Commentary | Education

Lessons—Students in a Fog

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Students in a fog

By Richard Rothstein

Federal law now demands that schools close the achievement gap between middle-class children and those from low-income or minority families. But all the money, teacher education and standardized tests in the world aren’t going to help if students are at home sick or falling asleep in class.

That is why educators should be alarmed by last week’s report from Harlem Hospital medical researchers who found that 26 percent of children in central Harlem had asthma. This is notonly a health crisis but also an educational one. Asthma is the chronic ailment most responsible for school absences of low-income children nationwide. Even when they make it to school, asthmatics, drowsy after a sleepless night of wheezing, have a tough time paying attention.

Although there may be a genetic predisposition to asthma, its growth in places like Harlem is almost certainly due to environmental hazards. Young people in a densely populated area like Harlem breathe more pollutants than suburban youths.

Fortunately, there are ways to cut down on urban pollutants that affect children. One would be to replace diesel-burning trucks and buses with vehicles using natural gas. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York uses natural gas for most buses on Long Island, but for few in Manhattan. Five of Manhattan’s seven diesel bus depots — where buses give off pollutants as they idle and re-fuel — are north of 96th Street, in or near Harlem.
Diesel-powered school buses, like those used in New York and many other cities, may add to the asthma problem. Children breathe diesel particulates as they stand on sidewalks, waiting to board. Buses idle at schools before dismissal. According to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, exposure to fumes is even greater inside the buses than outside them. It would be costly to require bus contractors to convert to natural gas, but if the expense were presented as a way to raise test scores, it might be more palatable.

When the children get home, they face another threat. Federal law requires trucks and buses to get the sulfur content in diesel fuel down to 15 parts per million by 2006. But this doesn’t cover home heating oil, which can have a sulfur content of 3,000 parts per million. In poor urban places, landlords tend to use oil with a higher particulate count because it’s cheaper. For New Yorkers, a bill pending in Albany would apply the diesel standard to home heating oil, but it is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled State Senate. In the meantime, New York City should step up its presently weak enforcement of laws that prohibit burners from spewing black smoke.

Asthma is not the only urban environmental scourge that depresses school performance. Lower birth weights — more likely with newborns in minority, low-income neighborhoods — are also associated with greater exposure to pollutants and can lead to lower I.Q.’s.

Likewise, we’ve long known that lead poisoning can cause cognitive damage that inhibits children’s abilities to learn. Nationwide, lead poisoning rates declined once lead was removed from gasoline in the 1970’s, but the improvements were less dramatic among low-income urban children. Congress banned use of lead-based paint in home construction in 1978, but low-income children are the group most likely to live in buildings constructed before that date. Children can ingest lead from peeling paint or from dust generated when windows are opened and rub along their frames.

In 1999, New York City weakened its lead control law; landlords are no longer required to remove lead paint that might cause dust, but only peeling paint. A bill to strengthen the law is before the City Council, but shows little movement.
There are many reasons that children from poor households struggle academically: inferior schools, health care, housing and nutrition; financial insecurity; and exposure to pollutants. Each has only a small effect on education, but combined, the impact is huge. All need to be addressed if we want to close the test-score gap.

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