A few years ago, I met a woman who said that she had been a special education teacher in a poor urban area. She told me that she had observed a large number of children who had a bizarre learning disability. According to her, the children couldn’t associate what they saw on a vertical surface, such as the chalkboard, with what they saw on a horizontal surface, such as the top of their desk. As a result, they couldn’t copy what was on the chalkboard into their notebooks. She said that this must have been due to some previously unknown brain disease.
She was excited about this discovery, but it sounded dubious to me. I asked what I thought was an obvious question, “Did anyone check their vision?”
“What?” she replied.
“Their vision. You know, give them an eye test. Take those kids down to the nurse’s office and have the nurse figure out if they can actually see. Maybe some of the kids couldn’t see what was on the board because they were nearsighted, and maybe others couldn’t read what was on their desk because they were farsighted.”
Her eyes went wide with surprise. Evidently, nobody thought to check the kids’ vision. To fill the awkward silence, I said, “We’re much more likely to find a bunch of kids with a common problem, like near-sightedness, than to find a bunch of kids with a weird brain disease that no one has ever noticed before.”
She just kept staring at me in silence, so I changed the subject. Later, I described this conversation to a friend of mine who was teaching English in a public school in a working class neighborhood. She said that she had more students who had to sit in the front row (because they had trouble reading the board) than she had seats in the front row. Some of these kids did have glasses, but their families couldn’t afford to keep the kid’s prescription up to date. She felt that it was insane that the government was spending so much money on standardized tests to confirm that children who can’t see aren’t learning in school. She thought it would make more sense to use that money to test the kids’ vision and give them new glasses and thus enable them to learn.
It would be easy and cheap for schools to do vision screening for all students at the beginning of every school year. Ideally, of course, everyone should be getting regular eye examinations from an optometrist or ophthalmologist. In many countries, this kind of healthcare is available free to everyone. We could get that kind of care free for everyone in the United States if we expanded Medicare to cover everything (including vision checks and eyeglasses) for everyone. (We’d also save money if we did that.) In the meantime, school administrators should think about how to make sure that the children in their schools can see.