LeBron James’ promise to poor Akron kids

LeBron James hopes to help Akron children go to college.

Basketball star LeBron James’ Wheels for Education/I PROMISE initiative has pledged millions of dollars to help poor Akron kids go to the University of Akron. Can he keep his promise to Akron? asks Jesse Washington on FiveThirtyEight.

Theresa Magee, a supermarket clerk, is hopeful.

Her daughter Krystle, 32, who never finished high school, is taking free GED classes paid for by James’ foundation. Krystle’s 10-year-old daughter, Arieonna Maxwell, is in the Wheels for Education/I PROMISE program, which is reserved for kids with low reading scores. The children receive a constant stream of recorded phone calls, letters and website messages from James; after-school tutoring; and trips to places such as the symphony, a TV station, a toy design firm, an amusement park, and Cavs games.

Born to a 16-year-old single mother, James missed most of fourth grade. Then a middle-class couple, Frankie and Pam Walker, took him in to their home. “James shared a room with one of their three children and was absorbed into the family’s emphasis on school, chores, sports, homework, punctuality and responsibility — the kind of values James’ kids recite in their promise.”

“I promise,” the children say in unison, “to go to school, to do all my homework, to listen to my teachers, because they will help me learn.

“To ask questions, and to find answers. To never give up, no matter what.

“To always try my best, to be helpful and respectful to others, to live a healthy life by eating right and being active.

“To make good choices for myself. To have fun.

“And above all else, to finish school!”

The foundation doesn’t release data on results, but there’s been very slight improvement in Akron’s very low test scores since the first group was identified for help four years ago.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, who has studied high-poverty schools for 20 years as director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said James’ program could use more focused academic interventions during the regular school day.

Research has shown that out-of-school activities are helpful, he said. But it must be combined with changes to the curriculum, better training for teachers, and one-on-one monitoring of students’ attendance and participation.

The state has cut funding for after-school tutoring, a key part of James’ program, but the foundation has pledged to make sure its students get extra help.

The power of intensive tutoring

At Chicago Vocational Career Academy, which is desperately trying to raise its test scores and graduation rate, nearly all students come from low-income black families. Most ninth graders are years behind in reading and math. Intensive tutoring provided by MATCH Education is helping students catch up, reports Maya Dukmasova in the University of Chicago Magazine.

On a day in early June, three girls sat face to face with tutors in the Math Lab, which they attend in addition to their normal math class.

They were working on division with unknown variables. “Number 23 is a little curveball but I bet you can do it,” Nichole Jannah, a recent college graduate, told her student.

Math tutor Amelia Hansen works with one student at a time. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Math tutor Amelia Hansen works with one student at a time. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Veronica, a freshman, started the year with a D in math. With daily help from a tutor, she finished the year with a high B.

Sarah, also a freshman, raised her math grade from a C to an A with the help of her tutor. “When I go into math class, I fly through work,” she said, snapping her fingers.

“Everything in education policy right now is about getting teachers to do a better job teaching grade-level material,” says Jens Ludwig, who co-directs UC’s Education Lab. But good algebra teaching can’t help students who haven’t mastered third-grade arithmetic.

Being able to successfully teach in the classroom involves years of practice and training in pedagogy and classroom management. . . . To get results as a tutor, he says, requires only knowledge of the material, good rapport with people, and commitment.

MATCH recruits recent college graduates — and a few career switchers — who are willing to work full time for $17,000 a year plus benefits.

Before the school got MATCH tutors in fall 2013, the first-year on-track rate — the percentage of freshman passing all their classes — was in the low 70s. Now 86 percent are on track to graduate.

CVCA was able to cancel its summer credit-recovery classes for failing students, writes Dukmasova. “Instead the school focused on offering higher-level math and honors courses.”

Tutoring closes boys’ math gap

Intensive math tutoring is helping Chicago boys catch up, writes David Kirp, a public policy professor at Berkeley. It could break the “school-to-prison pipeline,” concludes the University of Chicago study.

