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A Strange Ignorance

Susan Notes: This is must-read research. As Michael Martin notes, all the blather about "All children can learn" is just hypocritical hot air as long as society allows environmental lead to poison children. As long as we allow this to happen, those children will fail in school, engage in violence and drug use, and disrupt the education of other students.

When did you ever hear a corporate politico campaign on the platform of getting lead out of poor children's homes?

By Michael T. Martin
Executive Summary
(of A Strange Ignorance)

"The education community has not really understood the dimensions of this because we don't see kids falling over and dying of lead poisoning in the classroom. But there's a very large number of kids who find it difficult to do analytical work or [even] line up in the cafeteria because their brains are laden with lead."

Bailus Walker was dean of the public-health school at the University of Oklahoma and a former commissioner of public health in Massachusetts when he gave this quote to Newsweek magazine in 1991; over ten years ago. For some reason the education community, even today, displays a strange ignorance of an entire spectrum of medical and psychiatric research demonstrating both the widespread prevalence of childhood lead poisoning and the horrible consequences of lead-induced brain damage.

That strange ignorance alone explains why democratically elected public school governing boards are under attack across the country for their "failing schools," the "achievement gap," student drug use and disruptive behavior. The turmoil in Philadelphia and other districts where lead-laced children fail to learn has produced heated accusations and extreme actions, but the implications of the known presence of brain damaging lead in these children has been ignored.

Politicians have indulged in a frenzy of school bashing over the past few years epitomized by the slogan "All Children Can Learn." Yet the evidence is as clear as it can possibly be: As long as society allows environmental lead to poison children, those children will fail in school, engage in violence and drug use, and disrupt the education of other students.

Not all children can learn, not when they have been poisoned. If environmental lead, instead of calcium, is incorporated into a child's rapidly developing brain tissue "between birth and age three," those tissues will not function correctly. Ever. By the time children reach the public schools, the damage has been done, and it is irreversible.

Lead is an incredibly potent neurotoxin prevalent in older neighborhoods. It takes a surprisingly small amount of lead to damage developing brains, a few sand-grain sized paint chips will do it. Those children, in turn, will sustain brain damage that ensures both educational and social problems for the rest of their life. This early lead poisoning has been linked to:

1. an inability to learn because brain tissues constructed of lead do not bind properly to form the neural learning connections,
2. to attention deficit disorders because lead damaged brain tissues have a tendency to misfire and disrupt normal concentration,
3. to violence because the careful balance of brain structures in the prefrontal cortex that inhibits impulsivity and violence is disrupted, and
4. to drug use because untreated sufferers find illegal drugs help to medicate the agitation caused by lead damaged brain cells.

Public schools can no longer ignore the tragedy of lead poisoning. Environmental lead in low-income housing begins a conveyor-belt of tragedy that inevitably produces precisely the symptoms of "failing schools." School officials, both administrators and governing board members, need to organize school and community resources in an effort to interdict the poisoning of children during their first three years of life, as well as to look for ways to ameliorate the consequences of lead poisoning in subsequent years.

But up to now, schools have done nothing. The fact that most "failing schools" are in low-income neighborhoods where children live in housing known to be laced with a brain damaging neurotoxin is not just a coincidence. The complete impact of lead poisoning is unmeasurable, because most of the victims do not even know the lead is there. But it is there and "failing schools" are but one symptom.

Governing board members need to stop automatically blaming the victims and the teachers and the schools for academic failure and start understanding "Maybe it's beyond that." As long as "The education community has not really understood the dimensions of this" continues, then the failure of public schools will mount, governing boards will be dismissed, the achievement gap will widen, violence will infest the schools, and more children will not be able to learn. No matter how hard they try. The problem is beyond them, beyond teacher competence, beyond funding shortages, beyond standards and testing and vouchers and every other ill-conceived rationalization that ignores lead poisoning.

Go to the url below for direct links to each of these chapters.

Table of Contents:
Executive Summary
Can All Children Learn?
Why Some Children Can't Learn
A Stranger Ignorance
What Makes A Failing School?
The Philadelphia Experiment
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
Maybe It's Beyond That

Hall of Heroes
New Lead Horrors
Rhode Island Trial
Doomed By First Grade
Political Ignorance
Truth & Consequences

— Michael T. Martin, Research Analyst
Arizona School Boards Assocation



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