There is surely one thing that unites all educators: we are responsible for both the well-being and learning progress of our students when they are in our charge. The role that testing plays in schools has correctly become an enormous point of controversy as we question just what are we testing and what the results mean. Those controversies focus on academic progress and performance. There is another test that all schools should undertake, because failing on this test means that we might offset all of the tremendous work by our teachers and the students themselves, condemning students to a lifetime of underachievement and health problems despite our very best efforts and intentions. The test is for lead in the school’s water supply.
We live in a time when scientific facts are questioned, and I am sure there some who might even question the science behind the relationship between lead consumption and long-term cognitive and physical health. Let’s ignore that level of rejectionist ideology. While there is not complete agreement on what levels of lead in drinking water are “acceptable”, authoritative research suggests that the answer lies somewhere between zero and incredibly small amounts.
As in the article I posted last week on the demise of coral reefs, I argue that when the potential risks of NOT acting are enormous, we should always err on the side of action. The vast majority of research suggests that lead is a remarkably insidious toxin, and practical experience proves that construction standards during much of the last century allowed the use of materials and practices that introduced lead into some parts of our water distribution system.
What are we to do? Is dealing with this potential threat to our students and teachers the responsibility of the federal government? The water company? Your city or state? The school board? The thesis of my new book, Moving the Rock: How WE Will Change Education (due out in August), is that there are some powerful things we can do to transform education that do not require permission from, or empowerment by, the powers and forces that have created decades of inertia in the first place. I did not include a chapter on lead poisoning, but perhaps I should have. In a time when the federal government may slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, or when local or state agencies may be tied up with political or resource backlogs, waiting for help from the government may be a really bad idea.
Testing for lead in your school’s water is not simple. You can buy a test kit for under $10 and send that water to a lab, but some quick research suggests that those results may not be reliable or tell you much. It will cost a bit more in time and effort to find a respected, reliable laboratory to perform a suite of tests. But put that cost and time in context. Look at what you spend in time and money every day at your school advancing the mission of well-being and learning for our students, and compare that to the piddling cost of testing for a chemical that could be permanently moving both of those needles in the other direction every day.
If you do find lead in your water, solutions will depend on the source of the contamination. Short term solutions include using bottled water until you identify the sources of the problem. Some solutions may lie on your own campus; others, as we have seen, can require enormous and wide-spread changes to water resourcing and public infrastructure. Like the dying coral reefs, the solutions may be so daunting as to cause us to hide our heads and defer to hope instead of action.
As educators, we don’t have that luxury. Even if there is a chance that a test will tell us something we really do not want to hear, we are bound by our moral code to take the test, share the results, and then become part of the solution. Until you can tell your community that have something like 99.9% confidence that your students are not exposed to an avoidable toxin every day, this is a test we just have to take.