Civic Report No. 28 September 2002
What Do Teachers Teach? A Survey of America’s Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers, continued
GENERAL TEACHING PHILOSOPHIES AND EVALUATION METHODS
As this study makes apparent, the current crop of teachers is increasingly relativistic in its pedagogy and outlook towards classroom learning. Instead of more traditional teacherdirected learning strategies, studentdirected teaching philosophies have gained favor in many fourth and eighth grade classrooms.
In all, 55% of fourth grade teachers and 57% of eighth grade teachers described their teaching philosophies as leaning towards “studentdirected” learning, as compared to just 40% of fourth grade teachers and a mere 37% of eighth grade teachers who say their teaching philosophies lean towards “teacherdirected” learning.
“Which way do you lean—more toward teacher directed learning OR more toward student directed learning?” (Data from Questions 4 & 4A combined)



Not surprisingly, more experienced teachers seem less inclined than their newer colleagues to side with this studentdirected approach to learning. When asked about their philosophies, 54% of those with 20 years or less experience described their philosophies as “studentdirected,” as compared to only 44% of those with 2130 years experience and just 39% of those with 31 or more years of experience.
When asked more broadly about their teaching philosophies, teachers on the whole confirm this new “studentdirected” emphasis. Among eighth grade teachers, by far the most frequently mentioned approach was one termed “student/child centered” where the “teacher makes adjustment for needs.” This was mentioned by one quarter of the eighth grade teachers surveyed. Sixteen percent of eighth grade teachers, including 25% of the eighth grade science teachers, described their philosophy as “Teacher as a facilitator/guide, with students as independent learners”. No other philosophy garnered mention by more than 10% of the eighth grade teachers surveyed.
Fourth grade teachers’ most frequently mentioned philosophies were “student/child centered, teacher makes adjustment for needs” (21%) and a philosophy summarized as “all children can learn; only their pace or style changes” (that philosophy was mentioned by 22% of the fourth grade teachers surveyed, as compared to just 4% of the eighth grade teachers who mentioned it). Interestingly, fourth grade teachers from schools that draw primarily on minority populations were much more likely to tout the “All children can learn philosophy,” with 31% of those teachers mentioning that approach when asked (9% more than the percentage of fourth grade teachers overall who mentioned it).
“Generally speaking, which of the following two teaching philosophies is closest to your own: (A) ‘It is most important to teach students specific information and skills’; or (B) ‘Learning how to learn is most important for students’?”


What is the realworld significance of this apparent backlash against more traditional teacherdirected approaches? One possibility is that the more traditional emphasis on basic skills for students may be compromised. In fact, a significant majority of teachers surveyed sided with “learning how to learn” as being more important to students than simply teaching them specific information and skills—upon first mention, 74% of fourth grade teachers and 72% of eighth grade teachers described that philosophy as more closely aligned to their own.
In part, this new teaching philosophy has manifested itself in the way that eighth grade math instructors in particular approach classroom instruction. In all, 61% favor having their students solve “real world” problems over more traditional drills and practices on math facts and computations. And while 62% of the eighth grade math teachers would first show students how to solve problems and then do problem sets, 35% of those surveyed confess to simply introducing problems to students, and then acting as a “facilitator as students try to figure out the solution for themselves.”
“Different teachers have different approaches to math. I’m going to read several pairs of approaches to teaching math, and for each pair ask you to pick which approach comes closer to describing your approach to teaching your 8th grade math students…” (Eighth grade respondents only)


