The impact of lead poisoning on children — and their teachers

We know that lead is poison in drinking water. Is lead also a poison in education?

The story out of Flint, Mich., has held the country in a state of anger and amazement for months now. How could public officials responsible for the management of public resources have literally allowed the poisoning of children? It defies our deeply held instincts — national, cultural and biological — to cherish our children. Other than mothers and fathers, no one cherishes kids more than the educators who have dedicated their careers to enriching their students’ lives.

Educators — our MTA members — are the public “officials” most engaged in the intellectual, academic, emotional and creative development of children, whether at the prekindergarten or college level. Educators are the ones who look at the disaster in Flint and know what others might overlook: that lead poisoning in children stunts academic growth. “Lead has no biological value and is toxic to the human body,” a 2015 Brown University research team noted; and lead in the body of a child impairs intellectual and academic development. Lead poisoning comes to school every day. Just do an Internet search for “lead poisoning and student test scores.”

Meanwhile, measuring a teacher’s effectiveness by the academic growth of his or her students has become a feature of so-called education reform, popular with politicians in both major parties and with the high-stakes testing segment of the education policy world.

So, should the state of Michigan measure teachers in Flint by the academic growth of their students? The idea is absurd, even offensive, to students and teachers alike.

This question is not a hypothetical one anywhere, including here in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reported this spring that state officials are earmarking $2 million to test for lead in the drinking water in our public schools. And on May 17, the Globe reported that an elementary school in Newton showed high lead levels in the water fountain, prompting school officials to start providing bottled water.

 Massachusetts is strong in its public health policy and has been a leader in reducing lead paint in homes and other sources of ingestion. But the relationship between lead and academic performance of our children persists.

To the extent that any of our students have been victims of lead exposure, we know that standardized test scores do not make adjustments for this harmful impact on student growth and achievement.

The MTA supports a moratorium on the use of standardized tests as a high-stakes measure for students, teachers, schools and school districts. There are many important policy reasons for curbing or ending high-stakes tests. Let’s not overlook this one.