Broad Federal Study of Teachers Looks Inside Classrooms

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A recent federal report offers a first-time peek into the classroom practices of nationally representative groups of teachers at all levels of schooling.

In "What Happens in Classrooms?," researchers conclude that most teachers use a blend of reform strategies and traditional practices in their classes.

But the report released in June by the National Center for Education Statistics is as noteworthy for what it attempts to do as for its conclusions.

For More Information

What Happens in Classrooms? Instructional Practices in Elementary and Secondary Schools 1994-95 is available online at

No other national study has sought to look behind closed classroom doors at all levels of schooling and in as broad a range of subjects. The report is part of a wider effort begun by federal officials in the early 1990s to measure day-to-day classroom practices.

For example, the department released another study last spring drawn from videotapes of more than 200 8th grade math lessons in classrooms in the United States, Japan, and Germany.

The center has also named a group of outside scholars to provide advice on future efforts to document classroom life.

"This is a timely response to policymakers' increasing interest in improving education by reforming teaching practices or strategies," said Daniel P. Mayer, a researcher for Mathematica Policy Research Inc., a Princeton, N.J.-based company.

"In the '60s and '70s, the focus was on access and outcomes and resources," he added. "There was a perceived sense that those policy approaches failed, so policymakers turned to educational standards, and that leads to interest in what and how teachers teach."

The advantage of surveying teachers on what they do, rather than videotaping them at work, is that it's cheaper. The disadvantage is that what teachers say may have little or no resemblance to what they really do.

To address that problem, federal researchers several years ago began testing survey items by comparing teachers' responses to those questions with logs of what actually goes on in classrooms. "We came to the conclusion that there's something to be said in the data," said Daniel Kasprzyk, the program director for sample surveys and studies at the NCES, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Blending Old and New

The final report is based on a 1994-95 survey of nearly 4,000 public and private school teachers who had taken part in the federal Schools and Staffing Survey the previous year. Researchers found, for example, that nearly all the teachers interviewed in the follow-up study said they had regularly lectured students or provided some other form of traditional whole-group instruction during the previous semester. Just as many, however, had taken the more progressive tack of tailoring their instruction to individual students.

And most of the teachers--86 percent--said they had also provided instruction to small groups of students on a weekly basis, an approach that is also more in keeping with newer practices.

Three-quarters of the teachers surveyed said they used supplementary materials in class once a week--a practice associated with recent recommendations calling for greater use of original source materials and authentic literature.

Slightly more, 78 percent, used textbooks on a weekly basis.

The study found that 73 percent of the teachers regularly used hands-on materials to help their students grasp hard-to-understand concepts, and overhead projectors and blackboards were used regularly by 88 percent of teachers.

"You embrace different types of teaching modes as they work in your classroom," said Mr. Mayer, who reviewed the federal study.

For the most part, the report concludes, reform practices were used more frequently in elementary and middle schools and less often in high schools.

"Older children's greater knowledge and skill compared with younger children might lead teachers of older children to use higher-order thinking tasks more often than teachers of younger children," the report says. "But that was not the case."

Follow-Up Study Planned

Primary-grade teachers were more likely than teachers of older students to ask pupils to explain how what they were learning was linked to the real world or to put things in order and give reasons for their choices.

The study also found that:

  • More than half the teachers surveyed were using portfolios to assess students in some area of learning.
  • Public school teachers use currently recommended types of practices more often than private school teachers do.
  • While teachers with high proportions of poor students tended to promote discussions and use hands-on materials and portfolios more often than teachers of better-off students, they were also more likely to use more traditional routine exercises on a regular basis.

Federal researchers are at work on a follow-up study that will track whether teaching practices change over time.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 18

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Broad Federal Study of Teachers Looks Inside Classrooms
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