Innovation Ecosystem

Drawing a line in the sand, with the deadline in 2025

The state’s efforts to increase third grade reading scores appear to leave efforts to prevent lead poisoning on the sidelines, despite findings from a new study

Photo by Richard Asinof

Students at Francis J. Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket, who helped provide the backdrop for Gov. Gina Raimondo's staged press event to announce her launch of a new strategic initiative to improve reading scores by third graders in Rhode Island.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Gov. Gina Raimondo uses the backdrop of the library at the Francis J. Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket for a staged even to announce her strategic initiative to improve statewide third grade reading scores. The "big kids" behind Raimondo include Secretary Elizabeth Roberts of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, Pawtucket School Superintendent Patti Di Censo, and Elizabeth Burke Bryant, director of Rhode Island Kids Count.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/19/16
The roll out of a new strategic initiative by Gov. Gina Raimondo to set a deadline to improve third grade reading scores by 2025 appeared to be missing a critical component: investments to reduce lead poisoning in children and to remove lead from housing and other sources. The Governor and her team said that they were unaware of a new study that documented how such lead prevention and intervention strategies and resulted in improvements in third-grade reading scores for Rhode Island school children, despite national coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Should access to interview the Governor be determined by the size of the potential audience reached by the news media outlet? Does anger from voters keep growing in direct proportion to their inability to have their voices heard and considered by elected officials? Why was childhood lead poisoning prevention and mitigation excluded from the Governor’s third-grade reading initiative?
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PAWTUCKET – Traveling to attend the news event held on Sept. 14 by Gov. Gina Raimondo at the Francis J. Varieur Elementary School, where she officially announced that she was drawing a line in the sand, with a deadline of 2025, promising that three out of four third graders in Rhode Island will be reading at the appropriate grade levels, ConvergenceRI was fortunate to be accompanied by Dr. Peter Simon, pediatrician, public health advocate, associate clinical professor at Brown University in Epidemiology and Pediatrics, and mensch.

First, Simon had actually grown up in the Pawtucket neighborhood, a few blocks away from the school. He and his wife had then returned to the neighborhood to raise a family, and his children had attended Varieur. Simon had even volunteered as a tutor to help elementary schoolchildren with their reading while a practicing pediatrician. The drive to the news conference turned into an impromptu, insightful tour of the Simon’s old neighborhood.

Second, in his work as the medical director of the Division of Community, Family Health and Equity at the R.I. Department of Health, Simon had been a leader in developing lead screening programs for all Rhode Island children as well as championing efforts to create health equity zones in Rhode Island, putting the focus on place making, neighborhoods and communities as the best way to invest limited resources to improve child health outcomes.

[Simon was recognized as a national Public Health Hero in 2012 and received a 2013 Community Hero Award from the Childhood Lead Action Project.]

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Simon is co-author of a new study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, focused on education outcomes for Rhode Island children who had been poisoned by lead, looking in particular at third-grade reading level performance [emphasis added].

The study was co-written with Anna Aizer, a professor of Economics at Brown University in the Population Studies and Training Center department; Janet Currie, a professor of Economics and Public Affairs and director of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, and Dr. Patrick Vivier, an associate professor of Community Health and Pediatrics at Brown University, a pediatrician affiliated with Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and a member of the executive committee of the new Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute.

The study constructed an individual-level longitudinal dataset that linked preschool blood lead levels with third-grade reading test scores for eight birth cohorts of Rhode Island children born between 1997 and 2005. It found that decreases in average blood lead levels reduced the probability of below proficient reading skills.

“Poor and minority children are more likely to be exposed to lead, suggesting that lead poisoning may be one of the causes of continuing gaps in test scores between disadvantaged and other children,” the study concluded.

Translated, if you want to improve reading test score performances in Rhode Island, the priority should be to invest in removing lead from the environment – from substandard, poorly maintained older housing, from drinking water, and from the soil.

Policy disconnect
Here in Rhode Island, the study has been largely ignored by the news media, save for reporting by ConvergenceRI.

Yet the study has earned national attention: it was featured by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in his Sept. 2 column. It was also the subject of a Washington Post wonkblog, entitled: “Researchers have found a cheap, easy trick that really helps poor kids learn to read.” The answer: prevent children from being poisoned by lead.

The question was asked, following the event on Sept. 14: had the Governor and state officials, including K-12 Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, read the study or seen the national news coverage.

The answer was: not yet.

Progressive myopia
How odd was it that a study, co-authored by three Brown University researchers and public health experts, which found that Rhode Island’s public health strategies to identify lead poisoning in children and then mitigate the dangers through aggressive enforcement of building codes had demonstrated a correlation in reducing gaps in third-grade reading levels, a study that had been praised in the both The New York Times and The Washington Post, had somehow managed to escape the attention of policy makers, the news media, and the Governor. Why was that?

With much fanfare and circumstance and great photo ops, Raimondo had launched a new statewide strategic initiative to improve outcomes for the reading skills for third-graders in Rhode Island.

Yet the Governor and her team, when questioned by Simon during the media scrum at the end of the media event, said they were unaware of the study – or the national news coverage of that study – that documented a successful intervention tool in Rhode Island to improve third-grade reading scores.

[The work to prevent and mitigate lead poisoning was briefly mentioned in an apparent ad lib insertion in Raimondo’s address to the students, perhaps a nod to Simon’s presence, with whom the Governor had greeted and shaken hands with in advance of the ceremony. But any mention of the work on lead poisoning prevention and mitigation as part of the strategy initiative was conspicuously missing from the news release and the media advisory.]