This overall relativistic trend is also reflected in the way that teachers evaluate their respective performances in the classroom. For example, student feedback now enjoys disproportionate importance as a factor in teachers’ evaluations of the job they are doing. More than 3 in 10 (31%) fourth grade teachers and nearly 4 in 10 (39%) eighth grade teachers rated student feedback as the most important factor in such personal evaluations. By contrast, barely more than 3 in 10 fourth grade teachers (32%) felt that students’ scores on teachercreated assignments were the most important factor in such evaluations. And only a quarter (26%) of eighth grade teachers felt that way.
Once again, a more traditional approach to selfevaluation was evident only among the most senior teachers surveyed. For example, eighth grade teachers with more than thirty years experience were less likely to rely on feedback from students (29%) than their newer colleagues. Rather, these veteran teachers were far more likely to rely on their own innate sense of how well they taught their lessons (24%) in guiding selfevaluations of how well they performed as teachers.
Naturally, relativistic teaching philosophies also influence the methods by which teachers evaluate individual students. In evaluating student work, teachers tend to emphasize whether the student approached the task in a creative and thoughtful way, as compared to more traditional factors. Specifically, 4 in 10 teachers surveyed nationwide favored an emphasis on student creativity, a significantly higher percentage than those who emphasized whether the student got the correct answer (favored by just 25% of fourth grade teachers and 28% of eighth grade teachers) or even how hard the student tried (favored by 28% of fourth grade teachers and just 23% of eighth grade teachers). Newer fourth grade teachers were especially likely to emphasize student creativity and thoughtfulness in the grading process, with 46% of teachers in their first 20 years on the job emphasizing that factor, as compared to just 33% of those fourth grade teachers who have logged between 21 and 30 years in the teaching profession.
“In evaluating student work, do you place the greatest emphasis on…:”
Eighth grade teachers, by years of experience


How do teachers translate the skills they wish to evaluate into individual grades for students? Nearly 6 in 10 fourth grade teachers (57%) say they base final grades for students more on each student’s individual abilities, considerably more than the 38% who base yearend grades on a “single, classwide standard.” Interestingly, eighth grade teachers are slightly more likely to base student grades on the classwide standard (49%) than they are to base the grades on individual abilities (44%).
“Generally speaking, are your final yearend or marking period grades for students based more on a single, classwide standard or are they based more on each student’s individual abilities?”



Still, fourth grade and eighth grade instructors alike tend to allow their relativistic teaching philosophies to infiltrate the grading process. For example, fully 64% of fourth grade math teachers said they thought grading based on strategies used to solve a problem (regardless of whether the resulting answer was correct) was a more effective approach than grading based on the right answers, which was favored by just 33%. And 54% of eighth grade math teachers graded students based on the strategies used, rather than on the basis of getting the right answers.
METHODS OF CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION
How do these trends play out in the classroom itself? Although teachers continue to perform many traditional functions in the classroom—lecturing, giving out homework assignments, etc—significant minorities of teachers do not perform those functions as much as they used to. And increasing numbers of teachers have deemphasized these traditional methods of classroom instruction in favor of smallgroup, cooperative learning exercises that may or may not succeed in providing basic skills to students.
“In general, which would you say is your preferred form of teaching?” (Question 18 only)


For example, among the fourth grade teachers surveyed, 55% indicated that they prefer cooperative learning in small classroom groups, more than twice the percentage who indicated that they preferred wholegroup instruction (26%). Eighth grade teachers are nearly as enthusiastic about smallgroup learning, with 51% indicating they preferred cooperative learning in small groups, as compared to just 34% who said they preferred whole group instruction. Not surprisingly, cooperative learning is especially popular among younger teachers: Approximately 6 in 10 teachers aged 35 or under expressed a preference for such smallgroup learning exercises.
The clear preference expressed by so many teachers for smallgroup cooperative exercises is reflected in the amount of time they dedicate to such activities, and the decreased amount of time being spent in more traditional, teacherdirected formats. In all, just 35% of fourth grade teachers and a mere 29% of eighth grade teachers spend more than half of their weekly classroom time on whole class instruction. By contrast, smallgroup work is increasingly filling the gap, with 42% of fourth grade teachers and 41% of eighth grade teachers spending at least a quarter of their weekly classroom time on small group work and exercises.
Perhaps more amazing, even with the economic crunch on school budgets forcing increases in classroom sizes across the country, teachers still manage to mix in a significant amount of time with individual students—21% of fourth grade teachers and 19% of eighth grade teachers indicated that they spend at least a quarter of their weekly classroom time on working with individual students.
“Please tell me approximately what percentage of your weekly classroom time is spent on each of the following…”
“Please tell me approximately what percentage of your weekly classroom time is spent on each of the following…”



