Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Small: LeBron school busts narrative

LeBron school busts narrative
By Jonathan Small

For several years officials have blamed poor student outcomes in public schools on outside factors, such as poverty. Their proposed solution: “wraparound” services that largely duplicate in schools the welfare programs normally provided through a department of human services.

Well, that theory has now been put to the test—and failed.

When basketball star LeBron James opened the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, it was met with much fanfare. The public school would serve low-performing students, many of whom had learning challenges or experienced trauma. And the school would not only provide academics, but also “wraparound” services to address students’ physical and emotional needs outside school.

The school touted things such as “trauma-informed support,” a food pantry for students’ families, GED and job search support for parents, rent-free transitional housing for student families, free bicycles and Chromebooks for students, teacher access to psychological services, mental-health support, legal aid, and more.

Supporters lavished the school with praise. In August 2018, Education Week bluntly wrote, “The opening of LeBron James’ public school in Akron, Ohio, has lots of people in education circles swooning.”

So, what were the results? Not great.

Students at the I Promise School typically enter two or more years behind grade level. Normally, such students can make rapid and dramatic gains in learning when in the right environment, as seen at countless charter schools and private schools around the country. But that didn’t happen at the I Promise School.

Students who were in third grade the year the I Promise School opened are now starting eighth grade. For each of the last three school years, none of those students have scored “proficient” in Ohio’s math proficiency test.

Compared to their (also academically lagging) peers in regular Akron schools, I Promise School students are doing only slightly better in reading and English and worse in math. Put simply, extensive wraparound services have consumed dollars, but they haven’t significantly improved academic outcomes.

Oklahoma officials should take note, particularly as some school officials are now insisting our state should pursue a similar strategy by, for instance, dramatically increasing the number of school counselors and other non-teaching staff in public schools.

In reality, Oklahoma is already far down this path—with similar results to the I Promise School.

Benjamin Scafidi, professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, found that between fiscal years 1993 and 2014 enrollment in Oklahoma public schools increased by 14 percent, the number of teachers rose by 13 percent, but non-teaching school staff increased 34 percent.

As Oklahoma spent more money on schools during that time, an ever-decreasing share went to the classroom. Academic results have not surged with non-teaching staff in Oklahoma.

As common sense would suggest, academic outcomes improve more when you focus on the classroom than when you divert attention and resources elsewhere.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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