How Schools Can Help Children Struggling to See

Looking good.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

It's hard to learn your ABCs when all you can see on the page are blurry squiggles. That's the problem that hundreds of thousands of American children face as they start school with undiagnosed vision problems. Fortunately, helping them needn't be expensive or complicated. It's just a matter of getting parents, schools and vision professionals to work better together.

Most kids' vision checkups are the kind that involve reading pyramids of letters and numbers from 20 feet away. But these often fail to detect even basic nearsightedness, and they do nothing to investigate eye health or vision physiology. What's needed are proper examinations by ophthalmologists or optometrists.

When vision problems are diagnosed and corrected at an early age, children can avoid lifelong problems. Amblyopia, or "lazy eye," for example, can often be reversed before age 7 with a temporary eye patch. Untreated, it can lead to permanent loss of sight.

This poses lasting challenges. Among the visually impaired, median household earnings are about 60 percent of the national average. Nearly a third live in poverty. 

Getting children the treatment they need takes determined effort. Many schools detect vision problems, but then merely send notes home, without checking to make sure parents follow up. One study found that half of parents whose children had failed a school vision test didn't even know about it.

On the other hand, when schools make sure proper testing and treatment is done, children thrive. In an experiment lasting several years in the Chicago Public Schools, thousands of children who were sent to a clinic and received eyeglasses or other treatment showed "small but significant" gains in grades and math-test scores. The very youngest -- who took part at ages 3 to 4 -- showed the greatest improvement in math.

The costs of the Chicago program were covered by philanthropies and the Illinois College of Optometry. But for most students, payment shouldn't be an obstacle: Most private insurance plans, Obamacare and Medicaid cover annual vision exams and, to varying degrees, pay for frames and lenses. A host of charities and volunteer vision specialists take care of those who slip between the cracks. And in many cities, optometry schools and professional associations send free mobile eye clinics to schools.

The key is to ensure that families know the importance of annual eye checkups and how to get them. As the academic year begins, all schools should make sure students can get a clear look at the lessons ahead.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.