards, and the most proper means of disciplining students have been waged in recent years among officials at the national and state government levels, as well as among local school boards and parent-teacher organizations. Although the primary goal of most schools should be to train their students in the basic skills and knowledge they will need to prosper in society, that goal has been somewhat obscured—if not outright compromised—by conflicts raging within and outside our nation’s schools.

How are school officials and teachers expected to meet the variety of challenges facing them today? What teaching methods and approaches are most likely to train large numbers of students in the skills and knowledge they will need as adults? Teachers themselves work on the front line in this battle; their perspectives on teaching deserve the careful attention of officials charged with promoting educational reform. It would seem in recent years increasing numbers of instructors have begun to emphasize a “relativistic” approach to teaching students—they define student success based on subjective standards of student creativity and effort, rather than on any objective or absolute standard. Just how widespread has this more subjectivist approach become? And what impact has it had on the classroom as a whole? To date, few comprehensive national surveys of teachers addressing specific teaching approaches and methods have even been conducted.

Early in 2002, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research sought to better understand the methods teachers employ in the classroom—relativistic or otherwise—as an initial step in the process of promoting dialogue on educational reform in the United States. Specifically, the Manhattan Institute commissioned the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut to conduct a series of focus groups and two national surveys of fourth and eighth grade teachers, respectively, concerning their philosophies and methods of teaching.

Certainly a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education may sometimes prove inadequate to the task at hand. Fourth and eighth grade classrooms present a host of different challenges—history and English may differ dramatically from those that work in math and science classes. Moreover, differences among individual schools themselves—including the demographics of their student bodies, their respective locations, and the overall experience levels of their respective teachers—may figure prominently in determining the success of specific reforms.

Accordingly, the Manhattan Institute’s survey sought to understand the different types of problems and challenges facing teachers across the nation, with an eye towards identifying various pedagogical approaches and their influence in the classroom environment. Specifically, the survey sought to address the following issues:

  • What philosophy of teaching do most teachers utilize in the classroom? Do teachers on the whole emphasize student-directed learning or teaching-directed learning? How do teachers evaluate the success of the educational process overall?
  • What specific objectives do teachers seek to fulfill in the classroom? How do teachers allocate time in the classroom to meet those objectives?
  • What types of math and English skills are fourth and eighth graders expected to master?
  • What types of science and U.S. history knowledge are eighth graders expected to have?
  • Has the adoption of so-called “multiculturalist” approaches to teaching English, history, and science affected the nature of classroom instruction?
  • How much influence do teachers have in shaping the classroom environment? Do they maintain control over the topics they will cover and the teaching methods they will employ?
  • What role do parents play in promoting the education of students? Are they an asset or liability in the educational process?
  • How important is classroom discipline to a successful classroom environment? Do teachers have enough authority to effectively maintain discipline?

The Manhattan Institute/University of Connecticut survey on teaching methods in fourth and eighth grade classrooms was conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. Two separate surveys were administered. A total of 403 interviews with fourth grade teachers who taught either math or English were conducted between January 18, 2002 and February 2, 2002. A total of 806 interviews with eighth grade teachers who taught in a specific subject area (math, science, history or English) were conducted between January 26, 2002 and February 9, 2002. A complete list of the questions asked and the responses is found in the web version of this report, found at A more detailed description of the methodology is located in Appendix B.

We believe these survey results provide important new data that can help ascertain what is really going on inside America’s classrooms and add to the ongoing debates.


As a general matter, teachers are not presently in a state of revolt against traditional forms of education. Traditional academic subjects that have been taught for decades continue to be taught, and many teachers conscientiously strive to promote academic excellence in the classroom. Still, an increasing percentage of teachers have started to adopt a more “relativistic” or “subjectivist” pedagogy and outlook, and this trend in the teaching profession is starting to manifest itself in the way teachers approach grading practices, self-evaluations of their personal job performances, and in the different methods of teaching they choose to emphasize within the classroom itself.

