It's Hard to Learn if You Can't See the Blackboard

A primary school student with glasses from the Gansu Vision Intervention Project in Gansu, China. (Photo: Albert Park)

Our most recent podcast — “Smarter Kids at 10 Bucks a Pop” — was about a pair of economists who found a cheap and effective way to boost schoolkids’ learning in China: find the kids who need glasses and give them a pair. Voila! The economists found that between 10 and 15 percent of kids needed glasses; of those who needed them, only two percent had them.

The story took place in the Chinese province of Gansu. It is rural and very poor. So, as tragically low as that two percent is, we might not have such a hard time believing it is true.

But what about New York City?

From a profile of a South Bronx principal in this week’s Times magazine:

There was also the matter of the eye tests. For five straight days, González had been trying to get through to someone at an organization that does free vision tests at public schools and fits children with glasses on the spot. “I can guarantee you right now that at least 20 percent of our kids need glasses,” he told me, after leaving yet another message on someone’s voice mail to “please, please, please call me back.” … “They’re in their classrooms right now, staring at blackboards with no idea what they’re looking at,” he said. “You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum and the greatest after-school programs in the world, but if your kids can’t see, what does it matter?”

And, from the podcast, an eighth-grade teacher in Gansu named Long Qingyi:

Sometimes I have to call up the students to come up to the blackboard in order to read. Sometimes it’s a matter of having students who can see help those who can’t. And, other times I just have to come up to the students myself to give them extra attention.


Sarah

This is SO important! Seriously! This is the greatest article! Hey school staffs: PAY ATTENTION! Bring it up at the next boring meeting. I mean, Board Meeting. :) Zap zap! Remember this!

Phil Jones

I concur with this research, I did latin at school but was sat at the back (we were sat alphabetically) and it was the year before I got my glasses, result: 5% in end of year exam.

robu

I agree with Phil. I can show you my grade school report cards and it is pretty easy to spot the point where I got glasses (and I am further back in the alphabet). Perhaps there is something to room location and grades?

Scott Boren

I distinctly remember in 6th grade asking the teacher to write bigger/darker and squinting until I got headaches.
Luckily when I told my parents we went and got my eyes checked. Glasses / contacts for the last 40 years

Marty

I do agree with this. Since I could not see well and family could not afford glasses for me.
However, for me it made me learn to learn a different way.
I used my text book to follow along with what was being covered on the board and learned the lesson that way. I did pretty well top 5% of graduating class. Then when I went to college I finally could afford glasses. Thanks to scholarships and grants. Interesting that I did slightly better in classes where the professor's lessons followed the text books closer than they did not.

I wonder if that is why I ultimately chose Physics and Computer Science as my majors and am a Software Developer now.

DG

I also had this experience when I was growing up -- at a prominent NYC private prep school. Despite high standardized test scores, I got Cs until around 7th grade, when my nearsightedness was finally diagnosed and I got my first pair of glasses. After that, I got As and Bs and started making more friends.

Up until that point, the school and my parents approached the issue by assuming that I had psychological problems and a bad attitude / work ethic. By way of explanation -- since you address this in your piece -- around third grade, I did realize I couldn't see, and I would do elaborate tricks to try to keep that a secret. At the time, I believed that the teasing and bullying I already experienced would only get worse if I had glasses (perhaps similar to the 30% of Chinese kids you describe who opted out of the program). The interesting thing is that many years later, I learned that my parents had never made any connection between my getting glasses and the dramatic improvement in grades social connections. The school also never acknowledged it.

I sometimes see people around town who are clearly myopic (squinting at elevator numbers and holding cell phones a few inches from their face). This is clearly still an issue in the United States, as it is elsewhere.

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