Readying brains for school
23 September 2013. This time of the year, parents worry about their kids starting school, teachers complain about budget constraints, and politicians express ambitions that, say, 90% of all children complete basic schooling and at least 50% undergo higher education. After all, we want our kids to get the best possible education, and we want the next generation to be productive and successful to the benefit of society (and ourselves when we get old). Yet, the statistics are not encouraging. Even when we invest in education, kids still drop out of school, they fail or change their mind about vocational training or higher education, and even schools themselves are said to fail.
But are school kids necessarily as ready and motivated as we think? Could it be that chemical brain drain is part of the reason that the education system is not working as well as we had hoped? We already know of reports that lead exposure may impact negatively on school performance, and very worrisome evidence is now accumulating.
In Providence, Rhode Island, increased blood-lead concentrations were associated with lower reading readiness at kindergarten entry. Although race, language and poverty were also important risk factors, the results suggest that lead exposure may be common to many children who are considered disadvantaged for other reasons.
In Massachusetts, data on blood-lead concentrations were compared with student test scores in elementary school in the 2000s. Elevated lead levels adversely impacted standardized test performance, even when adjusting for community and school parameters. It also appeared that reduced lead exposures during the 1990s were responsible for modest, though definite improvements in test performance in the 2000s, where especially children in low-income communities benefited. Thus, these two reports add to other studies, e.g., from Michigan, that children do less well in school the higher their lead exposure in early childhood.
Cognitive skills represent just one aspect of the problem. What about motivation? Disciplinary problems are common in schools — one out of 14 US public school students are suspended each year. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, researchers linked school discipline data from public schools to the state data on blood-lead concentrations. Children exposed to excess lead were over twice as likely as children with lower exposure levels to be suspended from school. African-American children were more likely to be suspended than white children, but lead exposure explained one-quarter of the racial discipline gap.
The lead exposures in these studies are not particularly high. Similar levels are prevalent in parts of Eastern Europe and in developing countries that have used leaded gasoline until recently. However, studies that link school performance to lead exposure are only feasible in the US due to the legal requirement for screening for lead concentrations in children’s blood, and data therefore exist to compare with the school records later on. That does not mean that the problems occur only in the US.
But how about other brain drainers? Apart from the effects due to maternal alcohol intake during pregnancy, the evidence is rather limited. Thus, no country monitors children’s prenatal or postnatal exposures to chemical brain drainers other than lead. And without this information, we can’t determine to which degree the brain-toxic chemicals adversely affect school performance. As quoted in Chapter 3 of “Only one chance”, Admiral Nelson placed his telescope in front of his blind eye and reported that he saw nothing. We are no better when we ignore the signals that chemical pollution is endangering the next generation’s education. Thus, we should no longer focus on schooling as such as the only important factor for national scores on PISA tests or other standardized scores or success rates. We need to protect brain development against chemical brain drainers, and that must happen way before the kids start school.
A longer version is available here.
Yes! “Even when we invest in education, kids still drop out of school, they fail or change their mind about vocational training or higher education, and even schools themselves are said to fail.”
The studies you cite, and more, definitively incriminate low level lead poisoning as one of the reasons many children in their classrooms cannot concentrate, cannot seem to control their behaviors, and are losing out on learning. The National Toxicology Program’s monograph, “Health Effects of Low-Level Lead,” sums it up: https://www.google.com/#q=ntp+health+effects+of+low+level+lead
Today an estimated 535,000 children below the age of 6 have blood lead levels at the new (long overdue) CDC reference standard or higher. The story is likely worse: the CDC bleakly states that “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.” Yet the CDC has, along with Congress, inexplicably dismantled the Childhood Lead Prevention Program resulting in major reductions in the prevention programs of our urban areas.
Why are we not paying attention? Some who should know better are dismissing lead’s impact because it is one of many factors associated with the toxicity of poverty. Others are lulled by the decline in average blood lead levels following the removal of lead from gasoline. Others, for example teachers and school administrators who have a huge stake in prevention of lead poisoning, are distracted by financial and political turmoil. Even so, we badly need the advocacy of the powerful education community.
In truth, we ALL have a huge stake in preventing lead poisoning. Having made a plea for involvement of the education community, we must look at ourselves. Education policy leader Dr. Diane Ravitch states correctly that “we cannot shift the burden of society’s failures on the backs of teachers.” The respected education leadership group, Bolder Broader Agenda, in the words of Dr. Richard Rothstein, point out that fully two-thirds of learning failure cannot be resolved in the classroom, but by addressing the societal failures that have stunted children before they enter the school door. We MUST reawaken to one of those societal failures—our failure to prevent childhood lead poisoning. We CAN get the lead out of kids’ lives. It IS a winnable battle.
Thomas Vernon, MD
September 23, 2013