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You know the story: schools in this country, and many other countries too, they just aren’t so great at teaching kids.

Why not? What needs to improve?

You’ve heard the answers too. Some experts say it’s all about increasing teacher skill. Others say it’s the pedagogical approach, or the curriculum. Unless it’s classroom size, or maybe dollars spent per kid, or we need more computers.

What do all these answers have in common?

They all represent the supply side of the education equation. But what about the demand side – the students themselves? Where are they falling down?

Today, a story from China about a foolproof way to boost learning, at least for some students. It doesn’t have a fancy name. You don’t need a Ph.D to administer it. And it’s almost comically cheap. Here’s Long Qingyi, an eighth-grade teacher in China:


TRANSLATOR: 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.

As you can imagine, a student who can’t see the blackboard can’t read the blackboard, and if you can’t read the blackboard, that makes it pretty hard to learn your lesson. And a kid like that, or a bunch of kids like that, can start to drag the rest of the class down. Now, what if the solution doesn’t have anything to do with curriculum or computers? What if it had to with …

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Gansu Province in China is about 1,000 miles west of Beijing.  It’s mostly rural – a lot of subsistence farmers – and very, very poor. For a kid growing up in Gansu, a good education is important.

A few years ago, two Western economists — Paul Glewwe and Albert Park – tried an experiment in Gansu to see if they could raise kids’ test scores.

Paul GLEWWE: Economists and other researchers don’t have a good handle on what it is that it takes to increase learning.

DUBNER: Glewwe  — if you’re looking for him on Google, that’s G-L-E-W-W-E – he teaches at the University of Minnesota. He’s been working on education research for years.

Albert PARK: But yet, within China, there’s enormous variation in the levels of educational attainment especially in the poorer rural regions of the country.

DUBNER: That’s Albert Park, who’s spent most of his career studying China — he’s at Oxford now. I spoke to Park and Glewwe recently about a new paper they co-authored.

DUBNER: You guys write in this paper that economists and others have figured out which policies are best at increasing school enrollment, that, you know, you kind of know the levers to push, the incentives to use, the laws to pass, to get a lot of kids in school, but that, and I’ll quote from your paper, “Much less is known about what policies are most effective in increasing student learning.” So, how can that be? How can it be that at this point we don’t know at this point in history how to quote “increase student learning”?

Paul GLEWWE: You know, what happens in schools is a very complicated process. There’s a kid and their motivation, probably the parents and their motivation, the teachers, you know, what their motivations are, the principals, and there’s a lot of variation on what you can do in a school.  We have some data on these things, but when you try to do sort of a statistical estimate of what explains test scores, you often find that lots of things that you think would have an effect, don’t seem to have much of an effect. Class size, for example, sometimes it comes through, but often it doesn’t. There’s nothing that comes through really strongly across a variety of countries or contexts, that oh, this is the thing that matters. Like, you know, the level of the teacher’s education, sometimes that matters, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s quite frustrating actually to try to understand what’s going on. It’s pretty clear that it’s complicated.

DUBNER: But one thing that seems pretty obvious is if a kid can’t see the blackboard because the kid has bad vision, then it’s almost certainly going to make it harder to learn. So, let’s talk about that. You’re the guys responsible for the Gansu Vision Intervention Project, what was this?

GLEWWE: Go ahead, Albert.  I’ve been talking enough.

PARK: Right, well, I was involved in a study of rural youth in Gansu Province, which is a very remote, really one of the poorest parts of the country. And we were trying to follow a cohort of young people as they grow up to see what were the factors at the family level, at the school level, at the community level, that were influencing educational outcomes. And we started working with the Gansu Provincial Center for Disease Control to help us identify the health issues facing children in this part of China. And when we talked to them we asked them what are the health issues that you think are most relevant, or most important, to the children in rural Gansu, and they told us that vision was an issue, partly because of nutritional deprivation; a lack of vitamin A will have an effect on vision. And once we discovered that so few children were actually wearing eyeglasses when they had poor vision, we thought it would be a really interesting opportunity to conduct a more in-depth, randomized trial to try to access how important, in fact, vision was to students’ educational attainment.

DUBNER: What share did have glasses already?

GLEWWE: Well, it’s kind of pathetic, but only two percent had glasses out of those kids. I mean, we had about two and a half thousand kids who needed glasses, and only fifty-nine had glasses. These are kids in grades four, five, and six. So that’s about two percent, yeah.

DUBNER: I’m guessing you’re thinking, This is wonderful. There’s a big problem here in front of us, it’s pretty low-hanging fruit, we can just get in there and fix it. Was that what you felt?

