Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Lead Problem

File this under the "You can't blame everything on bad schools" folder. As I frequently write, putting all of the onus for improving student learning on the schools is not going to be as successful as we'd like. Surely, that's where most of the attention should be placed. It's also the lever by which other factors can be moved. But it is not, in itself, the sole answer.

Consider the findings set to be published this winter in the scientific journal Evironmental Research. According to the study's author, SAT scores over the past 50 years have tracked "incredibly closely" with concentrations of lead in children's blood. When lead levels go down, SAT scores go up and vice versa. According to the report, lead explains 45% of the historic variation in verbal scores and 65% in math scores.

Hard to blame the teachers unions for this one.

What this study points out is not new. It's pretty widely understood that lead is bad for kids and that it is linked to developmental delays of all sorts. However, if this study is to be believed, lead - something completely out of the hands of the schools - can have a huge impact on student performance even through high school.

I'd be interested to see if lead levels would also correlate to the achievement gap. It makes a certain amount of sense that students in poorer, more run-down areas might be exposed to greater levels of lead paint.

So what's the bottom line on this? Obviously, it doesn't mean that if we see an increase in the levels of lead in children's blood that the schools should give up until a new batch comes in with lower levels. But it does return us again to the inescapable point that trying to reform education by only reforming the schools is like trying to purify the air on one side of a screen door. It's going to take more.

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