Among eighth grade instructors, whole class instruction was more frequently employed in schools drawing on lowerincome populations. Fully 73% of eighth grade teachers from lower income schools and 70% from middleincome schools employed whole class instruction for at least a quarter of the week, while just 63% of eighth grade instructors from higherincome schools tended to do so.
Low expectations of homework mark this modern trend in classroom practices as well. Only 7% of fourth grade instructors and 9% of eighth grade instructors indicated that they assign homework every day including weekends; by contrast, 21% of fourth grade instructors and little more than a third (35%) of eighth grade instructors confess that they assign students homework less than three nights during any typical week.
Teachers also are less likely than expected to see themselves as the primary academic motivators for students. Indeed, almost 3 in 10 of all the teachers surveyed (27% of eighth grade instructors and 30% of fourth grade instructors) disagreed that a teacher’s role is primarily to help students excel academically.
Finally, in math classes across the country calculators have become a key tool for teaching math. Unfortunately, when calculators are too heavily relied on, basic math skills may decline. As early as the fourth grade, when math skills are first being learned, 22% of teachers report regularly permitting students to use calculators in class to solve math problems. By the eighth grade the use of calculators is widespread, with 70% of teachers reporting that they permit such use.
TEACHER EXPECTATIONS IN THE CLASSROOM
Have teachers’ relativistic philosophies affected their academic expectations for their students? The survey results suggest they have, although perhaps not to the degree that some critics have suggested. The survey does not find classrooms are learning free zones, where children are taught little but social skills and selfesteem. Most teachers at both the fourth and eighth grade levels do expect their students to master specific skills and acquire specific knowledge that most parents would find familiar and acceptable. But a disturbing minority of teachers do not have such expectations for their students, and many of those teachers who do expect all or most of their students to acquire basic skills and knowledge are decidedly less demanding when it comes to higher level skills and more detailed knowledge.
FOURTH GRADE TEACHERS
Math Expectations
Virtually all fourth grade teachers expect their students to master rudimentary math skills by the end of the fourth grade. For example, 99% think that all or most of their students will master the addition and subtraction of twodigit numbers, 98% think that all or most will be able to add and subtract threedigit numbers, and 81% think that all or most will master multiplication and division of twodigit numbers. Similarly high expectations can be found for other basic accomplishments, such as measuring with a ruler, identifying shapes like triangles and squares, and telling time (see chart below).
I’m going to list some math skills and ask if you expect that all, most, about half only a few or none of your students will be able to do each one by the end of the current school year without the aid of a calculator.


All

Most

About half

Only a few

None

Don’t know

Add and subtract twodigit numbers

92%

7%

0%

0%

0%

0%

Add and subtract threedigit numbers

84

14

0

1

0

0

Multiply and divide twodigit numbers

39

42

14

3

1

1

Make measurements of length with a ruler measure in inches or centimeters

70

24

6

0

0

0

Tell time to the minute on a nondigital watch or clock

66

32

2

0

0

0

Identify triangles, squares and pentagons

77

21

1

0

0

0

Calculate the area of rectangles and squares

43

41

12

4

0

0

Teachers are less confident about the ability of students to comprehend more sophisticated math skills. 31% thought that half or less of their students would be able to compare fractions with like and unlike denominators (e.g., determining whether twothirds is bigger than twofifths), and 56% thought that half or less would be able to calculate the area of parallelograms.
English Expectations
Not surprisingly, fourth grade teachers have similar expectations concerning English skills: the more complicated the skill, the lower the teacher expectations. Extremely high percentages of fourth grade teachers believe that it is “very important” that their students master such basic tasks as distinguishing between complete sentences, sentence fragments, and runons (90%) and using punctuation correctly (87%) by the time they leave fourth grade. This number drops as tasks get more complex, as the table below shows. For example, only 54% think it is “very important” for their students to master parts of speech and their correct use by the end of fourth grade, and only 43% think it very important that their students recognize and use common prefixes such as pre and pro (see chart below).
I’m going to read you a list of elements of English grammar and ask you if you think each one is very important, somewhat important, not very important, or not important at all for your students to master by the end of 4th grade.