GLEWWE: In a way it was surprising that it hasn’t been done before. I mean, whenever you write research, or even research grants to try to make money, you try to, you have to sort of say, what’s been done before on this issue, and in this case there was very, very little.

DUBNER: And why do you think there had been so little done? I mean, it seems like a pretty simple thing to investigate and fix, right?

PARK: I have a view on that. I think that a lot of the people going around trying to think how can we improve education and learning, tend to focus on how we can improve schools, and teachers, or textbooks, et cetera. And this problem is a little bit different, because it’s really about the behavior of students and their parents. And sometimes those just get simply overlooked in people trying to find solutions.

DUBNER: So you just mentioned that there are a number of ways you could have set up this experiment – what you chose to do was to basically split the area in half, and have a control group, where you know there were some kids who needed glasses but weren’t going to get them.  And then a different group where kids who needed glasses would get the glasses through your largess. I always wonder, when you do a study like this, you need the control group, I mean you need the kids who need glasses but aren’t getting them so you can measure the kids who do get glasses against them, but what do you feel about not intervening with those kids as well?

PARK: Well that’s obviously very difficult, but at the same time we only have a limited amount of resources to provide a certain number of kids with glasses so in any case we’re not going to be able to provide glasses to everybody. And so I think for the sake of research I think we are hopeful that having a credible estimate of what the impact is will actually have a much, much larger effect on many more children in China and maybe elsewhere, than just the children we’re choosing to treat in the specific experiment.

DUBNER: And so  you’ve identified kids who have poor vision problems under this experiment that you’re running. What are you going to do now, how are you going to help them? How do you get glasses to them?

PARK: Well, the next thing we do is we identify the children with poor vision in the schools that have been identified for treatment. And we explain that we are going to provide them with free eyeglasses, and then we have to, of course, get the permission of their parents and get their own agreement to participate in our program and to accept the glasses. So that was really the next step.  And when we did that, we actually were pretty surprised that a fair number of the students and their families didn’t even want the glasses. Maybe about thirty percent or so did not participate in the study when they were offered the glasses.

Thirty percent said no. To free glasses. What? Coming up, we’ll hear a couple of explanations for this low take-up rate – and, more important, we’ll hear what effect the glasses had on the kids who did take them.

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TRANSLATOR: Most of us come from poor farming families — and our parents, many of our parents just didn’t pay much attention to our eyesight.

That’s Quong Guopan. She attends the Datong Township Number 1 Junior High School in Gansu. I asked Albert Park why he thought 30 percent of the students didn’t take the glasses.

DUBNER: I mean, was there perhaps, you know, is there a large stigma against wearing glasses? Do people think maybe glasses will make their vision worse somehow, they won’t be so good at sports, they won’t be good-looking anymore? Did they not want to take a handout from people like yourselves?

PARK: Well, there is definitely a widespread perception that wearing glasses when you’re young will weaken your eyes. And so, I guess that may be an important reason. Although the eyeglasses were free, so, and would help them in the immediate term. I think for some of the children certainly, especially boys, they feel very uncomfortable wearing glasses, they don’t want to be teased. And so that may explain the other part of the refusal.

DUBNER: And what about the parents and teachers? I would think that the parents and teachers would apply an appropriate pressure to get these kids to accept something that’s going to help them do so much better in school.

PARK: They may not even be aware that their child has a vision problem. It might be a surprise to them. Although, you know, there are semi-regular checkups of children, and parents should be told of problems. That process works very imperfectly. I think there’s also a sense that at the primary school level it’s just not that important how well they’re doing in school, that things don’t really get serious until you get to middle school.

DUBNER: All right, thirty percent of those to whom the glasses are offered refuse them for reasons that we may never be able to figure out. But what about the other seventy percent? How do they do in school?

GLEWWE: I think the best way to sort of describe the size of this effect is that these kids had worn these glasses for basically one school year, and based on comparing, you know, how kids do just in terms of, yeah, your test score goes up if you stay in school longer, the improvement is something like one fourth in one half of a school year. So it’s like adding another one fourth in one half of a school year.  And we’re talking about an intervention that was only for one year. So, I guess you could say that that means like it’s 25 percent to 50 percent increase in how much you learn from going to school for one year.

PARK: The teachers who were in these schools really observed a very noticeable difference when we visited some of these schools and just talked to them, and the students as well. And the students that we were able to visit some months after the intervention started were really excited, and really thankful. And, you know, it was very gratifying for us. You always like to do research where you can go visit the study sites and actually see that something you’ve done has actually improved the lives of the participants.

DUBNER: What was it like when you discovered how much effect such a simple fix had had?

GLEWWE: It was very gratifying to sort of see that this thing really works. And as you said, it’s very simple.

