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Civic Report
No. 28 September 2002


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

MULTI-CULTURALIST APPROACHES TO TEACHING

When teaching eighth grade students in particular, teachers may have numerous opportunities to adopt and implement “multi-culturalist” approaches to teaching—i.e. approaches that tend to emphasize how so many different races and ethnicities have contributed to the American “way of life.” Some reformers argue that multi-culturalist teaching strategies contribute to a well balanced education; others counter that undue emphasis on such multi-culturalist issues tends to detract from the teaching of basic skills and knowledge that may or may not be influenced by those perspectives.

Certainly these multi-culturalist perspectives have influenced the way that eighth grade students learn about literature in English classes. Rather than simply teaching the classics in a traditional format, many teachers today strive to help students apply the literature to their own experiences, as well as to real world problems. More eighth grade English teachers (46%) indicated that they think it is more important for students to use their personal experience to interpret what they read, than it is to help them understand and explain what the author is saying in his own terms (41%). And the vast majority of eighth grade teachers surveyed (96%) think it is either somewhat or very important for students to discuss how the things they read apply to contemporary social issues.

Scientific principles are also increasingly taught through the prism of global perspectives. Although 69% of the eighth grade science teachers indicated that their primary interest was in having students understand fundamental scientific principles and processes, fully 23% maintained that their primary interest was to emphasize the role science plays in contemporary political debates.

Finally, barely 6 in 10 of the eighth grade history teachers surveyed (61% ) accept as closer to their own the understanding that American civilization is based principally on the legacy of Western civilization; by contrast, more than one third (36%) believe American civilization actually represents a fusion of Western, African, and Native American cultures to form “a unique cultural blend.” How the latter belief manifests itself in the classroom, of course, remains to be seen.

TEACHER PERSPECTIVES ON CURRENT ISSUES IN EDUCATION POLICY

Today’s teachers work on the front line in helping to educate our nation’s youth. Their experiences working with students from all backgrounds makes them an invaluable source of potential information for educational reformers wrestling with current problems of our nation’s educational systems. Too often their critical perspectives are overlooked. Thus in this study, the Manhattan Institute sought to solicit teacher opinions concerning many of the important educational debates currently being waged today.

Teacher Control over Curricula, Methods, and Standards

Ever since public education was first introduced in the United States, teachers and school officials have battled over who should determine what methods of teaching should be employed, and what subjects should be a part of the school-age curriculum.

As it stands today, fourth grade teachers perceive that they have little control in determining the topics and themes covered in their classes, at least in comparison to the perceptions eighth grade teachers have about their own level of control. On a scale from 0 (no control) to 10 (complete control), 47% of the fourth grade teachers surveyed rated their level of control at 5 or less, compared to just 37% of eighth grade teachers who rated their level of control in the same way. Teachers at urban schools were especially despondent about the degree to which they control such matters, with exactly 6 in 10 rating their level of control over topics and themes as 5 or less, compared to just 40% of the teachers at rural schools.

“How much control would you say you have in determining the topics and themes you will cover in class during the school year?”
(0 means no control and 10 means complete control)

Percentage rating their level of control at 6 higher

Certainly teacher control over themes and topics may be influenced heavily by the nature of the subject being taught, especially with regard to eighth grade classrooms. Nearly half of the eighth grade math teachers (48%) and science teachers (49%) rated their level of control over topics and themes covered in class at 5 or less (out of 10), providing a clear indication that those groups perceive school officials enjoy considerable control over such matters. By contrast, just one third of eighth grade history teachers (33%) and just 17% of eighth grade English teachers felt the same way. In fact, an overwhelming majority (80%) of eighth grade history teachers rated their level of control over topics and themes at 6 or higher (Indeed, one quarter of the history teachers rated their level of control as “complete”).

By way of comparison, teachers across the board perceive they have much greater control in determining the teaching methods they use during the school year. Fully, 94% of fourth grade teachers and 96% of eighth grade teachers rated the level of control they have over methods as 6 or greater (out of 10). Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) of the eighth grade teachers surveyed and nearly half (48%) of fourth grade teachers believe they have “complete control” over the teaching methods they use.

Interestingly, teachers across the board say they are satisfied with their state’s academic standards. In all, 80% of fourth grade teachers and 77% of eighth grade teachers agree that the academic standards for students in their respective states are generally consistent with the educational goals, content and standards that they believe are desirable. 4 in 10 teachers across the board strongly agree that statewide standards are consistent with their own goals.

Still, such general acceptance of statewide or community standards does not always translate into a willingness on the part of teachers to jettison their own relativistic approach to teaching from the educational process. Less than 7 in 10 teachers surveyed agreed that a teacher’s role is to help students learn the things that the state or community has decided students should know, a lower percentage than was indicated by those who praised those same standards.