Working two-on-one, the tutors worked with ninth- and tenth-grade males with elementary math and reading skills, writes Kirp. Most were black or Latino and poor. “The previous year they missed more than a month of school, on average” and nearly a fifth had arrest records.

Tutor helps students at Chicago high school

Avery Huberts helps Christophir Rangel and Iann Trigveros at Foreman High in Chicago. Credit: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

The tutored students earned higher test scores and passed more classes — not just in math — than the control group, the study found. They were 60 percent less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Match Education, which runs a very successful Boston charter school, ran the Chicago program. Tutors use “friendship and pushing” to “nag them to success,” Barbara Algarin, MATCH’s executive director said. “These students can make remarkable progress when they appreciate that their tutor is in their corner. . . . Grades improve across the board.”

The tutors earn about $16,000 a year plus benefits,  so the extra help cost 3,800 a year per student.

Computer tutors ‘read’ learners’ emotions

Computer tutors are learning to read students’ emotions, so they can provide better feedback, reports Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

Analyzing students’ posture in a special chair,  how much pressure they exert when they click on a special mouse or the pitch of their voices can reveal “academic emotions” such as “curiosity, delight, flow, engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom.”

Some systems use wireless skin conductance sensors or cameras that analyze facial expressions and track students eyes.

“One computerized tutoring program uses ‘mind-reader software’ to identify 22 facial feature points, 12 facial expressions and six mental states,” writes Paul.

Detecting the learner’s feelings is just the first step.

A computerized tutoring program called Wayang Outpost, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, features an onscreen avatar that subtly mirrors the emotions the learner is feeling. When the learner smiles, the avatar smiles too, making the learner feel understood and supported. When the learners express negative feelings, the avatar mirrors their facial expression of, say, frustration, and offers verbal reassurance: “Sometimes I get frustrated when solving these math problems.”

Then — in a shift that researchers have found to be essential — the avatar pivots toward the positive. “On the other hand,” the avatar might add, “more important than getting the problem right is putting in the effort and keeping in mind that we can all do math if we try.”

Researchers try to encourage a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability improves with effort.

If the learner seems bored, for example, (Notre Dame’s Affective) AutoTutor might respond with the comment, “This stuff can be kind of dull sometimes, so I’m gonna try and help you get through it. Let’s go.” If the AutoTutor senses that the learner is confused, it might advise, “Some of this material can be confusing. Just keep going and I am sure you will get it.”

Deep learning requires struggle, say researchers in affective computing. “Students show the lowest levels of enjoyment during learning under the conditions in which they learn the most, and the feeling of confusion turns out to be the best predictor of learning.”

However, repeated failures turn confusion into “frustration, disengagement and boredom (and ultimately, minimal learning).”

Helping can hurt

As a CityYear corps member, Amanda Dixon tutored and mentored struggling students, she writes on Chalkbeat. She learned there’s such a thing as too much support.

When Paul was reading, I asked additional questions to make sure he understood the text. When he was writing an essay, I broke down the process into manageable chunks and helped him find evidence that supported his argument.

Under my careful watch, Paul participated in class and completed most of his classwork.

But when he needed to complete an essay at home, he fell apart.

Some students specialize in getting “supporters” to “mask a lack of work and skills,” writes a commenter. But she wonders if “struggling” is the right word for Paul.  “Do you see these students really struggle? Doesn’t it seem like that’s often a polite/false way of describing them?”

Perhaps “leaning” is more accurate than “struggling.”

Helping can hurt, writes David Ginsburg. Students will require self-reliance in college and in the workplace.

He set out to teach students the link between “resourcefulness and success.”

This meant providing students access to various resources (notes, textbooks, technology, each other, etc.) and, if necessary, teaching them the skills they needed to use those resources (including alphabetizing).

But it also meant refusing to help students until and unless they had in fact used those resources. When, for example, students called me over for help, whereas I previously would have immediately obliged, I now asked, “Where are your notes?” And if they didn’t have notes, there was something else they didn’t have: my help.

