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Education Reporter

What Do Teachers Teach?

NEW YORK, NY - The Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute released in September the results of a study of America's 4th-and 8th-grade teachers. Called "What Do Teachers Teach?" this study focused on teachers' pedagogical philosophies, teaching methods, expectations for students, and general views on education.

An extensive survey of teachers nationwide, the study showed that majorities or large minorities of teachers evaluate student work primarily on factors other than whether the student provided the correct answer, base final grades on each student's ability rather than on a class-wide standard, and prefer that students direct the learning experience. Many of the teachers surveyed do not even believe that their role is to help students learn what the community has decided they should know, and many have very low expectations for what their students will learn.

"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," the study's authors wrote in their introduction to the report.

Among the findings:

  • A clear majority of the teachers (56%) describe their teaching philosophies as favoring student-directed learning rather than teacher-directed learning. 
  • Less than 15% believe it is most important to teach students "specific information and skills"; more than 7 in 10 favor the premise that "learning how to learn is most important for students."  
  • More than half of 4th-grade teachers do not expect their students to spell correctly at all times. 
  • In evaluating student work, only about one quarter of 4th- and 8th-grade teachers place the greatest emphasis on whether the student provided the correct answer. 
  • Nearly six in ten 4th-grade teachers base final grades more on each student's individual abilities than on any "single, class-wide standard."  
  • More than two in ten 4th-grade math teachers regularly permit students to use calculators to solve math problems. By the 8th-grade, 70% of teachers permit the use of calculators in class. 
  • Many 8th-grade students may not get enough writing practice to enable them to master composition; 15% of teachers never give their students homework including at least one page of writing; 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.  
  • Three in ten 4th-grade teachers and nearly four in ten 8th-grade teachers rated student feedback as the most important factor in personal evaluations of their own work. 
  • 55% of 4th-grade teachers prefer cooperative learning in small classroom groups. 
  • Two in ten 4th-grade teachers say they assign their students lists of new words less than once a week or not at all, and 42% assign only one writing assignment longer than a paragraph per week. 
  • While 5/6ths of the 4th-grade teachers surveyed expect all their students to 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. 
  • 8th-grade math teachers have similar expectations. While 80-90% expect all or most of their students to understand concepts such 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. 
  • While 87% of 8th-grade English teachers expect all or most of their students to write and speak standard English, only 65% expect them to understand such basic concepts as fictional characterization and literary devices such as simile and metaphor. 
  • Nearly a quarter of 8th-grade science teachers surveyed said that their primary interest is to emphasize the role science plays in contemporary political debates.

The survey results also showed a lack of high expectation for students among science and history teachers. Only 65% of 8th-grade science teachers thought that all or most of their students would understand Newton's law of gravity. Among 8th-grade history teachers, 77% said that all or most of their students would know that Martin Luther King gave the "I have a dream speech," but only 27% felt that all or most of their students would know that the New Deal was F.D.R.'s program to combat the Great Depression.

Also among the findings: teachers consider parents an "asset" to the educational process (81% of 4th- grade teachers and 74% of 8th-grade teachers felt this way), and a substantial majority of the teachers surveyed favor ending the social promotion of students, even if it means holding significantly more students back. Fourth-grade teachers from urban and lower income schools especially favor ending this practice.

The Manhattan Institute study was conducted early this year. A total of 403 interviews with 4th-grade teachers of either math or English were conducted in January and February, and 806 interviews were conducted with 8th-grade teachers of specific subjects such as math, science, history or English.

Read the complete study at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_28.htm.

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