The Role of Parents in the Educational Process

Today’s teachers increasingly look elsewhere—particularly to parents—for critical support in the effective education of students. Among teachers themselves, parental involvement is perceived as having many advantages and few downsides. In all, 81% of fourth grade teachers and 74% of eighth grade teachers said that on average, parents are an asset to them as teachers. Indeed, parents are welcome by most every subset of teachers surveyed.

Among fourth grade teachers, for example, approximately 9 in 10 teachers from suburban schools (89%), and from schools drawing on middle incomes populations (90%) or high-income populations (93%) felt that parents were an asset to the process. Fourth grade teachers from schools drawing primarily on minority populations felt less strongly, but still 70% of that group said parents were an asset. The same patterns occurred among eighth grade teachers. Teachers from suburban schools (79%) and rural schools (76%) felt more strongly than teachers from urban schools (63%) that parents were an asset. Almost two-thirds (64%) of eighth grade teachers from predominantly minority schools felt that way, a drop of more than 10 percent.

“Would you say on average the parents of your students are an asset or a liability?” (Question 7A only)

Not only do all these groups consider parents an asset, but many of the teachers surveyed considered them the single greatest factor in determining student achievement. From a list that included the student, teachers, peers and parents, 35% of fourth grade teachers and 36% of eighth grade teachers named parents as having the greatest effect on a student’s level of achievement in school, tops in each case. (19% of fourth grade teachers and 11% of eighth grade teachers volunteered that it was in fact a combination of influences that prevailed).

“Who has the greatest effect on a student’s level of achievement in school generally—the student, the student’s teachers, the student’s peers, or the student’s parents?”

Social Promotion

Parents have been especially influential in encouraging another development in recent years: the social promotion of students who are academically failing. But if parents and administrators are sometimes likely to favor moving students from grade to grade in order to keep them with others in their own age group, teachers remain overwhelmingly hostile to the development. In all, 57% of fourth grade teachers and 61% of eighth grade teachers favor ending social promotion in their schools, even if that means significantly more students will be held back. (By contrast, approximately one-fifth of both groups oppose such a change). Fourth grade teachers from urban schools (71%) and lower income schools (69%) are especially likely to favor ending the practice of social promotion. (Indeed, only 15% of fourth grade teachers from those two groups oppose bringing an end to the practice).

“How many of your students would you say DO NOT learn what they should in school because of social or economic conditions outside of school?”

Combined percentage of teachers who answered “about half,” “most” or “all.”

The above-mentioned groups’ more vehement opposition to social promotion is interesting given the impact that economic conditions outside of school (often worse in urban and lower income neighborhoods) often have on the learning capacity of students. Overall, 26% of fourth grade teachers and an amazing 37% of eighth grade teachers believe that at least half of their students do not learn what they should in school because of the economic conditions surrounding them. Fourth grade teachers at lower income schools (54%) appear even more certain that at least half of their students are also affected in the same manner.

Finally, the impact of economic conditions on classrooms in predominantly minority neighborhoods cannot be understated. In all, 47% of fourth grade teachers at minority schools and 53% of eighth grade teachers at minority schools report that at least half of their students have been affected by economic conditions outside the schools.

School Discipline

A final issue in educational reform considered by the current study is school discipline. Regardless of grade level, most teachers believe that their ability to control unruly behavior in the classroom is essential. Specifically, 46% of fourth grade teachers and 41% of eighth grade teachers estimated that disruptive students who require disciplinary attention either “sometimes” or “always” causes student learning to suffer. Among fourth grade instructors, those from predominantly minority schools (58%) are especially likely to experience such disruptions at least some of the time. Among eighth grade teachers, those from minority schools (51%), urban schools (58%) and lower-income schools (55%) are all more likely to complain that such disruptions occur either “sometimes” or “always.”

Do school policies play a role in maintaining classroom order? If they do, that role is mostly a positive one. An overwhelming 92% of fourth grade teachers and 88% of eighth grade teachers think that their school’s policies give them enough authority to effectively maintain order in the classroom. Only 8% and 11% of those groups, respectively, disagreed with that finding. Although such a feeling among teachers is apparently widespread, some mild dissent from this view is indicated within certain subgroups. For example, twice as many fourth grade teachers from minority schools (16%) and from lower-income schools (17%) disagreed that their schools’ policies gave enough authority, as compared to the percentage of fourth grade teachers overall who said the same.

“Does your school’s policy give you enough authority to effectively keep order in your classroom?”

