We know that eyeglasses can improve vision, but can they also improve learning?
It appears so, according to a new study of more than 2,000 elementary and middle school students in Baltimore City schools. This is the largest study to date on school-based vision programs in the United States
The study found that children who received free eye exams and glasses as part of a school-based vision program improved their academic performance after one year. The results suggest these programs could help more students succeed in school despite having vision impairment or limited access to eye care.
Do eyeglasses improve school performance?
The study authors partnered with Vision for Baltimore, which provided free vision screenings to students in grades 3 through 7 across 127 city schools. Students who failed the screening received free eye exams and glasses, if needed, from the Vision to Learn mobile eye clinic.
About a quarter of students enrolled in the study had vision problems, researchers found. But many of these students had been unaware of their poor eyesight prior to the study, or had lacked the means to get treatment.
One and two years after providing the eyeglasses, researchers checked the students' performance on standardized reading and math tests.
Glasses do improve grades, at least in the short term
The study revealed that students who received glasses improved their scores on reading tests after one year. In fact, their improvements were comparable to the effects of 1:1 tutoring.
Elementary students also improved their math scores. Corrective glasses offered the biggest benefit to the kids who needed it most, including special education students and very low academic performers.
But these gains fizzled out at the two-year mark. Researchers aren’t sure why the benefits didn’t last. It could be because students wore their glasses less often or the glasses were lost or broken over time. Some students may have experienced further vision changes that made the glasses less useful.
Monitoring a child's vision over time and replacing glasses as needed may make a big difference in continuing to excel in school, ophthalmologists say.
“This intervention doesn’t work without advocates in the schools and classrooms,” says ophthalmologist and study author Michael Repka, MD, MBA.
“Students will get the most benefit if they wear their glasses consistently at home and at school, and they need reminders and reinforcement in order to do so.”
Why do children need an eye exam?
Healthy vision allows children to focus clearly on objects at all distances. It also helps them follow a moving target and see things in 3D.
Refractive error — trouble focusing on an object — can prevent a child's eyes from developing and cause serious problems in school and later in life. The most common refractive errors are nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism.
These vision problems are common among children. More than 25% of children wear glasses or contact lenses, and this number is on the rise. At the same time, between 50% to 95% of children who fail vision screens do not receive follow-up care. These numbers are even worse in lower-income cities.
“Correcting refractive error helps students pay more attention in the classroom and stay more engaged in what’s going on. It’s essential for a child’s development and likely for their overall well-being,” Repka says.