Monthly Archives: September 2015

Why Flint’s Water Crisis May Be a Boon for #EdReform

Let me start with some background information.

My home state of Michigan has a law that allows an Emergency Manager to be put in place. This  Emergency Manager has dictatorial control. Decisions that were previously made by a democratically elected city council or school board are given over to an appointee of the governor.

If you are a citizen of a country that purports itself to be a democracy, you may have some obvious concerns about this.

If you are a fan of human rights, there are even more.

One of the decisions that the Emergency Manager of Flint has made is to end its contract with Detroit Water and Sewage Department and instead pump water from the local and polluted Flint River for its residents. The good news is that it saves some money. The bad news is that this move is poisoning the residents of Flint.

According to the Detroit Free Press“Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, analyzed blood-lead level information collected as part of a routine screening process, and found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels has increased significantly since the city started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014. In some ZIP codes — those considered most at-risk — the percentage of kids affected by lead has doubled.”

And how much lead is safe in children?

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there is no safe blood-lead level for children. Lead poisoning causes a host of developmental and behavioral problems in exposed children. It is irreversible.” (Emphasis added)

Which, to me, calls forward a seemingly obvious question: What is more important, economic efficiency or human lives?

I guess we know where the Flint Emergency Manager and Michigan governor stand, because they don’t quite seem to be accepting the data.

“Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Angela Minicuci told the Free Press on Thursday that the increase was ‘seasonal and not related to the water supply.'”


Despite the state’s efforts to discredit the Hurley data, the state’s own data show that there are a higher percentage of kids in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood after the switch.” (Emphasis added)

So, any level of lead in the blood of a human is unsafe, and yet, the state is arguing that the increase in lead in the bodies of children in Flint is seasonal, as if:

1. Such an increase can be rationalized.

2. The state and its governor can wash its hands of this particular situation.

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And what does all of this have to do with education reform?

Remember, the way that our current crop of top down, data driven education reformers imagine education is via the vehicle of wishful thinking that assumes that teachers and students are alienated individuals who work in isolation from social systems. This logic thus suggests these teachers and students are responsible for their own success and failure. The way to reform is then to reward the successes of these individuals, and to punish their failures. Failure leads to school closures, which leads to privatization (and its corollary of profit-making for some) often in the form of quasi-public, directly for-profit charters. Distractions offered by the social context that they work within, such as poverty or the poisoning of their water sources, are irrelevant because responsibility for success and failure lies completely within the control of the students and teachers involved.

So, forgive my simplification, but the formula goes; low test scores leads to profit for some.

Now, if an entirely evil person were to develop a plan that would ensure low test scores, thereby ripening the potential for profit, what might this person do? Maybe slip something into the children’s water source to  decrease their cognitive ability? This would ensure low test scores, create “school failure,” and allow for all of the profit-making such school failure leads to. (Because of the underlying assumptions explained above, it would also wonderfully and magically point all blame to the victims themselves.)

Can you spell F…l…i…n…t?

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Governor Snyder is an evil person with an evil plan. I do not pretend to know his intentions.

However, his intentions are irrelevant to the people who are suffering under his policies. What is relevant is the effect that his policies are having on communities. What is relevant is how his policies actually function. And the effect of his policies is exactly what is spelled out above. If his intentions include  helping and supporting people, then it seems  that he would begin to take responsibility for the damage his polices are having.

It seems he would take responsibility for the imposing autocratic decision-making processes where once there was the accountability offered by democracy.

It seems he would take responsibility for the dismantling of  our schools, and for the poisoning of our children.

Meanwhile, the rest of us need to see the connections between water and schooling- between the suffering of our children and the “failure” of our schools. We have to stop seeing poverty, ecological health, mental health and education as separate categories and start to understand that there is truly one issue that works across categories:  Exploitation for the sake of profit.

This is what we must resist in all of the forms we find it.

Photo credit

Symptoms and Schools

Schools either replicate the illnesses of our social system, or, in the best possible sense, can serve as resistance to, and provide of vision of alternatives to our current social system. Recognizing that school takes place within a broader context, and recognizing that the broader context influences school, allows educators to be intentional about behaving in ways that increase health, or not.

In this interview, Canadian Dr. Gabor Mate, an expert in addiction, stress and childhood development, helps us to see these connections.

“I’m intending to write a book tentatively called Toxic Culture: How Capitalism Makes us Sick. That’s the working title. My contention is that the very nature of the system in which people live their lives is a significant source of illness. Now there are obvious factors like environmental pollution, toxins, and then of course there are the social determinants of health that you write about in A Healthy Society: the impact of poverty, the impact of inequality, the impact of history and continued racism. ….

But I’m going to go beyond even that and say that even the people who are not on the wrong end of economic inequality or systemic racism are still made ill just by how we live our lives. The stress that we live under, the competition, the aggressiveness, the uncertainty, the loss of control that we experience in our lives. The gender inequalities, these are not just social phenomena, they have an actual impact on community health. The isolation people are experiencing.

The question for educators then, is in what ways does an education reform policy that is based on unfair competition (in that it ignores social circumstances),that ignores the fundamental importance of a healthy context of relationships supported by community, in what ways does such an approach add to the stress and alienation our children experience? In what was does an approach to education reform that objectifies and reduces the value of our children to their test results exacerbate the suffering of our children and our teachers while interfering with their learning?

These are the kinds of questions that need to enter into the discussion. Because, regardless of how hard we try, we can’t ignore our humanity and the humanity of our children. Regardless of our attempts to look away, the symptoms that Mate talks about  will continue to point to the direction we need to move in.