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An argument for providing social services in schools is that students will learn better when their basic needs are met. The national lunch program exists because children don’t learn well on an empty stomach. By a similar logic, it’s hard to learn to read or multiply if you can’t see the whiteboard.

It’s estimated that more than 1 in 5 school children are nearsighted or have another vision impairment that can be corrected by glasses, and nearly 40 states screen all school children for vision problems. But screening isn’t enough. Only 5 to 8 percent of school children actually have glasses. Scheduling eye exams, ordering glasses and dealing with insurance are big impediments for many low-income families. That leaves some 12 to 15 percent of U.S. school children with blurry vision.

Beginning in 2016, a team of education researchers, vision specialists and philanthropists sought to rectify this problem in Baltimore, one of the poorest U.S. cities. Vans retrofitted as mobile optician clinics parked outside schools. Students who needed glasses received free pairs from Warby Parker. They even got free replacements for lost and broken ones.

There weren’t enough mobile clinics to serve all Baltimore public schools. Only a third of them, about 40 schools, could be served each year. That enabled researchers at Johns Hopkins University to randomly assign schools to participate. Over three years, all of Baltimore’s schools participated but the staggered timing allowed researchers to see if students at the schools with free glasses posted larger academic gains than students who were still waiting for the vision program to arrive. 

The results, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Medical Association, and presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in September 2021, showed some educational promise but failed to show consistent and sustained benefits. 

Reading scores were higher in grades three through seven, according to one diagnostic test called i-Ready, but the benefits disappeared by the second year. There were no academic benefits in math. On another test called PARCC, which all Maryland students take every spring, students in the schools with glasses did no better in reading or in math. 

Among younger children, in kindergarten through second grade, no academic benefits were detected, according to a separate Johns Hopkins study also presented at the conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. 

“You don’t instantly become a reader when you put on glasses,” said Nathan Storey, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student who studied the younger students in the vision program. Young children are still learning how to read, which can be a struggle, even with perfect vision. 

Getting younger kids to wear their glasses every day was a struggle too, the researchers observed. “These kids are young,” Storey said. “Some have trouble pulling their pants up.” 

But there were also signs of promise. Among those in grades three through seven, students with disabilities and students who were very low-achieving (in the bottom 25 percent) showed very large reading gains after getting glasses. 

“These are the kids who need the most help in school,” said Amanda Neitzel, lead author of the study, during the September 2021 conference.  The vision program ”helps them not only see, but succeed in school,” she said.

One possible explanation for the dropoff in academic benefits after the first year is that there are still not enough mobile clinics to give annual vision exams. Schools are on a three-year cycle and vision may deteriorate in between exams.

A big debate among education experts is whether to bring more services, from psychotherapy to dental care, to low-income schools. It can be hard to show strong and direct academic benefits, as this Baltimore vision study demonstrates. And it’s unclear whether schools are the most cost-effective way to serve poor families. Johns Hopkins’ Neitzel is currently conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the vision program to see if there is a compelling economic argument for adding an optician’s office to the schoolhouse.

This story about free glasses for students was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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