L.A. Schools Buy iPads for Students while Ignoring a More Powerful Low-Tech Aid: Eyeglasses

Thursday, October 03, 2013
Philip J. Fry (graphic: Futurama)

While the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) grapples with the disastrous rollout of its $1 billion program to equip every student with an iPad, more than 250,000 kids statewide are lacking a much older, more basic technology essential to learning: eyeglasses.

Austin Beutner, founder of Vision to Learn, wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that 95% of students entering public schools who need glasses don’t have them. Often, it’s not a matter of money. It’s more a matter of recognizing the problem, testing the kids and going to the trouble of visiting the eye doctor.

Of course, if all the students in the state have iPads, maybe they won’t need to see farther than their touchscreens, but for now it appears that LAUSD is the only school district willing to go that shaky route. It began a program two weeks ago to hand out iPads to 640,000 kids, but is already pulling back many of the machines given to three schools after students hacked them. There also seems to be questions about the quality of educational software on the machines, and what the district will do when students lose or maim their tablets.

In the meantime, many of them will have to be satisfied with straining to see the blackboard from their seats. Anyone who finally received eyeglasses in the 4th or 5th grade knows that after the initial embarrassment of handling fellow-student taunts, the experience is liberating and enriching.

A 2004 study (pdf) in China that sampled 19,000 students in 165 schools found providing glasses to those who needed them raised learning 33%-50% within a year. The numbers were considered skewed to the low side, perhaps by as much as 50%, because around 30% of the parents refused to participate in the experiment.

Beutner wrote that one out of every seven students in Los Angeles, about 90,000 kids, need glasses. But instead of just getting them glasses, there have been a never-ending series of public-private partnerships, fundraisers, awareness-raising gatherings, celebrity pitches, political posturing, small-scale targeted freebies and other assorted feel-good efforts.

It can seem like the blind (adults) leading the blind (kids). Maybe when Google cuts the same kind of deal with the state that Apple cut with LAUSD, and sells the Board of Education on Google Glass for every kid, a side-effect will be real glasses for students who need them.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Crisis in California’s Schools: 250,000 Schoolchildren Need Glasses (by Austin Beutner, Los Angeles Times op-ed)

Giving Kids a View to a Better Future (by Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times)

Visualizing Development: Eyeglasses and Academic Performance in Rural Primary Schools in China (by Paul Glewwe, Albert Park and Meng Zhao, Gansu Survey of Children and Families) (pdf)

L.A. Schools’ iPad Giveaway Lasts a Week before Students Hack the Computers (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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