Better education through improved eyesight

Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics has this superb coverage of how researchers raised test scores in rural China with the help of new spectacles for every kid in need.

It is basically a transcript of radio interview between Dubner and Researchers who worked on the problem.

Stephen Dubner: Gansu province, about 1,000 miles west of Beijing, is mostly rural and very, very poor. So, for a kid growing up there, a good education is important.

Here’s an eighth-grade teacher in Gansu named Long Qingyi.

Long Qingyi: Sometimes I have to call the students up to the blackboard in order to read. And other times, I just have to walk over to the students myself to give them extra attention.

As classroom problems go, this is as basic as they get: It’s tough to learn if you can’t see the chalkboard. An estimated 10 percent of primary school students in the developing world need eyeglasses. But an academic study in Gansu found that, of students who need glasses, only 2 percent had them.

Albert Park: Well, I think that was obvious when we visited schools.

That’s Albert Park, an economist at Oxford. He and Paul Glewwe, an economist at the University of Minnesota, set out to fix what seemed like a pretty straightforward problem.

Park: 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.

They gave free glasses conducted a random experiment and figured out- students with glasses learned 25 to 50 percent more than the students without glasses.  Most researchers would feel happy with the result and publish this as a success story.

Then came the twist. Despite this gain, they found students reluctant to wear glasses:

Four hundred and sixty-two families turned down free glasses for their children. Why? It’s hard to say exactly. Some parents thought that glasses might make their kids’ eyes weaker, which most optometrists say is a myth. Others might have been wary of a handout from Western academics. And then there’s the old “four eyes” stigma. Regardless, Park and Glewwe learned something interesting. Here was an education reform that was simple, cheap, and it worked. It was also unusual because — instead of addressing the supply side of education, as most education reform does — this addressed the demand side.

They also figured Chinese heroes don’t pose in spectacles whereas most in US do. Hence specs are fashion in US and replusive in China. Suggestion – Chinese celebrities pose in spectacles please:

Park: 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, etc. This problem is a little bit different, because it’s really about the behavior of students and their parents.

Park thinks more families would have accepted the glasses if the researchers had better explained the program, if they had cultivated demand. So how do you make having four eyes cool?

Harvey Moscot: In America, eyeglasses are the coolest thing you can put on your face right now.

He would say that. That’s Harvey Moscot, an optometrist and president of a New York eyewear institution called Moscot. Every year, Moscot sells about 300 pairs of vanity glasses — with clear plastic lenses — for around $225 a pop. 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 why there’s such a difference in eyeglass culture between the U.S. and Gansu Province.

Moscot: Famous Chinese icons probably are not wearing their glasses like they are in America. From any hip-hop star to any idol of a sports star that wears them influences children’s perception of eyeglasses.

You hear that Chinese celebrities? Please, put on some eyeglasses. Hey, I wear mine every day. I’m Stephen Dubner for Marketplace.

Amazing stuff. Development insights are so complex and context specific.

One Response to “Better education through improved eyesight”

  1. vietnam real estate Says:

    great post! very interesting… thanks for sharing this… 🙂

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