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Answer Sheet: Will LeBron James’s New School Work Well? Here’s What the Research Says.

Basketball great LeBron James is putting millions of dollars from his family foundation into a new public school in Akron, called I Promise, that just opened to great fanfare. The Ohio school offers significant social and academic supports to the students, who are all struggling academically, and advocates of public education have praised James for helping his hometown’s public school system rather than opening a private or charter school.

A lot has been written about his support of the school, but there is an open question as to how well the plans line up with what solid education research tell us works. The staff at the National Education Policy Center, which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, took a look and concluded that the planners of the school have done a lot of things right.

[Props to LeBron James and his new Akron public school — but what about the other kids?]

This was written by the staff of the National Education Policy Center, which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education:

This summer, to great fanfare, the I Promise School opened in Akron, Ohio, the hometown of basketball player LeBron James. The NBA star’s foundation has committed about $2 million in the first year, as well as $2 million or more annually as the school builds to its 1,000-student capacity in 2022. This funding will provide resources to supplement those provided by the school district.

Opened with 240 third and fourth graders, all of whom are struggling academically, the school will eventually serve students in grades one through eight. James has received plenty of praise for his investment. But what does research have to say about the I Promise approach? Over the years, NEPC and its fellows have published research on many of the features that the school has included.

  • I  Promise will receive additional  resources from the LeBron James Family Foundation: Money matters, according to a recent NEPC brief by NEPC fellow William Mathis. “Gains from investing in education are  found in test scores, later earnings, and graduation rates,” Mathis writes. In a report co-authored by NEPC fellow Bruce Baker, Ohio receives an A for overall funding  fairness, but it ranks only in the middle of the pack on indicators like  the percent of gross state product put toward education. 
  • I  Promise is a traditional public school,  not a private school or charter:  Unlike other  celebrities who have supported K-12 schools,  James has elected to partner with a school district, opening I Promise as a traditional public school. NEPC-affiliated  researchers have addressed issues of charter access, segregationinnovationfundingonline  charters, and performance. This body of research highlights the variation  of policies, practices and outcomes among charters, but it also offers  cautions about the downsides of public funding being shifted  to privately run schools. NEPC-affiliated researchers have also found that public schools match or  outperform private schools once demographics are taken into account. 

[No, private schools aren’t better at educating kids than public schools. Why this new study matters.]

  • Class  sizes will be capped at 23 students: An  NEPC brief, “Does Class Size Matter,” finds that class size is an  important determinant of a variety of student outcomes, ranging from test  scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly  effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority  children. 
  • I  Promise will offer longer school days  and an extended school year: School  days run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., July through May, with camps offered in  the seven weeks between school years. Research indicates that students  from low-income families in particular benefit not only from more learning  time, but from better use of school time. (Forty  percent of Akron children live in poverty).  Good uses for additional time may include “off-campus student internships,  a second shift for teachers, or strategic partnerships with other public  agencies or community organizations to create high-quality teaching and  learning opportunities,” according to “Leveraging Time for School Equity: Indicators to Measure More and Better Learning Time,” a report  that, along with an interactive  website, was created by a group of  NEPC-affiliated researchers for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform located at Brown University.
  • The  school has a Family Resource Center: Such centers are hallmarks of so-called community  schools that offer services such as food pantries and GED classes for  families. “The evidence base on well-implemented community schools and  their component features provides a strong warrant for their potential  contribution to school improvement,” an NEPC policy  brief  finds. 
  • The  school will have a STEM focus: In an NEPC review of “A Complete Education,” the Obama administration’s plan to  implement a comprehensive education for all students, Beth Warren makes  the case that subjects like arts and social studies should not be  subordinated to STEM. All of these areas, along with literacy, have an  “intrinsic educational value” and could be part of “strongly  interdisciplinary approaches.” 
  • I  Promise alumni who graduate from high  school will get free college tuition to the University of Akron: NEPC fellow Gary Miron has been evaluating the  Kalamazoo Promise, the forerunner of these tuition-guarantee approaches,  which offers graduates of the Kalamazoo, MI school district free college  tuition at any Michigan public college or university. Miron and his  co-authors’ findings include: 
  • All of  the students admitting to I Promise are struggling  academically: While  this element of the school is in many ways commendable, decades of  research on tracking or grouping students by ability indicate that this  practice may lead to a host of undesirable impacts, including a  watered-down curriculum, lower expectations, higher rates of discipline  problems, and less student engagement, an NEPC  policy brief finds.

So are the approaches of I Promise in line with research?

For the most part, yes: Practices such as providing additional resources, reducing class size, offering wraparound services like food pantries, extending learning time, and offering free college tuition to graduates are all associated with positive outcomes.

But the school may face challenges in educating a large population of struggling students rather than creating heterogenous classes of children with higher and lower levels of performance. And the school’s STEM focus could end up shortchanging other important subjects such as social studies and the arts.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.