"Although our nation's school systems are no longer physically segregated, inequalities still exist which have been created by poverty's continuous assault on neurological integrity and development and the barriers it creates to academic achievement."
On Tuesday, April 4, 2001, optometrists and educators came together at HGSE to share their findings on how visual problems associated with poverty affect children's ability to read, and to discuss solutions.
A day-long conference on Visual Problems of Children in Poverty and Their Interference with Learning was capped off by an Askwith Education Forum focused on the policy implications of research on vision problems in poor children and adolescents. "It's time we had a discussion between people concerned about vision and people concerned about education," said moderator Gary Orfield, Professor of Education and Social Policy at Harvard University.
An Epidemic of Vision Problems
Traditional school visual acuity screenings pick up a relatively small percentage of the children with vision problems because they don't screen for far-sightedness or visual tracking, Orfield continued. "We need to test [children's] visual function at near for reading and writing, rather than just their visual acuity at distance for looking at blackboards," asserted Orfield. She recommended modifying current school screenings to better identify visual problems like far-sightedness and visual tracking problems that affect reading, and to make free eyeglasses and visual therapy available to all children who need them.
Turning Diagnosis into Treatment: A Difficult Task
Because Mozlin's project focused on students deemed at risk for dropping out of school, 58% of the students tested were in special education; of these, 56.6% failed their vision test. But turning diagnosis into treatment proved difficult, because parents and students usually failed to follow-up in spite of repeated offers of free services. In the end, only 17 of the 62 students designated as priority cases received the vision care they needed.
Robert H. Duckman, Professor of Optometry at the State University of New York and a specialist in pediatric optometry, discussed his research on vision problems in foster care children in New York City. The results were sobering:
Dr. Duckman said that it is clear that the screening now being provided to this population is not sufficiently identifying children with moderate or severe visual problems.
The Public Policy Perspective
The forum ended with a wide-ranging Q&A and policy discussion. Among other topics, participants discussed how providing adequate visual correction services to more students might reduce the number of children in special education, and how certain services and research projects might be funded through Medicaid and Title I funds.
Gary Orfield concluded by noting that while research findings suggest that making visual services more readily available would reduce achievement and learning difficulties in poor children, stronger data was necessary to convince skeptics. He urged concerned constituencies to work together to bring that data to the attention of policymakers. "Today's event has been a good step in that direction," Orfield said.
About the Conference
About the Forums
HGSE News, Harvard Graduate School of Education