A Better Vision for Development: Eyeglasses and Academic Performance in Rural Primary Schools in China

HKUST IEMS Working Papers No. 2016-37


Paul Glewwe, Albert Park, Meng Zhao

About 10% of primary school students in developing countries have poor vision, but very few of them wear glasses. Almost no research examines the impact of poor vision on school performance, and simple OLS estimates could be biased because studying harder may adversely affects one’s vision. This paper presents results from a randomized trial in Western China that offered free eyeglasses to rural primary school students. Our preferred estimates, which exclude township pairs for which students in the control township were mistakenly provided eyeglasses, indicate that wearing eyeglasses for one academic year increased the average test scores of students with poor vision by 0.16 to 0.22 standard deviations, equivalent to 0.3 to 0.5 additional years of schooling. These estimates are averages across the two counties where the intervention was conducted. We also find that the benefits are greater for under-performing students. A simple cost-benefit analysis suggests very high economic returns to wearing eyeglasses, raising the question of why such investments are not made by most families. We find that girls are more likely to refuse free eyeglasses, and that parental lack of awareness of vision problems, mothers’ education, and economic factors (expenditures per capita and price) significantly affect whether children wear eyeglasses in the absence of the intervention.

Forthcoming in the Journal of Development Economics

Media Coverage

Dubner, Stephen, “Smarter Kids at 10 Bucks a Pop,” Freakonomics, April 8, 2011.

Email Subscription

Get updates from HKUST IEMS