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Don’t Test, Then Punish

For public school administrators and so called education “reformers” who have fallen in love with testing and metrics, or as critics describe it, “test and punish,” here’s some data that ought to be of urgent interest. One: Lead poisoning lowers I.Q. and is associated with lower standardized school test scores, increased rates of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and increased anti-social behavior. Two: Lead poisoning among children remains a problem for many of our nation’s children. Three: Lead poisoning is concentrated in neighborhoods afflicted with high poverty rates while in more affluent neighborhoods lead poisoning is now almost non-existent. And Four: While investments in school testing have grown over the last two decades, federal, state, and local money for lead testing and abatement among the most at-risk families and neighborhoods has plummeted.

A recent front page story in the Chicago Tribune documents this often overlooked dimension of income inequality. The tale of two census tracts in the city over the past two decades tells the story. In upscale Lincoln Park in 1995 80% of the children tested showed elevated lead levels, a level comparable to the impoverished nearby Austin neighborhood. Today the rate in Lincoln Park has dropped to zero, while in Austin nearly one quarter of the children tested have dangerously elevated levels. Lincoln Park is predominantly white; Austin is predominantly black.

Along with the decline of lead levels in politically influential neighborhoods has come a significant decline in funding for testing and abatement programs for the city’s poorest children In 2011 the Obama administration merged lead-poisoning and asthma-prevention programs into one agency and cut the combined funding in half. Meanwhile, Congress further slashed funding for lead-poisoning prevention through the Centers for Disease Control by 94%. Between 2005 and 2010 Chicago received roughly $1.2 million per year; last year Chicago received $347,000. This means that Chicago has only eleven inspectors and three nurses to cover the entire city. Less than half of the children under six in Chicago are tested for lead poisoning.

Even if children are tested, addressing the problem of lead paint in old apartment buildings isn’t easy. Parents in these high poverty communities can’t afford to pay for it themselves. Government abatement programs have limited resources. Landlords can avoid enforcement for years. Ownership of many buildings is legally murky due to foreclosure proceedings that have ballooned since the Great Recession. And moving, with its attendant costs, is completely unrealistic for most poor families. For far too many children, continued exposure is the only available option.

Coupled with growing income inequality and our love affair with high stakes school testing, the poisoning of our poorest children creates an insidious cycle. Untested children with high levels of lead arrive at school with diminished I.Q.’s, increased behavioral problems, and a statistically significant propensity to fail standardized tests. The schools trying to educate these children, as a result, have lower test scores and are subject to punishments of various kinds, including draconian turn around and closure processes. Closed schools further erode the quality of already distressed neighborhoods. Along with the current war on the poor being waged in legislatures around the country, even fewer resources are available to address the problem. Children from these neighborhoods with high levels of lead poisoning are increasingly concentrated in fewer schools, depressing their test scores, and the cycle continues.

Lead poisoning, of course, is not the only challenge poor children and their schools face. But rating schools and teachers on the basis of test scores that are diminished by the struggles of untested lead damaged children is cruel, though perhaps not unusual punishment by any standard. What kind of society subjects its children to incessant school testing, with financial consequences for schools if they do not administer the tests, while at the same time neglecting to test those same children for lead poisoning that consigns them to failure on the tests that will determine much about their own educational outcomes? And why is it that we never hear about these moral issues from the pulpit, relying instead on the occasional investigative journalistic exposé? It makes you wonder why the Baltimores and Fergusons of this nation haven’t erupted far sooner than they have.

John H. Thomas
May 7, 2015

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