He told students: “I don’t want to deny you the satisfaction you’ll feel when you figure it out yourself.”

College helps students plan, succeed

Helping students set academic and career goals and make a plan is raising success rates at a Florida community college. Hiring more tutors and counselors helps too.

When students are struggling, community college instructors send “early alerts” to coaches who will offer help before the semester is doomed.

Skimping on academics

When 20 Texas schools tried to emulate the practices of effective charters, gains were small in math and nonexistent in reading, notes Dan Willingham.

District schools couldn’t afford to lengthen the school day or provide tutoring in all grades and subjects, he writes. “It may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.”

UW seeks ‘equity’ in grades, majors

Blacks and Latinos should achieve “equity” in grades and high-demand majors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, according to the Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence passed by the Faculty Senate. No one challenged the plan or debated the consequences, charges W. Lee Hansen, an emeritus economics professor, in Madness in Madison.

The framework is vague, a “thicket of cliches,” writes Hansen. However, an Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee has formulated goals and recommendations based on “Inclusive Excellence” framework  adopted earlier by the Board of Regents.

The  “representational equity” section calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

What does that mean?

 Suppose there were a surge of interest in a high demand field such as computer science. Under the “equity” policy, it seems that some of those who want to study this field would be told that they’ll have to choose another major because computer science already has “enough” students from their “difference” group.

Especially shocking is the language about “equity” in the distribution of grades. Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, “historically underrepresented racial/ethnic” students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.

I’m sure “equity” in grades and majors is a goal, not a mandate. UW professors wouldn’t turn Asian-American males away from computer science majors and tell them to try sociology, Spanish or African-American Studies instead. They wouldn’t set different grading standards by race and ethnicity or give everyone A’s to erase an achievement gap.


If UW wants to help underprepared students succeed in demanding majors, there are real things the university could do. Work with high schools and community colleges to improve readiness. Rethink counseling and tutoring. Set up summer jobs in STEM fields.

Helping minority students earn good grades is a worthy goal, writes Ann Althouse, also a UW professor. “We want all our students to do well.” 

Illinois sets lower standards for blacks, Latinos

Under a No Child Left Behind waiver, Illinois schools will set lower standards for blacks, Latinos, low-income students and other groups, reports the Chicago Tribune.

For example, while 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, the goal is 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students.

NCLB calls for 100 percent of students to pass reading and math exams this school year. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. “By 2013, almost 85 percent of Illinois schools had received failing labels, including many of the state’s premier high schools,” reports the Tribune.

Since Congress has failed to update the law, the Education Department has given most state waivers. Illinois isn’t the first to set different standards for different student groups.

The lowest 15 percent of struggling schools in Illinois will be targeted for state attention. The six-year goal is to halve the percentage of students and groups who fail reading and math exams.

 Each year, groups will have goals for improving that push them toward their 2019 target. Because groups start at different places, their final targets will be different too. For example, state data provided to the federal government shows the percent of students passing exams in 2019 would range from about 52 to 92 percent, depending on test, grade and student group.

For all students combined, the passing rate would be about 76 to 79 percent in 2019 — lower than the now-infamous 100 percent requirement.

Illinois also will use “supergroups,” lumping together black, Latino and Native American students in the same group rather than looking at their achievement separately.  The Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy groups, said supergroups undercut accountability. “This eliminates one of the most important civil rights victories in education law, and returns us to a time where states may not be responsive to the needs of underserved students.”

Under the state’s new policy, districts won’t have to offer tutoring — or transfers — to students in repeatedly failing schools.

Each school will have different achievement goals, so it will be harder for parents to compare schools’ achievement results.

Who gets to graduate?

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college. Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist. Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.” Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through. UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training. Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. . . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

Vanessa Brewer failed a statistics test in her first month at UT. She was shaken: High school math had been easy. But she persevered, pulling out a B+ for the semester. When she struggled with chemistry, she spent six or more hours a week at the tutoring center. She earns A’s or B’s on every test. And she’s met two juniors, also black women majoring in nursing. She told Tough: “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”