What Should Children Learn?

Lead Poisoning

What Should Children Learn?

Paul Gagnon's "What Should Children Learn?" (December Atlantic) is merely the latest bashing of American schools by someone who does not work in them.

Gagnon's reference to "our 25 percent dropout rate" is erroneous. In fact 83 percent of U.S. students graduate on time. Another four percent obtain GEDs, and another four percent return to obtain a diploma after initially dropping out.

And they are not merely being socially promoted on the basis of seat time. Many achievement-test scores are at all-time highs, many trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are at all-time highs, the proportion of students scoring above 650 on the math SAT is at an all-time high, and the number of students taking advanced-placement tests has quintupled since 1978. American students finished second among thirty-one nations in a 1992 study of reading skills, and their 90th, 95th, and 99th percentiles were the largest in the world.

Gagnon is at best functioning as a sophist when he says that the Committee of Ten called for a rigorous curriculum "for all high school students whether or not they were going to college." That's true, but the committee knew that in 1894 only seven percent of age-eligible students were even enrolled in high school. Gagnon chides Life Adjustment education for being anti-intellectual, but at least its advocates were trying to cope with 100 percent of the population.

Gerald W. Bracey

The pretense of neutrality undermines Paul Gagnon's case in "What Should Children Learn?" It is precisely the notion of a fixed human nature that historical revisionism rejects. That is why a content-based history organized around agreed-upon standards is impossible as long as the academy and the educational bureaucracy and unions are under the control of leftists who operate on the assumptions that humanity is infinitely malleable, that there are no "origins," that there are no "essentials of U.S. or world history" (no masterpieces, no authentically seminal events, no heroes, no individuals of global significance outside savage "cults of personality"), that history is written by the winners to legitimize their status in an elitist hierarchy, and that "history has no subject" aside from pure power relations.

Omar Ramo

Paul Gagnon's proposal that education reform be returned to the local level because of the failure to develop national standards is faulty from the beginning.

In the first place, he assumes, incorrectly, that the national public education system is controlled by a gargantuan bureaucracy of mindless educators, which he euphemistically refers to as the "educational establishment." In fact education in this country is in the hands of the more than 100,000 lay persons who sit on the autonomous boards of some 16,000 local school districts. The average tenure of superintendents who offer professional leadership to policymaking boards is about seven years--a fact that belies the assumption that educators are in charge.

Public schools in this country are little more than reflections of the quality of life in the communities they serve. Any measure of academic standards applied to students can be highly correlated to a number of economic, cultural, ethnic, and political factors that profile the community where those students attend school. Expecting schools to reform society is like asking a mirror to improve the images it reflects.

Bob D. Whetstone

I could not agree more strongly with Paul Gagnon's argument that the original draft of the history standards (I have not seen the latest revision) placed far too much emphasis on matters not central to the role of a U.S. citizen in the twenty-first century. The history panel was led down the same path of overspecification that brought the arts panel to grief. However, I don't believe that most Americans really wish to have their children read and understand (to mention just a few of Gagnon's examples) "Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, Burke, Paine, the Federalists and the anti-Federalists" as background for the study of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I think Debra Wadsworth, in the recent Public Agenda Foundation report, is on the mark when she says that Public Agenda found "a surprising degree of disdain toward highly educated people and some sense of antagonism toward an educational cultural elite." Until public attitudes toward learning change, Wadsworth, Gagnon, and those who write letters to Theare merely talking to ourselves.

Bruce M. Smith

Gerald Bracey disputes my 25 percent dropout rate, but the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 73.4 percent of the appropriate age group earned high school diplomas in 1994-1995, much like the 73.2 percent of 1990-1991, the year my article cites. The NCES "dropout" rate of only 10.5 percent for 1994-1995 ignores the "institutionalized," those not in households, and those who never start high school at all. The Committee of Ten sought equal and democratic schooling precisely because its members expected a rapid rise in numbers of high school students, well beyond the 1894 percentages. Bob Whetstone says I assign school reform to the local level, but I suggest something very different: local implementation of statewide standards.

Sadly, these letters either excuse unequal schools or seem resigned to them because obstacles to change are too much for us. We are to think that Americans, unique in the world, are so beset by awful forces (apathy, taxes, conspiracies, unreformable communities) that we cannot do for our children what others do for theirs. American exceptionalism--once too prideful--is turned on its head, now to be abject. Happily, most letters from parents and teachers see things differently and say we can do better.

Lead Poisoning

Ellen Ruppel Shell's insinuation that the hazards of lead poisoning have been exaggerated to manipulate public policy to extremist ends is unfounded ("An Element of Doubt," December Atlantic).

First, the evidence is solid that lead poisoning is a serious public-health problem. Thousands of laboratory, clinical, and population-based studies conclusively document lead's adverse effects. The Bush Administration's decision to reduce the threshold for lead in blood was justified (indeed, necessitated) by the cumulative weight of evidence, including more than a dozen epidemiological studies in the United States and abroad demonstrating that low-level lead poisoning has a debilitating effect on children's intelligence, hearing, attention span, learning, and behavior.

Over the past two decades lead levels have decreased dramatically in the United States, owing to the ban on lead in gasoline. But this impressive public-health achievement is no reason to abandon efforts to protect those children still at risk.