Very important

Somewhat important

Not very important

Not important at all

Regularly using paragraphing in their writing

67%

33%

0%

1%

Recognizing and using the most common prefixes such as pre, pro, un and dis

43

54

3

0

Distinguishing between complete sentences, sentence fragments and runons

90

10

1

0

Use of subject and verb agreement

78

22

1

0

Punctuation and its correct use

87

13

1

0

Parts of speech and their correct use.

54

41

4

2

Expectations concerning spelling and vocabulary are major exceptions to the foregoing observations. Almost six in ten fourth grade teachers say they do not expect their students to spell correctly at all times in their written work. Even in an age of word processing programs and computer spell checks, the ability to spell correctly is important for students as they move into higher levels of education. 19% of fourth grade teachers say they assign lists of new words to their students less than once a week or never at all. Since an extensive vocabulary is an important ingredient for, and predictor of, academic success in middle and high school, this result causes concern.
A large number of fourth graders may also not be practicing writing enough to master the English language. 42% of teachers say they assign only one writing assignment in excess of one paragraph in length per week. Mastering basic punctuation, spelling and rules of grammar is hard enough for young students; learning to construct an argument or tell a story is harder yet. Without sufficient opportunities to practice these skills, many students will fall short of their academic potential.
EIGHTH GRADE TEACHERS
Math Expectations
Like their fourth grade colleagues, eighth grade math teachers expect mastery of basic skills, but fall short of demanding mastery of more sophisticated material. 95% of eighth grade math teachers expect all or most of their students to master such tasks as calculating basic statistics like means or medians and solving onestep equations with one unknown value, such A + x = B. Impressively high percentages of teachers expect all or most of their students to plot a graph to exhibit data (91%), evaluate basic algebraic equations (86%), and apply the distributive and associative properties to a numeric expression (83%). However, these numbers drop off sharply as the skills demanded grow more complex. Only three quarters expect all or most of their students to show why the three angles of a triangle always add to 180 degrees; 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 (see chart below). Students who do not master these skills, among others, are much less likely to complete rigorous high school math courses which best prepare students for college.
I’m going to read you a list of math skills. For each, please tell me how many of your students—all, most, about half, only a few, or none—you expect will master the skill by the end of the current school year.


All

Most

About half

Only a few

None

Don’t know

Refused

Memorizing and using the Pythagorean theorem

20%

38%

24%

16%

4%

0%

0%

Constructing an equilateral triangle with a straightedge and compass

15

21

13

25

25

2

1

Using a calculator to determine the approximate value of an acute angle when given the cosine

5

7

12

27

48

2

1

Show why the three angles of a triangle always add to 180 degrees

45

30

11

8

7

0

0

Applying the distributive and associative properties to a numeric expression

40

43

13

4

2

0

0

Solving onestep equations with one unknown value. For example, A+x=B, where the values of A and B are known and x is unknown.

64

31

3

2

1

0

0

Solving word problems by translating them into algebraic equations

17

41

30

11

2

0

0

Evaluating basic algebraic expressions

39

47

9

4

1

1

0

Calculating basic statistics such as mean, median, or mode

54

41

5

1

1

0

0

Plotting a graph to exhibit data such as the heights of the members of a class

51

40

7

2

1

0

0

Converting measurements from one unit, such as feet per second, to another such as miles per hour.

14

30

32

20

6

1

0

One confirmation of these findings is found in the responses to another question. When asked what math course best describes the school’s standard eighth grade math class, only 21% defined it as “first year algebra,” the course which best prepares eighth graders for high school and college level math. The majority (61%) defined this course as “prealgebra,” which could or could not be providing adequate preparation depending upon exactly what is taught. Nearly one in five (18%) of eighth grade math teachers defined their school’s standard as “general math” or “something else,” demonstrating that many American students are not being prepared at all to become proficient in mathematics. This also highlights the possibility that low expectations for advanced math skills are partially caused by a less demanding curriculum.
English Expectations
Eighth grade English teachers surveyed were also similar in their level of expectations to their fourth grade counterparts. An encouraging 87% thought that all or most of their students would master writing and speaking standard English by year’s end. But expectations again declined as skills became more specialized. 72% thought all or most of their students would master the correct use of punctuation; 68% thought that all or most of their students would be able to write clear, organized and persuasive nonfiction essays; and 65% expected all or most of their students to master such underpinnings of high school and college English study as characterization, simile, and metaphor. While most American students appear to be progressing at an acceptable level, significant minorities are not (see chart below).
I’m going to read a list of items that you may or may not expect your students to master by the end of the 8th grade. Please tell me what proportion of your students—all, most, about half, only a few, or none—you expect will know each of these items by the end of the present school year.


