“Just a Few IQ Points”

When the story of the Flint, MI mass poisoning broke, it was clear, based on existing research, just how much of a future educational catastrophe this will be for an already stressed community (boldface added):

To put this in context, 0.3 to 0.6 standard deviations [in test scores] is huge: if an [educational] intervention yields a 0.05 standard deviation change, that’s considered a success.

If this effect carries over to a test like the NAEP, the effects become even worse. The effects of lead poisoning are close to the low-income/non-low income difference or the black-white difference, which are typically around 0.67 standard deviations.

State-wide in Michigan, the median learning-disabled child is a full standard deviation below the median non-disabled child (1.03 to be precise) on eighth grade math if the child is low-income; if not, the median learning-disabled child is one and one third standard deviations below the below the median non-disabled child.

If we assume that lead poisoning lowers test scores by 0.5 standard deviations–and given the massive poisoning in Flint (this isn’t just air pollution or eating flakes of paint–it was in the water) that doesn’t seem unreasonable, what this means is that [students with] learning disabilities, rather than being ten to fifteen percent of the student population (using the median learning-disabled score as a cutoff) would be twenty to thirty percent of the student population.

Unfortunately, at least one Michigan health responder didn’t understand how IQ scores and standard deviations work (boldface mine):

Emails released by the office of Gov. Rick Snyder last week referred to a resident who said she was told by a state nurse in January 2015, regarding her son’s elevated blood lead level, “It is just a few IQ points. … It is not the end of the world.” Dr. Hanna-Attisha and others who have studied lead poisoning have a sharply different view of lead exposure, for which there is no cure. “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said.

Did I mention a future educational crisis? Yes, I did:

Bilal Tawwab, the superintendent of the city school system, said that one school nurse serves the 5,400 students in the district, but that he hoped some of the money flowing into Flint might help open health centers in every school.

He also hoped to make prekindergarten available to every 4-year-old — spaces are limited — and to hire more experienced teachers for special education.

That’s the piece that keeps me up at night,” he said. “It costs almost double to educate a student with special needs. And our wages, our salaries, are so low.”

What’s worse is that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and other state authorities knew one year ago that the water was bad–they provided bottled water in state offices to employees who worked in Flint.

Snyder needs to be impeached* and federal** and state dollars need to get to Flint, not just for the short term but the long-term (that’s the problem with brain damage). Less obviously, the state-appointed dictator who controlled Flint (aka ’emergency manager’) while the mass poisoning occurred also needs to be removed from his new job of…running Detroit’s public schools.

And the next time, a subset of technobrat pundits complain about there being too much democracy at the local level [cough Yglesias cough], the one word response is “Flint”.

*What’s worse is that, unlike initial reports, this doesn’t seem to be about saving money but cronyism for connected contractors. Impeachment hearings would be a good way to find out.

**While FEMA would be the obvious short-term way to disburse federal funding, FEMA couldn’t automatically help here because no one ever thought that we would expose thousands of people to lead-contaminated water when the legislation was written (Congress might change this).

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1 Response to “Just a Few IQ Points”

  1. Pingback: Science heroes of Flint’s lead water crisis | PLOS Blogs Network

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