Back in November, we opined that the likes of the United Nations would be well-advised to focus less on paying for physical improvements to impoverished schools, and more on reducing lead poisoning among very young children. As it turns out, the endlessly troubled city of Detroit might want to consider heeding that advice, too:
A landmark study by the city health department and Detroit Public Schools of lead data and test scores shows that the higher the lead level, the worse a student’s scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam, or MEAP.
Overall, 58% of roughly 39,000 DPS students tested — 22,755 children — had a history of lead poisoning, according to the study.
Perhaps more startling: Of the 39,199 students tested as young children, only 23 had no lead in their bodies.
These numbers disturb so greatly because the link between elevated lead levels and impaired intellectual development is pretty well-established at this point. Given that it’s proving so massively expensive to improve school performance through traditional means, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about lead abatement not as a public-health goal, but rather as a vital (and relatively affordable) part of education reform. We already know how to ratchet down lead levels, so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch for a city like to Detroit to copy the approach used by, say, New York City. All it would really take is money, which is why it makes sense to shift the goal into the education column—school systems generally have bigger budgets than municipal health departments, plus better access to national grants.
In other words, we believe that failing school systems would be wise to spend some money on preventing lead poisoning, rather than engaging in more trial-and-error classroom experiments. Our gut tells us that the long-term outcomes would be much, much better.