A Clear Vision for Equity and Opportunity

By Gould, Marge Christensen; Gould, Herman | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2003 | Go to article overview

A Clear Vision for Equity and Opportunity


Gould, Marge Christensen, Gould, Herman, Phi Delta Kappan


Educators work very hard to help students solve the cognitive problems that impede their learning. Sometimes, the authors argue, it's the problems we can't "see" that need to be fixed first.

TWO OF THE most pressing issues in education today are the demands for improved academic performance and higher test scores and the mandate to close the achievement gaps between poor and middle-class students and minority and nonminority students. In response to these challenges, increased attention is being given to staff development that focuses on instructional methods, reading strategies, differentiated teaching and learning, test-taking strategies for students, and so on. However, before these approaches can begin to bring about improved student performance and close the achievement gaps, schools need to address a much more basic issue affecting learning for many students, especially those who live in poverty. This is the issue of undetected and uncorrected vision problems.

It is estimated that one out of four school-age children have undiagnosed vision problems significant enough to affect their performance in school and in life. Research shows that in at-risk populations, such as children born in poverty, this percentage is likely to be much higher.1

Since 70% of classroom learning depends on the visual system, students with uncorrected vision problems are at a tremendous disadvantage before they even enter the classroom.2 It seems obvious that if a student cannot see clearly, he or she is going to have a very difficult time reading, writing, and even participating in sports. Yet parents and educators almost always overlook vision problems as a possible roadblock to learning.

Vision Problems of Children in Poverty

In April 2001 the Harvard Graduate School of Education hosted a conference at which educators and optometrists shared their findings on the topic of "Visual Problems of Children in Poverty and Their Interference with Learning." Dr. Antonia Orfield, an optometrist at the Harvard University Health Services Eye Clinic and chief investigator of the Inner-City Vision and Learning Project at the Boston Mather School, discussed the high incidence of visual problems in urban poor children and reported that 53% of the children tested at the Mather School had vision problems that could hinder their ability to read.

School vision screenings typically check only for nearsightedness, which affects reading at a distance -- looking at chalkboards or whiteboards. Dr. Orfield recommended expanding the screenings to test for conditions that affect close-up (book) reading, such as farsightedness and problems with tracking.

Dr. Rochelle Mozlin, associate clinical professor of optometry at the College of Optometry, State University of New York, New York City, presented her research on vision problems of urban at-risk high school students. She tested students at two inner-city high schools, where 52% of the students failed the vision screening. She emphasized that treating the students proved to be difficult because parents and students generally did not follow up, even though there were several offers of free services. Only 17 of the 62 students (or 27%) identified as priority cases actually received the vision care they needed.

Dr. Robert Duckman, pediatric optometrist and professor of optometry at the SUNY College of Optometry, researched vision problems of children in foster care in New York City. He found that a staggering 83.5% of the 351 children he tested had vision problems.3

Vision Problems and Juvenile Delinquency

Several studies have linked uncorrected vision problems with juvenile delinquency. One rather alarming statistic is that in the population of all school-age students, 25% suffer from undiagnosed vision problems; however, among juvenile offenders, it is estimated that 70% have undiagnosed vision problems. If we understand that vision problems result in skill deficiencies, difficulty in reading and learning, and poor academic performance -- which, in turn, create feelings of failure, low self-esteem, and lack of interest in academics -- then the connection to delinquency becomes clear. …

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