Was it an oversight? Had Raimondo’s communications team somehow overlooked and been unaware of the national stories about the study, focused on Rhode Island schoolchildren?

Or, was it symptomatic of selective hearing? Was there a reason that the Governor’s communications team failed to share with Raimondo the ConvergenceRI story on Sept. 5, entitled: “If you want to improve education in RI, get rid of the lead,” which discussed the study at length? Good question.

“I am hopeful,” Simon said afterward. “The Governor told me she intended to follow up and read the study,” he said. “The study provides her with the information she needs to improve the chances for success of her initiative.”

Data, performance, data
Under the new strategic reading initiative, the Governor promised that the results were going to be tracked by the Governor’s performance management team, according to the news release, as a way of making the effort accountable. Yet, the data used in the study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research had all been taken from existing Rhode Island data sources.

Would the performance management team identify and track the correlation between reduced lead exposure and increased third-grade reading levels, using the methodology of the study? And, would it also correlate the results with the successful efforts of the Pawtucket Housing Department to enforce the housing codes to protect children and families? Good questions.

Setting the stage
From a communications standpoint, the setting for the Sept. 14 event was well chosen. Held in the library at the Francis J. Varieur Elementary School, the governor’s podium was surrounded by bright-eyed, eager third-grade students.

The event was held at Varieur, a national Blue Ribbon school, to showcase the improvement that the school’s third-graders had achieved last year on standardized testing: 61 percent of the school’s third graders had met reading level expectations in 2015, up some 17 percentage points compared to the previous year.

Along with Roberts and Wagner, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, Elizabeth Burke Bryant, director of Rhode Island Kids Count, and Patti DiCenso, superintendent of the Pawtucket Schools, also attended.

One student introduced Raimondo, another presented her with a bouquet of flowers.

The actual program was a kind of love fest, with Raimondo praising the school for “getting it.” DiCenso, the Pawtucket superintendent, returned the praise, saying: “The Governor, she thinks I get it; I love her because she gets it, too.”

In essence, it was a cheerleading event for the Raimondo team, broadcasting her accomplishments, well packaged. A flurry of congratulatory tweets followed the event, with multiple photos of the Governor and the kids. Photos from the event were also sent out as part of the Governor’s regular emails to news media.

Top grades for messaging
The messaging for the event, from a communications standpoint, was superb: “The difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline,” Raimondo said, emphasizing that the effort to improve reading skills had to begin long before children entered school, at age zero, when infants first come home from the hospital.

“To make the dreams come true, we need to set ourselves goals and deadlines, and to hold ourselves accountable, starting with me,” Raimondo told the assembled students and guests.

The Providence Journal edition that morning carried a story published more than three hours in advance of the event, rewriting the news release, apparently provided in advance to the reporter by the Governor’s communications team. Is covering a news release the same thing as covering an event?

In terms of policy, the news release praised at length Ramondo’s ongoing agenda:

• Reconvening the Children’s Cabinet

• Expanding and improving the quality of the state’s Pre-K programs

• Expanding all-day kindergarten in every community

• Enacting the House Visiting Act to help connect new parents to supports and services

• Improving the quality of childcare

All worthwhile, progressive initiatives. And, the reading initiative segued very well with the Rhode Island Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a partnership with Rhode Island Kids Count and the United Way of Rhode Island.

Yet, even with drawing a line in the sand, even with renewed emphasis on early childhood education, the reality, made clear by the study results, is that unless the threat of lead poisoning is removed, the initiative to improve third-grade reading capabilities may be likely to fail.

Missing from the photo op
Dedicated teachers, passionate superintendents, engaged parents, bright-eyed kids, involved school committee members, state officials, the Mayor, the Governor: who could ask for anything more as a way to package the message?

The 2025 deadline was configured so that those born in 2017 would be the cohort that achieved the promised challenge of three out of four Rhode Island children reading at grade level by third grade.

Yet, missing from the photo op was any mention or praise of the housing department in Pawtucket and their aggressive enforcement of housing codes to protect families and children from lead poisoning.

For sure, Raimondo’s speech to the students was filled with compelling rhetoric:

“We owe you the very best education that we can possibly provide you,” she said. “I believe in public schools. I absolutely believe in Rhode Island public schools. And, I believe in investing in them, in making them as great as they can be, so you guys have a a good future, that’s what this is all about.”

When she saw the results of the recent test results for reading, with showed that just over a third of third graders in the state were reading on a third-grade level, Raimondo continued: “It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, and I’m impatient, like of lot of you in this room. We need to push ourselves harder and faster to get those results where they need to be. Because everybody should be reading at grade level by third grade.”

Controlling the message
Compelling rhetoric, however, will not change the reality on the ground.

Almost 1,000 kids each year are identified as having been poisoned by lead for the first time in Rhode Island, with the chronic disabling effects of such poisoning expected to be magnified throughout their lifetime – including interfering with their capability to read at a third-grade level.

The impact of lead poisoning on children in Rhode Island also plays out in the prevalence of asthma and chronic school absenteeism, according to the data constructs of DataSpark RI.

The best prescription, according to many public health experts, are investments in healthy, affordable housing.

As Brenda J. Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University told The Providence Journal last week, affordable housing is connected with good health, lower medical costs, job stability, and for children, the ability to do well at school. Once you take away someone's ability to live in a safe, affordable home, Clement said, "Everything else in their life starts to unravel.”

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