Freakonomics: Better education through improved eyesight

Chinese school children during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China's Anhui province on September 20, 2010.

Bob Moon: The strain on budgets is squeezing education spending. And that's bound to put a premium
on innovative -- or, shall we say, cheap -- fixes to teaching problems. Stephen Dubner, from Freakonomics,
always has his eyes open for these sorts of solutions. Today, he's sharpening his focus on a surprisingly simple solution to an education problem in China.

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.

Park and Glewwe were going to hand out eyeglasses to 1,500 students. Each pair cost just $10 to make -- and, because the researchers had grant money to work with, the glasses were totally free for the kids. But it wasn't just a goodwill mission; it was also an educational experiment. Park and Glewwe set up a control group of another 1,000 students nearby. After one school year, the kids with glasses had learned 25 to 50 percent more than the control group. There was just one wrinkle: A lot of kids who needed glasses wouldn't take them.

Park: We actually were pretty surprised.

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.

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.

Moon: Stephen Dubner is our Freakonomics correspondent. There's a weekly Freakonomics Radio podcast you can subscribe to on iTunes. Dubner will be back here two weeks from today.

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I think I can tell you why these families would not accept the glasses. Pride. In traveling around China for a month in '96, I found them to be almost contemptuous of Westerners. You are a foreigner, and by national edict. I have many stories too lengthy to elaborate on here to substansiate that suspicion.

Interesting story, and a whole lot of bang for buck. I like it.

The researchers state that 10% of primary students in developing nations have undiagnosed vision loss and need glasses. Lions Clubs across the world, including many American communities (but particularly in low income areas) find this is true everywhere. These children get late educational starts and eventually get left behind. Some studies have shown that American prisons are filled with criminals who can't read (illiterate) and have undiagnosed near-point vision loss. In our Dallas community we annually provide vision screenings, and FREE eye glasses to thousands of young people. A small price, a major return on investment. Additionally, we collect, clean, grade and distribute tens of thousands of pairs of used glasses worldwide annually.

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