PARK: And the eyeglasses in these areas typically cost $10 at the time that we originally did the intervention. Today, maybe it would cost closer the $15 at current exchange rates to provide a free pair of glasses to children. At the same time, I wanted to kind of say that although there is a simple fix here. Kind of thinking as an economist, it’s also still very puzzling this behavior, why if there is such an easy fix it hasn’t happened. And, there may be even cheaper policy interventions that could improve the willingness of parents to have their children wear eyeglasses.

And here’s Quong Guopan, the student we heard from earlier. She took the glasses.


TRANSLATOR: There was clarity in the world. My grades suffered before I got the glasses, now they are slowly improving.

DUBNER: Alright so that was China, where we heard there seems to be a stigma at least among some kids or their parents or their teachers about wearing glasses. What about here in the States, what about in New York, where I live? I wear glasses, I’ve worn glasses since I was I don’t know, 12 and I never really thought that much about it until my kid, one of my kids started wearing glasses at about 8 and it definitely was a kind of a hard sell for a little while, until he realized that he could see and then it wasn’t such a hard sell. But I want to know how people here in America think about eyewear, and if it’s got some significant downside to it, or maybe an upside. So, I’m here outside of a famous New York City optician shop called MOSCOT.

HARVEY MOSCOT: Hi, my name is Dr. Harvey Moscot, I’m a fourth-generation Moscot here in New York City, downtown Manhattan. I’m president of the company.

DUBNER: So what would you say if I told you some do-gooders along with some research scholars went to China, saw that many, many kids in China–uh, very few young children in poor rural China were wearing glasses.  And they decided to try to introduce free glasses to them, made free glasses available to these kids, and indeed those who took the glasses did much better in school the following year. But a pretty significant portion of them, about 30 percent of the kids, rejected the glasses, for reasons that are a little murky, but mostly having to do with some kind of stigma. Does that surprise you that the number could be so high?

MOSCOT: It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think the um, the fashion aspect of eyewear has in China taken place like it has in America. Famous Chinese icons probably are not wearing their glasses like they are in America. In America, eyeglasses are the coolest thing you can put on your face right now.

Eyeglasses: “the coolest thing you can put on your face.” That’s not exactly how I felt when I was 12.  Our relationship with glasses has come so far that one of MOSCOT’s most popular models, a big and chunky rectangular frame, is called “the nebb” — that’s short for nebbish. An ode to the less-than-glamorous history of optical fashion. Makes you wonder what’s next — the schlemiel, the schlub? But here’s what’s even stranger. Every year, MOSCOT sells more than 300 pairs of vanity glasses — with clear plastic lenses — for around $225 apiece. In the industry, they’re called “planos.” According to one estimate, some four million Americans wear planos everyday. Not to see better; just to look better. I asked Moscot how can it be that schoolchildren in China who need glasses won’t wear them even when they’re free; whereas his customers will pay good money for glasses they don’t need.

MOSCOT: I think first you have to realize that glasses traditionally have always been somewhat of a utilitarian item. And in the past 10 years fashion has crept into the optical business. And it’s a um, the first thing you put on in the morning and the last thing you put on at the end of the day, for most people who wear prescription. For those who do not, it’s a fashion accessory, it could project a different image, it’s a pretty cheap pick-me-up, it sure is a lot less expensive than a face lift or a wardrobe overhaul. And it can affect one’s ability, self-esteem, how they project, image.

As word travels around Gansu province in China that the kids who get glasses do a lot better in school, I’m guessing that more families will want to get glasses for their kids, even if it means buying them out of pocket. One interesting detail from Park and Glewwe’s study: the kids who needed glasses were more studious than the kids who didn’t need them. All that reading was probably how they came to need glasses in the first place. So once those studious kids got the glasses, they were ready to soar. A few academic superstars were probably created. All for 10 bucks a pop.

DUBNER: And did you hear from any of your colleagues who are helping run the study about the moment when the kids…Because I remember when I got my first pair of glasses, I remember walking out on the street and saying, oh my God, you can actually read these signs everywhere; the world is much, much more interesting. Did you hear anything about the kind of first response from any of these kids?

PARK: Oh, I think they were very excited.  I remember, actually remember visiting, we actually went to a couple of the homes of some of the children who had gotten glasses. And I remember visiting one girl. I think we have pictures of this, Paul, where we asked the girl, oh, does she like the glasses. She said, “Oh yeah, I’m so happy I can see everything.” And then she said, then she kind of pulled us over and whispered to us, “do you think you could get a pair of glasses for my sister?” Because the sister was very jealous of her. And so we said, “well, we’ll see what we can do.”

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