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

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

By Chester E. Finn, Jr., Christopher Barnes September 1, 2002
EducationPre K-12

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.

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