Elementary Lessons from Junior Village

When I was thirteen, I spent a summer as a volunteer at a giant orphanage in Washington, DC. Every child was African-American, and from an extremely disadvantaged background. Every one had surely experienced unspeakable trauma: death or desertion of parents, abuse, and neglect.

I was assigned to work with fourth and fifth grade boys. We played games, sang songs, did crafts, and generally had a good time. There was a kind volunteer coordinator who gave each of us volunteers a few materials and suggestions, but otherwise, as I recall, each one or two of us volunteers, age 13 to 16, was responsible for about 20 kids, all day.

I know this sounds like a recipe for chaos and disaster, but it was just the opposite. The kids were terrific, every one. They were so eager for attention that everywhere I went, I had three or four kids hanging on to me. But the kids were happy, engaged, loving, and active. I do not recall a single fight or discipline problem all summer. I think this summer experience had a big impact on my own choice of career.

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There are two reasons I bring up Junior Village. First, it is to reinforce the experience that most elementary school teachers have, even in the most challenged and challenging schools. There are many problems in such schools, but the kids are great. Elementary-aged kids everywhere respond positively to just a little kindness and attention. I’ve visited hundreds of elementary schools over my career, and with few exceptions, these are happy and productive places with sweet and loving kids, no matter where they are.

Second, the observation that elementary-aged children are so wonderful should make it clear that this is the time to make certain that every one of them is successful in school. Middle and high school students are usually wonderful too, but if they are significantly behind in academics, many are likely to start a process that leads to disengagement, failure, acting out, and dropping out.

Evidence is mounting that it is possible to ensure that every child from any background, even the most disadvantaged, can be successful in elementary school (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Use of proven whole-school and whole-class approaches, followed up by one-to-small group and one-to-one tutoring for those who need them, can ensure success for nearly all students. A lot can be done in secondary school too, but building on a solid foundation from sixth grade forward is about a million times easier than trying to remediate serious problems (a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious).

Nationwide, we spend a lot more on secondary schools than on elementary schools. Yet investing in proven programs and practices in elementary school can ensure uniformly successful students leaving elementary school ready and eager to achieve success in secondary school.

I remember participating many years ago in a meeting of middle school principals in Philadelphia. The district was going to allocate some money for innovations. A district leader asked the principals if they would rather have the money themselves, or have it spent on improving outcomes in the elementary grades. Every one said, “Spend it early. Send us kids who can read.”

If you think it is not possible to ensure the success of virtually every child by the end of elementary school, I’d encourage you to look at all the effective whole-school, whole-class, one-to-small group, and one-to-one tutoring programs proven effective in the elementary grades. But in addition, go visit kids in any nearby elementary school, no matter how disadvantaged the kids are. Like my kids at Junior Village, they will revive your sense of what is possible. These kids need a fair shot at success, but they will repay it many times over.

Photo credit: By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Vision and Blindness

If you wear reading glasses, please remove them for a moment, and continue reading.

Back to normal? For a moment, you had an experience like that of about 30% of Baltimore students. Some have myopia (nearsightedness) and some hyperopia (farsightedness), and some other problems. But few have glasses. A study in grades 2-3 found that only 6% of students had glasses in school, and 30% needed them. Kids being kids, even those who have glasses may soon lose or break them, and glasses are rarely replaced for kids in inner-city schools. As a result, some students can’t see the whiteboard, some can’t see their books, and many quietly think they are not smart because they struggle to focus on the printed word. In Maryland, students’ vision is tested only at school entry (usually pre-k), first grade, and eighth grade. If routine screenings find a problem, a note goes to parents asking them to get a formal assessment. In Baltimore, this results in about 10% of children who need glasses getting them. And then what do you think happens to those glasses between first and eighth grade?

I’ve been involved with studies of vision in inner-city schools along with colleagues Megan Collins, David Friedman, Michael Repka, and others from the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and Nancy Madden and others from the Johns Hopkins School of Education. The name of the project is Vision for Baltimore, and it operates under the authority of the Baltimore City Health Department, which has been a strong supporter. What we are finding is in one sense a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious. Inner city children who need glasses don’t often get them. We tested all students in grades 2-3 in 12 high-poverty Baltimore schools, and we gave those who needed them free glasses. We also followed up to make sure the students were wearing glasses, and we replaced those that were lost or broken. Students who received the glasses gained significantly on reading tests in comparison to those who never needed glasses. Of course. Yet this was the first U.S. study of its kind to show an effect of glasses on reading (two Chinese studies had found the same).

We are now doing a much larger study. A philanthropic group called Vision to Learn (VTL) wanted to provide assessments and free glasses to every elementary and middle school student in Baltimore over a three-year period. VTL has mobile vision vans, staffed with an optometrist and an optician. The vans can test all students who were found in screening to need assessment, and then provide free glasses if needed. With funding from Baltimore’s Abell Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we arranged to randomly assign schools to receive their vision services either in the first, second, or third year, enabling us to find the impact of these services in reading and math performance, mostly on state tests.

It will be a couple of years before we will know the results of our research, but I can tell you this much. As in our smaller study, we found that very few children already had glasses, and about 30% needed them. This fall, the first glasses are arriving, and the students are blown away. One fifth grade girl said, “Is this the way things are supposed to look?”

Now think about that girl. If she needs glasses now, she has probably needed them for years. How much damage was done to her essential early education? How much was her self-esteem damaged by learning problems due to nothing more than poor vision?

