May 01, 1998 3 min read

Learning, The Write Way: A new study contends that children must write in every subject to become better beginning readers. As part of their work on children’s literacy development, researchers David Dickinson and Lori Lyman DiGisi have since 1990 been sitting in on the 1st grade classrooms of 69 children—most of whom come from poor families—in 11 school districts in the Boston area. In addition to observing classroom environments, the pair tested the students’ reading and spelling skills. The 1st graders who performed best, the researchers found, came from classrooms in which teachers integrated writing into a range of activities, from keeping journals to science experiments and math lessons. “It’s less common to find writing connected to social studies or science, but it was really the single best indicator of student achievement,” says Dickinson, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center Inc., a research group in Newton, Massachusetts. Experience in writing across the curriculum was even more important, the authors found, than whether students used basal readers or were drilled in phonics. But Dickinson says his study, published in the March Educational Leadership, shouldn’t be viewed as favoring one side or another in the debate over the best way to teach reading. The findings, the researchers say, argue for a balanced approach to teaching reading and for more science and social studies in primary-grade classrooms, which may be too narrowly focused on teaching basic math and reading skills. “While there is little doubt that children need to learn how to connect sounds to symbols and that phonics helps some children make this vital connection,” the researchers write, “it also is imperative that children have reasons to use print.”

The Need To Cheat: Middle school students are more likely to cheat if they believe that their schools stress grades and performance over learning, a study concludes. Psychologist Eric Anderman and graduate students Tripp Griesinger and Gloria Westerfield of the University of Kentucky explored the motivations for cheating in 285 science students at an unidentified middle school in the Southeast. They found that students who reported that they cheated—and who believed cheating was acceptable—tend to worry about school, perceive their school as grade-focused, believe they will be rewarded for doing well, blame their failures on outside circumstances, and avoid trying different ways to solve a problem. Such results, the authors say, suggest that middle schools can reduce cheating by addressing the perceived need to cheat. Middle schools should focus more on the intrinsic rewards of learning and less on tests, grades, and ability, according to the researchers. “Typically, I think, when kids get to the middle school, the environment immediately becomes an environment of testing and ability grouping,” says Anderman, an assistant professor of education and counseling psychology at the university’s Lexington campus. “But middle schools can make that transition less of a tumultuous time for kids.” Tests, for example, could be graded to reflect effort and improvement as well as performance, he says. The study appeared in the March Journal of Educational Psychology.

Charm School: With schools under pressure to improve fast, you might think principals get fired most often for balking at reform or failing to raise student achievement. Wrong. Principals get the ax most often because of bad interpersonal relationships. That’s according to Stephen Davis, an assistant professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Davis analyzed 99 questionnaires from a sample of 200 California superintendents in districts with more than 1,000 students. The questionnaire, which Davis wrote after conducting phone interviews with about a dozen superintendents, asked the schools chiefs to rank the top five reasons that principals lost their jobs. The reason most often given: “failure to build positive personal relationships,” which was chosen by 51 percent of the superintendents. Of the most frequent responses, 68 percent fell in what Davis dubbed the “personal-human relations” category. Davis’ research was published in February’s Educational Administration Quarterly. “Factors relating to administrative skill may have considerably less influence on a principal’s involuntary departure than factors relating to interpersonal relationships,” he writes. In an interview, Davis, a former superintendent and principal, said he wasn’t surprised that interpersonal relations turned out to be important. He was surprised, however, by the degree to which that was true. “Bottom line,” he says. “If you upset people, you’re out the door.”

—Debra Viadero and Bess Keller