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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.