Early Childhood

With lead exposure rampant in NYC public housing, a new focus on lead’s impact on education

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

The recent revelation that New York City has allowed children living in public housing to be exposed to toxic lead could have pronounced consequences for the schools those children attend.

The dangers posed by lead poisoning, which include behavioral problems and impaired brain development, are grave and long-lasting. But studies show these effects can be mitigated with swift, early treatment. Here’s what we know about the impact of lead poisoning on student learning — and about what the city’s education department says it is doing in response to the current crisis.

‘No safe level’

Lead exposure at home can typically be traced to paint, which was manufactured with lead until the 1970s. Children are exposed to it if they eat paint chips or inhale dust from those chips.

It also exists in water that flows through lead pipes and in soil, which young children can unintentionally eat, according to the American Pediatric Association.

There is no “safe” level of lead — any exposure can have negative effects on the body.

“Once it’s in the body, it’s very hard to get rid of it,” said Morri E. Markowitz, director of the Lead Poisoning Treatment and Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx.

The effects are multipronged. Physically, anyone exposed to a high amount of lead may feel abdominal pain and constipation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hyperactivity is another symptom, tough to immediately notice in young children since it’s common for them to run around, Markowitz said.

Those exposed to high levels of lead may also feel mental and psychological changes: depression, irritation and a sense of distractedness.

Depending on the severity and length of lead exposure in a child, it can result in “quite debilitating” neuropsychological effects, according to Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Maryland. That includes poor performance in school and problems in developing social relationships.

Lead exposure has also been linked to misbehavior in school.

The effects of lead exposure can be minimized if a child has a nutritional diet because their bodies will absorb less lead if they’re eating other essential metals that humans need, like calcium and iron, Markowitz said.

That’s one reason why lead exposure is more likely to affect children in poorer families — lack of access to adequate or healthy food.

And poorer families can face greater obstacles avoiding led at the source, either because of a financial barrier or if the problem exists in subsidized housing.

Treatment is possible — if caught early

Lead poisoning was once thought entirely irreversible. But depending on the level of lead in a child’s blood, treatments do exist but vary, Markowitz said.

The first plan of attack is to get rid of the source so that the child is no longer ingesting lead. But this is a challenge for families who rely on public housing, where it’s beyond residents’ control to make such maintenance changes.

Another option is to reverse behavior -— stop the child from eating paint chips, for example, he said.

Children who test positive for a high amount of lead in their blood can also receive chelation therapy, Markowitz said. This medicine, taken orally, binds with the lead and leaves the body through urine.

But this medication is recommended for children who have blood-lead levels of 45 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood or higher. A child’s blood-lead level is considered unsafe if it’s 5 mcg/dL or above, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Research has found that taking the extra step to curb children’s lead exposure even after it has happened — and monitoring their behavior and health — can actually help boost test scores.

A study published this year focused on a group of children with high lead exposure from Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1990s. They received coordinated interventions designed to reduce lead exposure, encourage  healthy habits, and provide information on nutrition, among other treatments.

For elementary and middle-school students, test scores went up moderately and they were suspended for fewer days when compared to children who didn’t get this help. The students who got treatment were also less likely to be cited for committing a crime in school. Such efforts are costly but they help avoid the need to address lead’s effects later on, which can be even more expensive.

More testing and education needed

Because of increasing evidence on lead’s negative impact on children’s development, many states have made it a priority to attempt catching lead exposure early — in part because blood tests, the easiest way to determine lead poisoning at present, typically only work for a few years after exposure.

“By the time you’re at school, the lead in the blood is gone — it’s gone elsewhere,” Markowitz said. Lead doesn’t sit “around in the blood for five years,” he said, but migrates to the bones or the brain, where lead can remain for two to three years, continuing to do damage.

That’s why — like many states — New York requires doctors to test young children for lead exposure, Markowitz said.

New York health care providers are required to test 1- and 2-year-olds for lead in their blood. They’re also supposed to assess children no less than annually for risk of lead exposure up to the age of 6 and to decide whether they need a lead blood test.

Despite these rules, reports have found that millions of children go without getting tested. In New York State, just 55 percent of children who were supposed to undergo testing actually got it, according to a Reuters investigation in 2016 — and those who are most at risk may be the least likely to get tested, owing to inadequate access to health care or lack of knowledge about lead dangers.

Other reasons might include children missing appointments, parents not following up on test referrals from doctors, or some doctors not ordering the tests — for instance if they’re unaware of the mandates.

One clear solution could be spreading more education and awareness to parents about the importance of catching lead exposure early. To date, the Department of Education has largely focused on the risk of lead in schools, sending letters to families about detailed lead test results within its buildings.

But students are most likely to be exposed to lead outside of school — even as children are bringing the impact of that exposure to classrooms, where it has the potential to undo schools’ best efforts to boost academic success. Schools thus have an invested interest in battling the perils of lead.

The city’s education department shared with Chalkbeat a letter parents have access to, with subsections that tell parents about lead’s health effects, where it can be found, and whether a child should be tested.

But given recent revelations about widespread exposure to lead in public housing, affecting some of the city’s most vulnerable populations of students, schools may need to join the battle to combat the severe danger that lead poses to students’ social and emotional health and academic prospects.

Department officials did not respond to a follow-up question: whether students are explicitly taught in class about the dangers of lead exposure outside of school.

But similar to other research, Markowitz and his colleagues conducted their own study and found that regular intervention, including improving nutrition and reversing behaviors that reduce lead exposure, can over time reverse lead’s effects on children’s cognitive functions.

“There is the possibility that the brain can get better,” Markowitz said.

Early education

Is Tennessee moving its weakest teachers to early, non-tested grades? New research says yes.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t require testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools, and districts.

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.