All

Most

About half

Only a few

None

Don’t Know

Refused

Writing standard English

39%

49%

9%

1%

0%

2%

1%

Speaking standard English

48

39

10

2

1

0

0

Using correct punctuation

20

52

22

4

0

0

1

Writing clear, organized and persuasive nonfiction essays

20

48

24

6

1

0

1

Point of view and characterization as elements of fiction

24

41

23

8

1

0

1

Literary devices, such as irony, foreshadowing, simile and metaphor

21

44

24

8

2

1

1

This trend—most students proceeding acceptably, some students being left behind—was demonstrated in the responses to two other questions. Only 54% of eighth grade English teachers thought it was “very important” that students systematically learn new vocabulary words, and only 36% thought it was “very important” that students practice their spelling. Indeed, 27% thought that regular spelling practice was either “not too important” or “not important at all”. Combined with the lack of emphasis on spelling found on the fourth grade survey, this suggests a systematic lack of attention being paid to spelling throughout American education.
“How important do you think _______ is for your students?” (Eighth grade only)


As with the fourth graders, it appears many eighth grade students may not get enough writing practice to enable them to master effective writing. 15% of eighth grade teachers assign no homework at all that includes at least a page of writing. Another 42% state they assign only one such assignment per week. Additionally, 31% of eighth grade English teachers require their students to write, edit, and complete a composition of at least 250 words (three to four paragraphs) once or less per month. Students are unlikely to become proficient writers with such little practice.
Science Expectations
Eighth grade science teachers depart from their colleagues in having uniformly low expectations for their students. The survey asked science teachers about their expectations concerning twelve basic scientific principles often introduced and explained during middle school. Similar questions in math, English and history produced a wide range of expectation levels, with many questions finding that 90% or more of teachers expected all or most of their students to know the fact or master the skill in question. Frequently, as the foregoing charts have shown, 60% or more of teachers thought all of their students would master a basic skill or fact.
In contrast, the highestranking science question saw only 70% of eighth grade science teachers who thought all or most of their students would understand the concept in question (plate tectonics) by the end of the eighth grade. Only 33% thought that all of their students would understand plate tectonics. Science teachers expect many fewer of their students to understand virtually every other science concept on the list. Only 51% expect all or most of their students to know the general form, function and location of the human body’s major organ systems; 20% thought none of their students would know this. And only 42% thought all or most of their students would understand the theories of natural selection and evolution; a percentage very close to that, 35%, thought that only a few or none of their students would understand this concept, one of the basic building blocks of modern science. A complete listing of the questions and responses is provided in the chart on the following page.
I’m going to list some scientific concepts. For each one, please tell me how many of your students—all, most, about half, only a few, or none—you expect will understand the concept by the end of the current school year.


All

Most

About half

Only a few

None

Don’t Know

Refused

How traits such as eye and hair color are passed from one generation to the next

22%

37%

12%

7%

18%

4%

2%

The theories of natural selection and evolution

8

34

18

16

19

5

2

How plants and animals get their energy from food

28

38

12

3

14

5

2

The general form, location and function of the major organ systems of the human body

13

38

13

8

20

6

3

How electrical charges interact and some of the important consequences of such interactions

13

29

26

15

13

3

3

The properties and speeds of sound and light waves

11

27

24

20

14

3

2

The structure of a molecule

30

38

16

7

6

3

2

Chemical bonds, chemical reactions and the formation of chemical compounds

16

32

21

20

9

2

2

The differences between acids and bases.

