Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Three years ago, the municipal water system in Flint, Michigan, began delivering leaded water to homes, schools, and daycare centers. Lead is a neurotoxin that leaves irreversible effects on children's brains. Lead exposure has put every one of Flint’s 30,000 children at risk of cognitive, emotional and behavior problems. Some will experience reduced IQ's. Others will have trouble learning to read, controlling their behaviors, and focusing, among other issues. For many, education holds the only promise of a full or partial antidote.
The schools in Flint and the state of Michigan have been sued for failing to provide special education evaluations and services to Flint’s children. The premise of the lawsuit is that general education in its usual form isn't going to help many of Flint's kids. Only special education will do.
As a practical matter, however, special education isn't going to help many of Flint’s kids either. Special education is an individualized process requiring an evaluation of each student and the development and delivery of a plan to deliver adequate education to that student. In the average school system, fewer than 20% of students get special education. In Flint, 100% of the students could need special education. Evaluating 30,000 students and planning for all who need special education cannot happen quickly or easily. In the meantime, far too many kids will be left illiterate and hopeless. Far too many will drop out or get pushed out.
Special education may fail many of Flint’s children for another reason. In general, the special education system delivers its greatest benefits to kids who attend highly-resourced schools and whose parents enjoy access to time and money. Flint and Flint’s parents fit neither category. Flint is not a high-income place. Flint’s parents, who had enough challenges before, now face new illnesses and logistical problems created by leaded water.
If the students and families cannot rely on special education to do enough, general education needs to change so it can do more. Encouraging studies demonstrate that the goal is not far-fetched. General education can and, in some situations, already does reach kids who would otherwise rely on special education.
Figuring out how to change general education to serve lead-poisoned students is not simple. Research is needed into possible changes and the impact of those changes on students. Teachers and administrators will need to master new protocols and curricula. Unhappily for Flint’s families, 100% of their children are possible subjects. A positive side also exists, however. Whatever is learned in Flint can be used to help the thousands of lead-poisoned children in school systems across the United States, whether those students are in general education or special education classrooms.
According to a special report from the Centers for Disease Control, a few things are already known about reaching lead-poisoned children outside of special education. For example, intensive early education has been found to help young students avoid some of the worse effects of elevated lead levels. The evidence is strong enough that special funding was made available to provide intensive early education to about half the preschool students in Flint.
The same report suggests interventions that hold promise for older children. Many lead-poisoned students have problems with self-management, memory and planning, similar to what is seen in students with ADHD. Educational researchers have found that written assignments and posting assignments to school websites help students with ADHD in general education classroom. See Czapanskiy, Kids and Rules: Challenging Individualization in Special Education. Perhaps lead-poisoned students would be helped as well. Students old enough to learn to read could benefit from systems like Response to Intervention (RTI), which involves frequent testing accompanied by tailored interventions. Conflict-resolution training could help students who cannot readily control explosive behaviors.
Even with a responsive general education system, some students will need special education. That number may be fewer, however, so identifying and planning for them can proceed more expeditiously.
Three years have already passed since leaded water reached the taps of houses, schools and daycare centers in Flint. Other cities with aging infrastructures and older housing stock face similar risks and similar experiences. Preventing exposure to lead is the only way to protect children. When that doesn’t happen, however, making sure that public education responds to the needs of poisoned kids is essential to their futures.
Changing and studying general education could convert the tragedy of Flint from being a total loss into an opportunity for a better future for lead-exposed children everywhere. Law can push the process by insisting that all children get what they need, whether in general education or special education settings. Lawsuits cannot do the job alone. Educators, school administrators, communities, public officials and funding sources need to come to the aid of Flint’s children and lead-poisoned children everywhere.