NCLB’s Toddler Years, Middle East School Woes, and Sleep Deprivation

By Rich Shea — January 11, 2006 4 min read
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Celebrating the fourth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush visited a public school in Maryland on January 9, telling a gym full of teachers, students, and visitors, “It’s a moral obligation to make sure that we herald success and challenge failure.” North Glen Elementary, the suburban Baltimore host school handpicked because of its gains in reading and math scores, evidently represents “success.” But plenty of critics continue to take shots at what they consider an underfunded mandate, with the U.S. Congress split over NCLB and the National Conference of State Legislatures calling its goals unreachable. Still, the prez, stopping by a 5th grade class with first lady Laura Bush and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in tow, couldn’t help but be inspired by the youngsters. Playing teacher, he asked, “Anybody read more than they watch TV?” A few nods then prompted him to add, “That’s good. That’s really important.”

Had George W. stopped by P.S. 48 in the South Bronx, the welcome wouldn’t have been as warm. By most standards, the elementary school is successful: Its students are 75 percent Hispanic, 25 percent black, and 100 percent eligible for free lunches, yet thanks to an intense test-prep focus, standardized test scores have risen, with 86 percent of 4th graders scoring proficient in math and 69 percent in English in 2005. So principal John Hughes was shocked to hear last year that the school would receive an F under NCLB. Why? Because two subgroups, English-language learners and special ed students, hadn’t done well enough. When Hughes asked city officials to see which kids were listed in each group, he discovered that too many kids had been classified as ELL, and just one too many special ed students hadn’t scored adequately on the English test. This year, because of complaints nationwide that not all special ed kids can be expected to score on grade level, 30 percent will be exempt from testing. By that standard, P.S. 48 would have been deemed a “success” in 2005. Because it wasn’t, Hughes had to send letters to the parents of all 970 students, asking whether they wanted to transfer their kids to other schools. Not one said yes.

Another kind of pressure is evident half a world away, in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, where suspected Taliban insurgents took a high school teacher from his home and beheaded him—for teaching girls in his school. It was part of a recent series of attacks on educators and aid workers, with insurgents trying to undermine the Afghan government. “Killing one educated person is as effective as killing dozens of ordinary people,” one of Kandahar’s tribal elders explained. Several days later, in the same region, insurgents burned down an elementary school. No one was injured, however, because the school of 700 boys and girls was closed for vacation. The province’s education director said that reconstruction of Qabail Primary School would begin immediately.

While Baghdad has also been rocked by violence, schools in that city are facing a complex pedagogical problem: how to teach patriotism. With Saddam Hussein out of power, replaced by a host of politicians representing various ethnic and religious groups, schools are struggling to create curricula that honor both diversity and unity. But some teachers, free to speak out for the first time in their careers, are expressing some of the prejudices inherent in their beliefs. Karim Al Waali, director of primary and secondary education in Iraq’s education ministry, says that a plan is in place to rewrite textbooks and employ teacher training that would suppress divisiveness. Meanwhile, school administrators are responsible for setting the tone—which is best done during Thursday flag-raising ceremonies, where teachers and students gather for discussions. The theme, these days, according to one principal, “is usually something about helping to build our country or what makes this Iraq.”

Part of what makes a teenager a teenager, according to a new study, is the inability to rise early in the morning. And their saliva proves it. Mary Carskadon, a professor at Brown University and director of sleep research at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, recently analyzed kids’ spit with the help of a team of researchers. Measuring the amounts of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin at various times, they found that the levels in teens are highest from late night to late morning. “Children learn from kindergarten on about the food pyramid,” Carskadon said. “But no one is teaching them the life pyramid that has sleep at the base.” While it’s true that most of the country’s high schools open at 7 a.m., some districts now open an hour or two later, with good results—including more-alert, less-depressed kids who don’t mind getting out of school later. For those schools still not with the program, another sleep expert has this message: “Sleeping is like eating. It is performing a biological function that is required.”

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