21

30

19

15

12

3

2

The Big Bang and the history and form of our universe and solar system

19

37

18

13

11

3

2

How the Earth’s surface is made up of moving plates, what drives their motion, and the consequences—such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—of that motion

33

37

10

6

11

3

2

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

27

38

21

6

7

1

1

These low expectation levels cannot be explained simply by the difficulty in grasping complex scientific theories. We also asked teachers to tell us how many of their students they thought would be familiar with the major contributions five famous scientists have made by the end of the year. Some of the names chosen—Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin—are among the most famous scientists of all time, people whose fame and accomplishments are part of common culture. As the graph opposite demonstrates, these expectations are also low.
“I’m going to read you a list of famous scientists. Please tell me how many of your students—all, most, about half, only a few, or none—will be familiar with their major contributions to science by the end of the current school year.”


There is, logically, a correlation between the results for the two scientists whose accomplishments were also queried about—Newton and his law of gravity, and Darwin and evolution  and the results for the specific accomplishments. 76% of eighth grade science teachers thought all or most of their students would be familiar with Newton, while 68% thought all or most would be familiar with his Universal Law of Gravity. Only 40% thought all or most of their students would be familiar with Charles Darwin, and only 42% thought all or most would be familiar with the theory of evolution.
History Expectations
Although a basic knowledge of history requires some familiarity with important facts, names, key events and dates, many eighth grade history teachers emphasize an altogether different set of skills. Perhaps because of this emphasis, students are apt to emerge from eighth grade with clear gaps in their historical knowledge.
According to their teachers, eighth graders are much likelier to know about America’s 18th and 19th Century history than they are to know about the 20th. On the high end, 77% of eighth grade history teachers expect that all or most of their students will know that Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown were major Revolutionary War battles and 70% believe all or most of their students will know when the Civil War was fought. Even these results, however, show that significant numbers of American students will not know some basic historical facts.
Expectations were much lower for other important facts. 52% of eighth grade history teachers expect that all or most of their students will know that the transcontinental railroad was largely built by immigrants. Only 34% of teachers expect that all or most of their students will know about the Monroe Doctrine, and only 38% believe all or most of their students will know about the Federalist Papers.
Student knowledge of the 20th Century is uneven, according to teachers. 77% of eighth grade history teachers expect all or most of their students will know that Rev. Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream speech”: only 9% think none of their class will know this. 66% believe that all or most of their students will know that women won the right to vote in the 20th Century; only 12% believe that none of their students will know this.
Thinking about specific events in U.S. history, please estimate how many of your students—all, most, about half, only a few, or none—will know about each of the events or facts listed below by the end of the current school year?


All

Most

About half

Only a few

None

Don’t Know

Refused

That the Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865

30%

40%

17%

5%

3%

6%

1%

That the term Reconstruction refers to the readmission of the Confederate states and the protection of the rights of black citizens

21

40

15

11

9

6

0

That the Federalist Papers were written to gain ratification of the U.S. Constitution

14

24

26

23

9

5

0

That Bunker Hill, Saratoga and Yorktown were important battles fought during the Revolutionary War

21

46

15

12

3

5

1

That the Monroe Doctrine declared that Europe should not acquire new territories in the Western Hemisphere

13

32

22

22

7

5

0

That the New Deal was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s program to lift the country out of the Great Depression

10

17

9

10

49

6

1

That Theodore Roosevelt was President when the Panama Canal Zone was acquired

10

12

10

22

42

6

0

That the Progressive Era resulted in reforms like government regulation of trusts and monopolies, the direct election of Senators and the income tax

8

13

10

21

44

6

0

That Martin Luther King gave the famous “I have a dream” speech in favor of civil rights

45

32

6

3

9

5

1

That the transcontinental railroad was built largely by immigrants

17

35

19

11

14

6

0

That women won the right to vote in the early 20th Century

27

39

10

8

12

5

2

However, only 27% thought that all or most of their students would know that the New Deal was F.D.R.’s program to combat the Great Depression; 49% thought that none of their students would know this. Only 22% thought that all or most of their students would know Theodore Roosevelt was President when the Panama Canal Zone was acquired; 42% thought none of their students would know this. And only 21% expect all or most of their students would know that the Progressive Era resulted in important government reforms like the income tax; 44% thought none of their students would know this. These results suggest that eighth graders are receiving an incomplete overview of this century’s important history.
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