Currently a majority of teachers across the country favor a student-directed learning philosophy. Specifically, 55% of fourth grade teachers and 57% of eighth grade teachers indicate that they lean towards the student-directed approach, as compared to just 40% of fourth grade teachers and 37% of eighth grade teachers who favor “teacher-directed learning.” When teachers were asked more pointedly about their own teaching philosophies, the most frequently provided responses included “student/child centered,” and “teacher makes adjustment for needs.”

The interest in relativistic and subjectivist teaching approaches is reflected in the prevalence of less objective standards for grading students. Four in 10 teachers nationwide indicated a preference for grading based on whether the student approached the task in a “creative and thoughtful way,” while an additional 1 in 4 expressed a preference for grading based simply on “how hard the student tried.” By contrast, barely a quarter of the teachers surveyed favored grading based on whether students got the correct answers or provided the correct information.

Teachers’ approaches to self-evaluation may also be influenced by this relativistic philosophy of teaching. Nearly 4 in 10 eighth grade teachers and 31% of fourth grade teachers ranked feedback from students as the most important factor in the evaluation of the job they are doing.  Indeed, among eighth grade teachers in particular, student feedback ranked as a far more important factor than any other mentioned, including even student scores on teacher-created assignments. Similarly, classroom instruction methods have been shaped by the prevalence of student-directed teaching philosophies. While whole-class instruction still takes up a large bulk of class time, small group exercises are becoming more routine features in many classrooms, especially in the classrooms of younger and less experienced teachers.

With student-directed teaching philosophies emphasizing student creativity and effort over simply attaining the correct answers, many students are not expected to acquire more than basic knowledge of math and English. Furthermore, large numbers of students are not expected to know basic facts about science and U.S. history. These diminished expectations may be at least partially a consequence of so many recent teachers’ emphasis on relativistic philosophies.

Interestingly, a substantial majority of teachers in this country believe that on average, parents of students are an asset rather than a liability in the educational process. (Teachers hailing from urban and predominantly minority schools gave the lowest rating in this regard, though fully two-thirds still believed parents were an asset in the educational process). Additionally, nine in 10 teachers nationwide think that their school’s policies already give them enough authority to effectively maintain order in the classroom.

Teachers themselves remain a mostly untapped resource for government officials and others considering educational reform in the nation’s schools. Even after this current study, many questions still remain for teachers, especially for those who teach students outside of the fourth and eighth grades, and for those who teach subjects other than math, English, science and history. Still, this study offers some sobering data for many. Certainly students in the nation’s fourth and eighth grade classrooms continue to be taught important topics. But the growth in influence of relativistic teaching methods may be preventing the potential of many students from being maximized.

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Center for Civic Innovation.


CB 28 PDF (114 kb)


Understanding What Teachers Teach Washington Post, 12-17-02
Seebach: When feel-good teaching methods just aren't enough Rocky Mountain News, 10-12-02
Teachers vs. Better Schools New York Post, 10-6-02
Learning how to learn puts students at head of class Columbus Dispatch, 10-1-02

Based on a survey of fourth and eighth grade teachers across the United States, this study shows that large percentages, and often majorities, of the teachers surveyed follow educational philosophies and classrooms practices that may be incompatible with the standards-based reforms being implemented across the country. The study presents detailed infomation on teachers' general teaching philosophy and methods, academic expectations for their students, support for multiculturalist approaches to teaching, and views on the school discipline, social promotion, and the role of parents in education. Click here for complete poll results.


Executive Summary

About the Authors




Complete Poll Results

Summary of the Findings

General Teaching Philosophies and Evaluation Methods

Methods of Classroom Instruction

Teacher Expectations in the Classroom

Fourth Grade Math

Fourth Grade English

Eighth Grade Math

Eighth Grade English

Eighth Grade Science

Eighth Grade History

Multi-culturalist Approaches to Teaching

Teacher Perspectives on Current Issues in Education Policy

Teacher Control over Curricula, Methods and Standards

The Role of Parents in the Educational Process

Social Promotion

School Discipline

Appendix A: Profile of Teachers and Respective Schools Surveyed

Appendix B: Methodology


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