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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Research Notes

Research Notes

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Principal Matters

It's no surprise that the typical principal of an elementary or middle school is still a 50-year-old white male. But a new survey, conducted for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, suggests that women are fast catching up to men in the job.

The study, the seventh in a series of surveys commissioned every 10 years by the Alexandria, Va., principals' group, was based on responses from more than 1,300 principals nationwide. After declining for the two previous decades, the percentage of female elementary and middle school principals has doubled over the past decade, rising from 20 percent in 1988 to 40 percent in 1998, the results showed.

The survey also suggests that principals are busier than ever, putting in about 54 hours of work a week.

Nearly three-fourths of the principals also said that within the past three years they had received more authority to make decisions at the school--a reflection of the nationwide trend toward site-based management.

Yet at the same time, the survey shows, a growing percentage of principals feel their authority is not in balance with the degree to which they are held accountable for their schools.

Researcher James Doud says principals may feel that way because site-based-management teams involve parents and community members, as well as principals, in their decisionmaking.

"On the one hand, principals are told, 'You have more authority,' " he says. "On the other hand, you are told that you have to share that authority with many people."

Copies of the report, "The K-8 Principal in 1998," are available to nonmembers for $15.95 and to members for $12.95. Call or write NAESP Educational Products, 1615 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314; (800) 38-NAESP.

Switching Schools

Changing schools even once between the 8th and 12th grades can double a student's chances of failing to graduate on time.

That startling conclusion comes from a nationwide study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Education.

As part of their study, Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson analyzed data on a nationwide sample of 12,000 students who were 8th graders in 1988. The researchers, both from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that more than one-quarter of the students they studied had changed schools between the 8th and 12th grades.

Predictably, the students who moved from school to school were more likely to be poor, urban, and members of minority groups than were students with more stable school lives. In middle or junior high school, the more mobile students also tended to be absent more often, to have earned lower grades, and to have had more behavior problems.

But even when researchers controlled for those and other kinds of background characteristics, they found that changing schools still significantly reduced a student's chances of finishing high school.

"There's a certain amount of risk involved in switching programs," says Mr. Rumberger, a professor of education at UC-Santa Barbara. "If the programs don't match up well, students could lose credits."

Russell W. Rumberger

The problem, Mr. Rumberger says, is not beyond educators' control, however. His data show that students switch schools only 30 percent of the time because their families have moved. He believes that transfers made for other reasons--perhaps because of discipline problems--distance students from school.

"We think there are implications both for parents and kids being better informed and for schools and districts being held accountable for how much movement they have in and out of their schools," he adds.

Thinking Spatially

The ability to visualize a project in several dimensions and to understand mechanics is important for engineers, physical scientists, architects, and artists.

But, unlike gifted mathematics students, students who are spatially talented often become classic underachievers in school, a report in the fall issue of the American Educational Research Journal says.

Three researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sifted through survey data on a national sample of 1,600 gifted high school seniors. Roughly half the students had scored in the top 1 percent of their gender on a test of mathematical skills, and the rest had similarly high spatial-skills scores.

Other test scores showed that all the students were capable of succeeding in school. But, for the spatially gifted students, academic success turned out to be much harder to grasp.

Even though the students in the spatial group had higher grades than the mathematically oriented students in vocational and business courses, they did worse in science, English, history, social studies, and foreign languages--all the courses required for college admission.

Spatially gifted students also received less college guidance from school counselors, were less motivated by their lessons, and aspired to--and achieved--lower levels of academic and occupational success. Only 8 percent of the boys in the spatially oriented group, for example, went on to earn doctoral degrees, compared with 36 percent of the mathematically talented boys.

The study's Achilles' heel: The data date back to 1960. Still, the researchers say, their findings may well apply to schools today.

In the 1990s, as in the 1960s, college-admissions tests focus narrowly on gauging verbal and mathematical aptitudes. The researchers believe that emphasis influences high school educators to do the same.

Students with spatial talents "certainly appear to be discouraged or not encouraged to go on, and that's a waste of their abilities and talents," says Carol L. Gohm, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois. Her co-authors on the report are Lloyd G. Humphreys, a professor emeritus in psychology at the university, and Grace Yao, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at National Taiwan University.

Losing Sleep

Teenagers' sleep routines may depress both their grades and their moods, two researchers say, following up earlier studies on adolescents' sleep patterns.

Amy R. Wolfson

The new study, which appeared in September in the journal Child Development, was conducted by Amy R. Wolfson, an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and Brown University sleep researcher Mary A. Carskadon. Previous studies by Ms. Carskadon, Ms. Wolfson, and others have shown that adolescents get less sleep than they need. The loss stems from their bodies' changing sleep rhythms and high school starting times that are too early. ("Too Little, Too Late," Oct. 11, 1995.)

In the new study, however, the researchers sought to better understand how lack of sleep affects teenagers' lives. They asked 3,000 teenagers from six public schools in Rhode Island to report on their sleep habits for two weeks. They found that:

  • Students who earned mostly C's, D's, and F's in school got, on average, 25 minutes less of sleep each night than A and B students did.
  • Teenagers who stayed up much later on weekends than they normally did during the week also tended to get lower grades than peers whose bedtimes were more consistent.
  • Students who were getting inadequate sleep were more sleepy, moody, and prone to have behavior problems than were students who got adequate sleep.
  • From ages 13 to 19, the total hours of sleep students got each week night decreased by an average of 38 minutes.
  • Students in the study got an average of seven hours and 20 minutes of sleep each night--nearly two hours less than their bodies needed.

"Undoubtedly," the authors write, "adolescents require more than seven hours and 20 minutes of sleep to cope optimally with academic demands, social pressures, driving, and job responsibilities." One possible remedy for the problem, Ms. Wolfson added in an interview, may be for schools to take a hard look at their starting times and course schedules.

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 28

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