I should hasten to add that eyeglasses for students who need them are an inexpensive intervention. In the enormous quantities involved, a pair of glasses that kids are eager to wear may cost less than $20. Further, Medicaid pays for eyeglasses for all children who qualify as low income, which equates to nearly every child in Baltimore. Vision to Learn has worked out ways to make this easy to administer, so that modest funds from an existing federal program can be used for this essential service.

Vision is important. We hope our work and that of others around the U.S. will develop simple, replicable means of improving the achievement of disadvantaged children by giving them needed eyeglasses. But what I really want to talk about today is not vision, but blindness. Moral blindness. Policy blindness. Pragmatic blindness.

It so happens that vision is an excellent case to illustrate our moral, policy, and pragmatic blindness. We spend approximately $11,000 per child per year, on average, to educate a child. From all that expenditure, we want successful, capable, skilled students, who can enter higher education or the workforce with confidence and well-founded hopes of success. We want students who will follow the rules because they know that they can succeed if they do.

Yet we let $20 worth of eyeglasses stand in their way.

We spend vast amounts of money on special education, remedial services, even tutoring. Yet some proportion of the children who receive these services just needed eyeglasses instead. The policy world has tried for years to reduce special education costs and integrate children in regular classes. Many likely never needed special education to begin with.

Yet we let $20 worth of eyeglasses per child stand in our way.

We know that young people who fail in school are far more likely to become delinquent and later criminal. The costs of policing and incarceration are huge, and we need to reduce them.

Yet we let $20 worth of eyeglasses per child stand in our way.

There are lots of very difficult problems in education. This does not happen to be one of them. Can we all agree to put glasses on every disadvantaged child who needs them? This will not solve all of our problems, but if would be a heck of a start. While we’re at it, we also ought to look into hearing and other medical problems that hold kids back.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Correction

In an earlier version of this blog, I forgot to mention the name of the project and the authority under which is operates. I apologize for the omission.

Reading and Vision

A few years ago, I was touring a ruined abbey in Scotland. In a small museum containing objects found in excavations of the site were a pair of eyeglasses worn by monks in the 13th century.

The relationship between vision and reading is not exactly news. Since most adults eventually need reading glasses, most people reading this blog probably have personal experience with the transformational impact they can have.

Along with colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Wilmer Eye Clinic and the Johns Hopkins School of Education, we are doing a study of the relationship between vision and reading in inner-city schools in Baltimore. Our project is not finished, so I can’t report on all aspects of our findings. But what we have found so far is profoundly disturbing.

We are giving comprehensive vision tests to second- and third-graders in some of the most impoverished schools in the city. We are finding high rates of visual impairment, which can be corrected by eyeglasses. Yet only 1 to 3 percent of the children have glasses in school.

The state of Maryland requires vision screening in first grade, and many of these children were found to need glasses previously. Yet a hundred things go wrong in getting glasses on kids’ faces in inner-city schools. Some kids are missed in the screening. Those who are identified get a letter sent to the parents, who may or may not follow up. Some cannot afford glasses, while others qualify for assistance to purchase glasses but do not know how to go through the procedures to get them. Glasses frequently get broken or lost or stolen, and there are no procedures to replace them. As a result, few kids who need them have glasses in school, even just one year after the screening year.

A key factor in all of this is that vision is seen as a health problem, not the school’s problem. Schools do not have resources for eyeglasses, so even though they are accountable for children’s reading, and even though school leaders and teachers know full well that a lot of their kids just need glasses, they feel helpless in solving this simple problem. Title I funds, for example, cannot be used for glasses. The result is that many children are receiving very expensive remedial services, tutoring, or special education, when a $20 pair of glasses would actually solve the problem.

In our project, we are testing kids, and, for those who need them, we are providing two pairs of glasses, one for home and one for school. Teachers are given craft boxes to hold the glasses and facilitate distributing them each day. If glasses are broken, they are replaced. Eyeglasses are in these days, and the kids are very proud of their glasses. Compared with other interventions for struggling readers, the cost of a few pairs of glasses is trivial. Not every struggling reader is struggling due to poor eyesight, but imagine if 20 or 10 or even 5 percent of children in high-poverty schools are struggling in reading or other subjects due to vision problems that are easily remediated with ordinary eyeglasses.

I’m always reluctant to get ahead of the data, but imagine for a moment what it would mean if we do find that significant numbers of inner-city kids are failing year after year just because they lack glasses. Hopefully, this finding would lead to government and private programs throughout the U.S. providing eyeglasses in schools and giving teachers and administrators responsibility to see that children receive and use their glasses. This could make a huge difference in one easily recognizable subgroup of struggling readers.

At a larger level, think what such a finding might say about poverty and education. Educators naturally seek educational solutions to educational problems in high-poverty schools, reasoning that they cannot solve problems of housing, crime, unemployment, and so on. Yet there may be some non-educational interventions that they could use to improve student outcomes. What matters is the outcomes, and it is crucial that proven solutions be allowed to cross traditional boundaries if they require it.

At a larger level still, consider how families get into poverty in the first place. How many kids with poor eyesight fail in school, lose motivation, and ultimately lose access to positive futures? How many impoverished parents were once children with poor eyesight, or other easily solved health difficulties? How many inner-city communities suffer from having many young people who perceive no hope due to reading difficulties that could have been prevented?

Eyeglasses are not new, and they are not magic. Yet they may well be part of a solution to fundamental and persistent problems of education.