APPENDIX A: PROFILE OF TEACHERS AND RESPECTIVE SCHOOLS

SCHOOL PROFILE (expressed in percentages)

 

Fourth Grade Teachers

 

Eighth Grade Teachers

 

Total

Math

English

 

Total

Math

English

Science

History

Community Socio-Economic Status

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High income and education 

14%

15%

15%

 

12%

13%

10%

12%

12%

Middle income and education

50

50

49

 

55

51

56

54

57

Low income and education

34

34

34

 

31

32

31

32

28

Percentage Minority Composition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0-15%

57

58

57

 

52

49

57

50

50

16-30%

16

15

16

 

17

20

14

19

19

31-50%

26

25

25

 

31

30

30

32

31

Minority Enrollment *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

African-American

48

 

 

 

45

 

 

 

 

Hispanic

41

 

 

 

44

 

 

 

 

Asian

7

 

 

 

8

 

 

 

 

American Indian

3

 

 

 

1

 

 

 

 

Years Teaching At Current School

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-10 years

49

49

49

 

51

53

54

54

43

11-20 years

32

32

32

 

29

30

30

27

31

21-30 years

15

15

14

 

14

13

12

16

16

31 or more years

4

4

4

 

6

5

4

4

10

*Minority enrollment in schools with 26% or more minority students.

TEACHER PROFILE (expressed in percentages)

 

Fourth Grade Teachers

 

Eighth Grade Teachers

 

Total

Math

English

 

Total

Math

English

Science

History

Highest Degree Attained

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bachelors 

45%

46%

45%

 

37%

40%

37%

37%

35%

Masters

55

54

55

 

62

60

61

62

62

Doctorate

-

-

-

 

1

-

1

1

1

Total Years Teaching

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-10 years

24

24

23

 

28

29

31

27

25

11-20 years

33

34

33

 

29

28

26

33

25

21-30 years

33

33

34

 

31

32

32

31

33

31 or more years

10

10

10

 

12

11

10

9

17

Age

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

35 and under

11

12

11

 

15

17

17

12

13

36-40

8

8

8

 

10

12

8

9

7

41-45

12

13

11

 

12

12

12

15

11

46-50

24

24

25

 

19

22

14

21

19

51-55

29

29

30

 

26

24

28

28

28

56+

15

14

15

 

18

14

21

15

21

APPENDIX B: METHODOLOGY

In order to better understand the methods teachers deploy in the classroom, The Manhattan Institute commissioned two surveys of teachers throughout the United States. The questionnaire was developed jointly by Henry Olsen at the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Barnes from the University of Connecticut, with assistance from Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Hoover Institution and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Mary Beth Klee of K12 Inc. (history questions), Lawrence S. Lerner of the California State University, Long Beach (science questions), Ralph Raimi of the University of Rochester (math questions), and Sandra Stotsky of the Massachusetts Department of Education (English questions).

Interviews were conducted by The Center for Survey Research in Storrs, Connecticut, using a Computer Assisted Telephone (CATI) system. Professional survey interviewers trained in standard protocols for administering survey instruments conduct all CSRA surveys. Interviewers assigned to this survey participated in special training conducted by senior project staff. The draft survey questionnaire and field protocols received thorough testing prior to the start of the formal interviewing period. Interviews were extensively monitored to ensure CSRA standards for quality were continually met.

Fourth Grade Survey

The fourth grade survey was conducted January 18 through February 2, 2002. A total of 403 interviews were conducted with fourth grade teachers who taught math or English. In the case of fourth grade, most teachers taught both subjects; therefore they were randomly assigned to a subject area. Among those surveyed, 91% teach math and 93% teach English.

 

Section Completes

Subject Overlap

Math

203

365

English

200

375

The sample frame for this survey consists of all fourth grade teachers listed in a proprietary database of known schoolteachers. Survey Sampling, Inc., of Fairfield, Connecticut, provided the sample. Schoolteachers were randomly selected from the database for the survey. All sampled teachers received short screening interviews to determine eligibility for the survey. The sample error associated with a survey of this size is +/- 5%, meaning that there is less than one chance in twenty that the results of a survey of this size would differ by more than 5% in either direction from the results which would be obtained if all members of the sample frame had been selected. The sample error is larger for sub-groups. CSRA also attempted to minimize other possible sources of error in this survey.

Eighth Grade Survey

The eighth grade survey was conducted January 26, 2002 through February 9, 2002. A total of 806 interviews were conducted. Teachers were asked if they taught in a specific subject area: math, science, history/social studies and English. If a teacher taught in more than one area they were randomly assigned to a subject areas. Teachers who did not teach in any of these subjects were terminated.

 

Section Completes

Subject Overlap

Math

200

228

English

206

224

Science

200

212

History/Social Studies

200

223

The sample frame for this survey consists of all eighth grade teachers listed in a proprietary database of known schoolteachers. Survey Sampling, Inc., of Fairfield, Connecticut, provided the sample. Schoolteachers were randomly selected from the database for the survey. All sampled teachers received short screening interviews to determine eligibility for the survey. The sample error associated with a survey of this size is +/- 3%, meaning that there is less than one chance in twenty that the results of a survey of this size would differ by more than 3% in either direction from the results which would be obtained if all members of the sample frame had been selected. The sample error is larger for sub-groups. CSRA also attempted to minimize other possible sources of error in this survey.

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WHAT THE PRESS SAID:

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

SUMMARY:
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.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Executive Summary

About the Authors

Acknowledgments

Foreword

Introduction

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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