Eyeglasses: Peering Into Educational Dysfunction

If you wear reading glasses, please take them off for a moment and continue reading this blog.

You can’t? You won’t? Well, now put yourself in the position of a child in a high-poverty school who needs eyeglasses but does not have them.

In the richest country in the world, it is shocking, but it is a fact that a very, very large number of disadvantaged children who need glasses don’t have them. A New York City study of middle school children found that 28 percent of them needed glasses, and less than 3 percent had them. Studies in Baltimore— including the Baltimore Vision Screening Project in the 1990s–and many other places find the same.

The eyeglasses story varies from place to place, but here’s how it works. In most schools, the health department screens for gross vision problems. If children are found to have problems, parents are asked to take the child to an eye care professional for more testing, a prescription, and then glasses. In middle class families this usually works, but in disadvantaged families, plenty goes wrong. Overburdened health departments may not actually do screening, or may do it at rare intervals. Parents may not be able to afford eyeglasses; Medicaid provides funding for them, but this takes a lot of paperwork. Parents may not follow up, finding it difficult to take off from work. Even if they do get glasses, kids being kids lose or break them, and the whole process begins again, or doesn’t. Schools with particularly relentless staff focused on this issue can get much better percentages of kids with glasses, but it’s a struggle.

Because kids’ vision is more flexible than that of adults, most kids can see an eye chart. However, for many, focusing on text takes more effort and concentration than it does for kids who have or don’t need glasses, especially as text gets smaller past the primary years. The result is that these kids lose motivation, or come to think they are stupid. As an adult who wears reading glasses, I can read most type without my glasses, but I don’t want to do it very long. However, I know I can read and how to fix my problem. A kid in Chicago or Biloxi may not know that others can see, or that he or she could be learning to read.

The failure to get eyeglasses on disadvantaged kids illustrates broader, uncomfortable truths about education policy. This is a really, really simple problem. A pair of glasses can cost $20. Yet schools do not see eyeglasses as their problem. They see it as the Health Department’s problem, or the parent’s problem, or both. Yet schools are ultimately responsible for kids’ reading, and even in the narrowest economic analysis schools are spending vast resources on tutoring, remediation, and special education for kids who can’t read, some proportion of whom merely need $20 glasses.

There are simple and cost-effective solutions to these problems. Making schools (rather than health departments) responsible for vision and funding them for this purpose, or at least letting them use Title I funds for eyeglasses, could help a great deal. Schools could keep sets of glasses for use by children who need them. Proactive screening and relentless follow-up could make the current system work better. But what’s lacking is a sense of outrage and real accountability. Here are children failing for an entirely preventable reason. If you took off your reading glasses at the beginning of this blog, put them back on and read it again. Doesn’t this make you see red?

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America’s Strength: An Innovation Economy

In a September 11 article in The New York Times called “China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise,” Vice President Joe Biden wrote a cogent summary of America’s advantage in the world economy that has enormous implications for innovation in education.

“The United States is hard-wired for innovation. Competition is in the very fabric of our society. It has enabled each generation of Americans to give life to world-changing ideas—from the cotton gin to the airplane, the microchip, the Internet. We owe our strength to our political and economic system and to the way we educate our children—not merely to accept established orthodoxy but to challenge and improve it… Our universities remain the ultimate destination for the world’s students and scholars.”

Nothing in Biden’s op-ed is new or surprising. Every American understands that our success in the world economy depends on education and innovation.

So why do we devote so little attention to innovation in education? The very orientations and investments Vice President Biden cites as the basis of our success in other fields are rarely applied to improving education itself. Instead of inventing our way to success, as we do in so many other fields, we keep trying to improve education through changes in governance, regulations, and rules, which never produce change in core classroom practices and outcomes. Every state’s textbook adoption requirements specify paperweight, but never mention the weight of evidence behind the use of the book. Special education regulations specify that children be placed in the “least restrictive environment” but never the “most effective environment.” Title I has reams of regulations about how funds can or can’t be spent, but not a word suggesting that they be spent on programs proven to work.

The Obama administration has invested more than any other in history in education innovation, especially through its Investing in Innovation (i3) program. Yet evidence and innovation continue to play an extremely small role in Title I, ESEA, special education, and other federal programs, much less in state and local programs. Vice President Biden’s article is a ringing endorsement of innovation, evidence, and education. Can we now apply it to education itself?

Research and Innovation: The Way Forward in Education

Fifty-four years ago, America was galvanized when the Soviet Union put a satellite into space. We responded as we always do when we have a national consensus on an important goal: We innovated. We invested heavily not only in rockets, but also in education, to prepare our entire nation to be second to none. I’m old enough to remember how exciting it was to feel a part of the national response to Sputnik. We knew that America would regain its leadership, and it was all up to us kids!

In education today, we wait in vain for the “Sputnik moment,” the time when our leaders decide that falling behind our international peers in academic achievement is no longer acceptable. Instead of investing in research and innovation, as we did in the wake of Sputnik, our leaders today try to solve our educational problems by fiddling with management solutions, governance solutions, and assessment solutions that do not fundamentally change what happens between teachers and students. These policies may be beneficial, but they don’t scare the Finns or the Chinese or even the Canadians who outperform our students. The reason it was Neil Armstrong and not Nikolai Armstronganoff who landed on the moon was that we invested in targeted, relentless research and development. We did not manage our way to the moon, we invented our way to the moon. Dramatic improvements in medicine, agriculture, and technology happened the same way. And so it must be in education.

Sputnik: Advancing Education through Innovation and Evidence is a new blog dedicated to disseminating news and information on research and development in education that could transform teaching and improve student outcomes on a scale that matters. In addition to reporting on research itself, it will focus on policy developments relevant to research and innovation in education. Guest bloggers will present their perspectives on how research and innovation can play a greater role in policy and practice.

This is an exciting time for those who share a belief in research and innovation as the way forward in education. I hope you’ll join me in exploring the outer limits of education reform.