Questions surrounding Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore are still being investigated. Gray, however, was no stranger to the police. He had been in and out of legal trouble for years…mostly minor drug charges, and the occasional violent episode as well.
This post is not about the “Freddie Gray” incident specifically…but Gray, like many poor children, especially poor black children, grew up, and are growing up, in deteriorating buildings and central cities across the country. They are still being exposed to out of school factors which have a serious impact on their ability to learn. One of those factors is lead poisoning.
In Poverty and Potential, David C. Berliner lists six out of school factors which make it more difficult for children growing up in poverty to learn.
This brief details six OSFs common among the poor that significantly affect the health and learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what schools can accomplish on their own:
(1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children;
(2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance;
(3) food insecurity;
(4) environmental pollutants;
(5) family relations and family stress; and
(6) neighborhood characteristics.
These OSFs are related to a host of poverty-induced physical, sociological, and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior. [emphasis added]
Freddie Gray grew up in such an environment. Number 4, above, environmental pollutants, played a large part in his life. The Washington Post reported…
…it is believed that anything higher than 5 micrograms [of lead] can cripple a child’s cognitive development.
…“A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore’s “toxic legacy” — a still-unfolding tragedy with which she says the city has yet to come to terms. Those kids who were poisoned decades ago are now adults. And the trauma associated with lead poisoning “creates too much of a burden on a community,” she said.
The burden weighs heaviest on the poorest communities, such as the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore where Freddie Gray lived. Here, most houses were built decades ago, at a time when paint manufacturers hailed lead as a cheap additive. The effect of that lead, which Congress effectively banned in 1978, has been profound on Gray’s neighborhood. Statistics between 2009 and 2013 showed that more than 3 percent of children younger than 6 had possibly dangerous levels of lead in their blood, more than double the figure for the entire city.
It wasn’t long after that he was given the first of many blood tests, court records show. The test came in May of 1990, when the family was living in a home on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore. Even at such a young age, his blood contained more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — double the level at which the Center for Disease Control urges additional testing. Three months later, his blood had nearly 30 micrograms. In June 1991, when Gray was 22 months old, his blood carried 37 micrograms.
…Dan Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of lead poisoning on youths, gasped when told of Gray’s levels. “The fact that Mr. Gray had these high levels of lead in all likelihood affected his ability to think and to self-regulate and profoundly affected his cognitive ability to process information.” [emphasis added]
How much of an impact did early exposure to lead have on Freddie Gray’s ability to function in society? How many other children like Gray had lives which were damaged by environmental factors like lead poisoning?
LEAD IS STILL A PROBLEM
We’ve known about the dangers of lead poisoning for years. It was banned in interior home paints in 1978 and from gasoline in 1985, yet nearly 3 decades later, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that a half a million American children aged 1 through 5 were still exposed to toxic levels of lead in their environment.
For public school administrators and so called education “reformers” who have fallen in love with testing and metrics, or as critics describe it, “test and punish,” here’s some data that ought to be of urgent interest. One: Lead poisoning lowers I.Q. and is associated with lower standardized school test scores, increased rates of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and increased anti-social behavior. Two: Lead poisoning among children remains a problem for many of our nation’s children. Three: Lead poisoning is concentrated in neighborhoods afflicted with high poverty rates while in more affluent neighborhoods lead poisoning is now almost non-existent. And Four: While investments in school testing have grown over the last two decades, federal, state, and local money for lead testing and abatement among the most at-risk families and neighborhoods has plummeted.
…Coupled with growing income inequality and our love affair with high stakes school testing, the poisoning of our poorest children creates an insidious cycle. Untested children with high levels of lead arrive at school with diminished I.Q.’s, increased behavioral problems, and a statistically significant propensity to fail standardized tests. The schools trying to educate these children, as a result, have lower test scores and are subject to punishments of various kinds, including draconian turn around and closure processes. Closed schools further erode the quality of already distressed neighborhoods. Along with the current war on the poor being waged in legislatures around the country, even fewer resources are available to address the problem. Children from these neighborhoods with high levels of lead poisoning are increasingly concentrated in fewer schools, depressing their test scores, and the cycle continues.
In Chicago, for example, while the adults fight over public schools, charter schools, tests, and union contracts, children are exposed to lead and the fight against lead poisoning gets fewer and fewer resources.
Alarming levels of brain-damaging lead are poisoning more than a fifth of the children tested from some of the poorest parts of Chicago, even as the hazard has been largely eliminated in more prosperous neighborhoods, a Tribune investigation has found.
The toxic legacy of lead — added to paint and gasoline for nearly a century — once threatened kids throughout the nation’s third largest city. As Chicago’s overall rate of lead poisoning steadily dropped during the past two decades, the disparities between rich and poor grew wider.
New Jersey has cut funding…
Not spending $100 on a home inspection “will cost you tens of thousands (of dollars), if not hundreds of thousands, for every child who’s poisoned” and needs treatment…
The World Health Organization (WHO) says of lead poisoning…
The consequences of brain injury from exposure to lead in early life are loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and disruption of behaviour. Because the human brain has little capacity for repair, these effects are untreatable and irreversible. They cause diminution in brain function and reduction in achievement that last throughout life.
COSTS AND BENEFITS
We need to expand our fight against lead poisoning. Research shows that we save money by reducing lead exposure.
Each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17–$221 or a net savings of $181–269 billion…
…There are substantial returns to investing in lead hazard control, particularly targeted at early intervention in communities most likely at risk. Given the high societal costs of inaction, lead hazard control appears to be well worth the price.
Cutting funds for reducing lead exposure is counter productive. Inaction damages our future. By not dealing with the problem we guarantee that we’ll spend more money tomorrow trying to fix the damage done by lead poisoning today. A rational society would spend less money now and improve the future for ourselves and our children.
The narrow pursuit of test results has sidelined education issues of enduring importance such as poverty, equity in school funding, school segregation, health and physical education, science, the arts, access to early childhood education, class size, and curriculum development. We have witnessed the erosion of teachers’ professional autonomy, a narrowing of curriculum, and classrooms saturated with “test score-raising” instructional practices that betray our understandings of child development and our commitment to educating for artistry and critical thinking. And so now we are faced with “a crisis of pedagogy”–teaching in a system that no longer resembles the democratic ideals or tolerates the critical thinking and critical decision-making that we hope to impart on the students we teach.