With the active support of public-health advocates, the goal of national policy has been redirected to lead-safe (rather than lead-free) housing. Shell's reading of the 1992 federal law is backwards: rather than promoting "the widespread removal of lead paint," it sanctioned strategies to manage existing lead paint and narrowed the focus to exposure hazards--primarily deteriorating paint and dust. The irony Shell tries to find in my family's living in a home with lead paint demonstrates her ignorance of national consensus recommendations for lead-safe housing.

Don Ryan

Ellen Shell's article is an ill-informed attack on the scientific basis for one of the most successful public-health programs of this century: the reduction in Americans' lead exposure.

Shell gets some big facts wrong. We have not "kicked the lead habit," despite significant controls (some by the voluntary action of private industry) on lead in gasoline, paint, food cans, and plumbing. We are using more lead than ever, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Lead in lead paint, even in large chips and fragments, is unfortunately bioavailable. X-rays have shown large pieces of paint in the stomachs of children who were exposed by chewing and eating flaking paint. The lead in soil often comes from exterior paints as well as from gasoline. However, when lead-based paint is present inside homes, it dominates as the source of lead in household dust. Children's blood lead rarely doubles in the summertime; the fluctuations in blood levels often reflect changes in absorption as well as distribution of lead between blood and bone.

Shell claims that no study has separated lead from other factors that can affect children's neurobehavior and performance on intellectual and developmental tests. Shell either rejected or did not know about many large prospective studies investigating the association between lead and children's attainment; these were controlled explicitly in study design, subject selection, and analysis for the important socioeconomic and familial factors.

Shell accuses many of us who were involved in these victories of prolonging the struggle artificially, for self-serving or institutional reasons. I live in a city where the median blood-lead level, as of 1993, was still 10 micrograms per deciliter, where public-health and housing departments lag far behind in managing cases of frank lead toxicity, and where the goal of primary prevention remains an unfulfilled dream.

Ellen K. Silbergeld

Ellen Shell claims that the government arbitrarily reset the definition of poisoning at a blood-lead level below 25 micrograms per deciliter. "With the stroke of a pen . . . the CDC changed 'lead poisoning' from a clear diagnosis to a murky condition." In fact this new definition of toxicity was arrived at after five years of study by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA used about sixty external consultants and came to the conclusion that children's IQ scores were lowered at blood-lead levels of 10 or perhaps lower. The Centers for Disease Control committee, twenty-five people from many disciplines, reviewed all these data in setting their guidelines. Their decision was no rhetorical pen stroke but the consequence of an intense and critical review.

Human epidemiological studies have their limits. Because we cannot give lead in measured doses to matched children, we must study it as nature and human activity distribute it to our subjects. There are, however, a number of elegant studies of animals given lead at closely controlled doses. In both monkeys and rodents behavioral measures showed effects closely resembling those found in children. This is a powerful refutation of the argument that the lead effect is actually due to socioeconomic factors. Shell nowhere indicates that there are such data.

Of my work Shell writes: "But although he is lauded for his crusade by policymakers, journalists, and child advocates, Needleman has come under heavy fire from scientists." Exactly two scientists have directed their fire at me. Both were defense witnesses in a $100 million lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice and the EPA against the owners of a lead mill and mine. I was the principal government health witness. The suit was settled in favor of the government. These two defense witnesses alleged that I had manipulated the data in my research. This charge was investigated by my university and the Public Health Service. Both investigative committees found that every one of the allegations brought by these two people was false, and I am attempting to have this corrected through the court. The committees did state that I had made two deliberate errors in reporting.

Herbert L. Needleman

The characterization of lead poisoning, a serious but rare condition, as a "national epidemic" is a dangerous rhetorical device that has frightened parents and misled legislators. The selective appraisals and conclusions of Don Ryan, Ellen Silbergeld, and Herbert Needleman, respectively executive director, board member, and founding board member of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, differ significantly from those of many other investigators. Two major reviews of the epidemiological evidence on environmental lead and children's intelligence (including several papers published by Dr. Needleman) conclude that much uncertainty remains as to the impact of mildly elevated blood leads (at levels of 10 to 20 micrograms per deciliter of blood) on children's health.

Mr. Ryan may have somehow determined that his home is lead-safe, but the consensus document from which he quotes makes the rather vague claim that 5 to 15 million housing units are not, and that many more will become unsafe as they age. The document advocates the containment of homes with lead hazards as merely an interim measure, and suggests that "other housing containing lead-based paint" be dealt with once "scarce resources" become available. The document states that "relatively little has been done to determine the most cost-effective strategies for evaluating and controlling lead hazards in housing"; it also makes clear that there is no consensus as to what constitutes a permanently lead-safe house, save a house devoid of lead.

In 1992 a committee of his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh found Dr. Needleman guilty of the "deliberate misrepresentation" of procedures. Although he was not found guilty of scientific misconduct, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Integrity, far from exonerating him, confirmed that he had used "substandard" methodology and that his reports contained "numerous errors and misstatements."

Childhood blood-lead levels have dropped sharply over the past two decades, corresponding with a well-documented increase in violence and learning disabilities. Yet no right-thinking person would conclude from this that the lowering of blood leads has resulted in such negative effects. What is likely is that the increase in our children's behavioral and learning difficulties has little to do with lead and a great deal to do with poverty and societal disruption.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; Letters; Volume 277, No. 3; pages 10-18.