How Free Glasses Are Boosting Test Scores In Baltimore

(Dr. Bernard Harris, Sr. Elementary School third-grader Rashad Solomon, 9, shows off his new glasses-Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images)

Who knew that a simple fix could be the solution for low-income students to perform better in school? Well, Johns Hopkins had an idea.

(article originally featured here.)

Three years ago, Johns Hopkins University researchers in Baltimore wondered if the gap in reading performance between poor students and wealthier ones be closed if they gave the poor students eyeglasses?

They knew that poorer students were less likely to have glasses than wealthier white children, but data were limited on whether simply helping children better focus on the page in front of them might improve their ability to master a skill essential for early learning. They screened several hundred second- and third-graders, gave two pairs of eyeglasses to the ones who needed them (about 60 percent of the group, based on a uniquely liberal prescribing standard) and then they tracked their school performance over the course of the year. The outcomes were notable even with the small sample size—reading proficiency improved significantly compared with the children who did not need eyeglasses.

In May 2016, the Baltimore Health Department assembled a public-private coalition made up of the city’s public school system, Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Education, eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, and a national nonprofit called Vision To Learn.

The three-year program, called Vision for Baltimore, plans to visit 150 schools over the course of the study and screen 60,000 students, making it the biggest study of its kind.

As of mid-August, Vision for Baltimore (V4B) has performed nearly 18,000 screenings and distributed nearly 2,000 pairs of glasses for free. That’s on schedule of the program’s goal to give out 8,000 glasses before the end of the study. They estimate that just 20 percent of screened children who need glasses subsequently get them, leaving as many as 20,000 children citywide staring fuzzily at the board in their classrooms.

Experts attribute the glasses gap to Maryland law, which requires screening only or pre-K, first-and eighth-graders. A child who develops eyesight issues in second grade could wait years before being examined again, falling further behind peers. But even with mandatory screening, parents may not follow through. Parents might not be able to afford the glasses if they don’t qualify for Medicaid. (Maryland’s Medicaid system covers one pair of eyeglasses for minors per year, and will replace them in some cases.) The consequences of not addressing eyesight problems early can be dire and compounding. Studies over the past decade suggest that students who perform badly in school are misdiagnosed with behavioral disorders or special education needs when the culprit was their poor eyesight.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

The solution was pretty simple: If kids can’t get to the doctor, bring the doctor to the kids. Under the Vision for Baltimore program, a mobile clinic shows up to the school for about a week during the school year to determine whether a child may need glasses. In Baltimore, the city health department conducts the screening, which requires checking distance vision, depth perception and eye alignment. If the child fails the screening test, he is given a parental consent form for an optometry exam on the school campus. Two weeks later, an optician comes to the school to fit the glasses, which the child picks himself. Each student gets one pair.

Shandra Worthy-Owens, principal of Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School, said V4B has been a success at her school. The project clinicians communicated weekly to make sure the school had the necessary forms and knew when the clinic would arrive on campus for screenings. “They just supported us throughout the whole process,” Worthy-Owens said. Her school staff conducted home visits, made extra phone calls and stayed late on campus to accommodate with parents’ work schedules.

“When the kids are wearing glasses and they’re doing better, the attendance is higher, and the standardized test scores have improved, then you can really make the argument for why this needs to be built into what schools do,” said Megan Collins, a lead researcher in the study.

About 100 students, a fourth of Worthy-Owens’ school’s total, received the glasses in March and have improved in the classroom. The glasses have even boosted student self-esteem: Her school spotlights the students for…