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Brian Jacob and Elizabeth Moje speak with Bridge Michigan about the lasting impacts of the Flint water crisis on student learning 

May 15, 2024

A study published by Jacob and colleagues shows the negative impact on educational outcomes for Flint students is not due to lead poisoning.


Bridge Michigan reports that state data through the 2022-23 school year highlights troubling trends for Flint students: it’s taking students longer to graduate; fewer students are going to college; and special-education rates are rising. Of the educators Bridge spoke with recently, most blame the academic struggles of Flint children on lead. However, several studies—including one published by Marsal School Professor Brian Jacob and colleagues—suggest otherwise.

Jacobs’ study found students who lived in homes with lead water service lines or non-lead lines both saw similar learning declines, despite an estimate that those living in lead-service homes consumed 4.5 times more lead per day.

“That was by far the most surprising thing I’ve found in maybe 20 years of doing research,” Jacob told Bridge. “We had a strong prior hypothesis that kids who lived in houses with lead service lines would have likely had greater levels of lead contamination and that would have meant their academic performance would be worse. We didn't find that.”

The study found “the effects of only lead to be smaller than the overall (academic) effects of the Flint Water Crisis.” This means that unlike the prediction of irreversible brain damage, students’ scholastic struggles have the potential to be addressed.

However, because the community was originally told that children may not be able to recover from the effects of lead levels found in the drinking water, many parents and teachers still have low expectations of students’ ability.

“If I’m told I can’t do something, then I approach everything from the perspective of ‘I can’t do it,’” says Dean Elizabeth Moje. “My motivation is going to decline. Nobody likes to do badly.

“And if I’m advised by teachers or parents (who have low expectations), ‘Don’t try this, it’s going to be too hard,’ I’m going to miss out on opportunities.” 

Featured in this Article

Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy; Professor, Economics, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; By Courtesy Professor, Marsal Family School of Education
Dean, George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education and Arthur F Thurnau Professor, Marsal Family School of Education; Faculty Associate, Institute for Social Research; Faculty Affiliate in Latino/a Studies, College of LSA