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LeBron James’ School Flop Proves Money Can’t Buy Student Success

LeBron and those running I Promise assumed the leftist premise that low-performing kids are victims of systemic injustices and could easily succeed if those obstacles were removed.

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After five years of fanfare and media coverage, LeBron James’ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, has failed miserably.

None of the eighth-grade students passed the state’s math test, and only a few of them tested proficient in English. The school is also having turnover issues with campus leadership, giving supporters little reason for optimism. 

As one would expect, conservatives “pounced” on this news, and for good reason: Few people have been as insufferable as LeBron James. The basketball superstar has been a vocal supporter of leftist causes such as Black Lives Matter and activist grifters like Colin Kaepernick. Despite dominating the NBA and earning millions of dollars straight out of high school, James claimed to be the victim of racism. And like virtually every other NBA player, he hypocritically refuses to criticize China for its many human rights abuses. 

Naturally, the school received many fawning profiles, like this one in Education Weekly, insisting that James “is one of the most influential people in the United States, if not the world, and now he is getting directly and personally involved in education reform en route to making a major statement about American democracy.” The I Promise School would finally give at-risk students and their families the necessary resources to overcome their learning deficits. Yet for all these noble intentions, it was also clear that this was a vanity project for James, who only “visited [the school] twice since the school year started,” though he makes sure he “is everywhere — on murals, on wallpaper, on video messages.” 

As tempting as it may be to deride a self-important narcissist like James, it’s not exactly helpful or fair. James might suffer a bruised ego, but he will obviously be fine. Meanwhile, the students of I Promise will graduate without being able to read, write, or do basic math. For the sake of these students, and the millions of at-risk students like them, it’s worthwhile to consider why the school failed and what would have worked instead.  

From the outset, we should recognize just how challenging it is to help failing students. In my experience teaching high school English, education works a bit like the economy: The smart get much smarter, the average progress steadily, and the weaker students either stay the same or become even worse. Consequently, there are different tracks and approaches for each of these groups. Smart kids are put in an advanced track and are usually given more latitude in behavioral and academic expectations, and kids in the middle are put on a regular track and usually held to a relatively low standard. 

The below-average kids are usually placed in the regular track despite being significantly behind their peers. These students would benefit from a remedial track that meets their needs, but the advocates of equity criticize this as a form of discrimination that denies students an equal opportunity for academic success. So, they tend to get into trouble and fail their classes more frequently because the instruction goes over their heads. Over the years, this problem compounds. By the time these students reach high school, they are multiple years behind their peers. 

Evidently, James and the people running I Promise thought more money, encouragement, and media attention could fix the problem. They assumed the leftist premise that low-performing kids are the victims of systemic injustices and could easily succeed if those obstacles were removed. James donated more than a million dollars each year to the school, which is somehow still part of the Akron public school district, so that it could hire more staff, offer more training, and even provide welfare services to poor parents. In theory, this would give students everything they needed. 

In practice, however, this hardly moved the needle. While circumstances affect a student’s success, their habits, values, and motivation play a much larger role. One would think a sports phenom like James would know this better than anyone. A boy could have all the support in the world, but if he thinks learning is useless, studying is for chumps, or his future as a TikTok influencer is guaranteed, he will inevitably flounder.  

I Promise, and the slew of charter schools just like it, demonstrate that there is no shortcut to fixing failure. Great students are the result of many years of sustained effort from excellent teachers, not a few positive affirmations and pats on the back from a well-meaning mentor.  

One of the best examples of this is Jaime Escalante, who was the subject of “Stand and Deliver,” the 1988 film. While the movie suggested he transformed thugs into math scholars in a couple of years, it actually took him several years, a whole series of specially designed courses, and a team of handpicked teachers to make this happen. Far more than standing and delivering in his classroom, he needed to put together a pipeline of bootcamp-style classes than ran through summers to prepare underclassmen to take the AP exam their senior year. 

Would-be humanitarians like James need to realize that nothing short of Herculean effort is necessary to achieve lasting reform. This may be discouraging, particularly if one hopes for a quick fix and immediate payoff, but it also suggests improvement is at least possible if teachers and students are willing to make the commitment. 


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