As a sports fan, there are few moments of near unanimous consensus of an athlete’s greatness. But with LeBron James’ unprecedented decision to open the I Promise school in his old neighborhood and equipping this school’s teachers, students, and families with an incredible amount of resources, LeBron has rightfully received a ton of praise even from some of his biggest critics.
And why shouldn’t he? I get goosebumps every time I read his story about missing 83 days in fourth grade and how his community gave him the support he needed to persist through tough times because this dude is paying it forward and then some! Prioritizing admission to students who are one to two years behind, limiting class size to 20 students, giving every student access to nutrition, fitness, and social emotional learning, providing extended day and extended school year programs for students, and free college tuition for graduates…all tremendous opportunities.
But there is one thing LeBron is doing that has not made the memes and that is rarely discussed as an issue of educational equity: he is making tremendous strides toward closing the critical thinking gap.
The critical thinking gap is the most important equity issue no one is talking about. On one hand, we say that critical thinking is the essential 21st-century skill, recognizing how crucial this is for college and career readiness particularly within the rapidly changing workforce of the future. On the other hand, we still treat critical thinking like a luxury good, teaching it only to the most elite students at the most elite schools. Our education systems typically reserve deeper learning experiences for students in gifted and talented, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and honors program at a time when it absolutely cannot be an honor to have access to this type of instruction.
This is why we have far too many students who do exactly what they are supposed to do throughout their K-12 careers and graduate from high school unprepared for college or meaningful work opportunities. But unlike issues like the achievement gap and the school-to-prison pipeline, education has far too few examples of systemic policies and practices to ensure equitable access to critical thinking instruction for all students.
LeBron’s I Promise school has the potential to lead by example to close the critical thinking gap. When I have traveled across the country speaking to thousands of educators about why we aren’t teaching critical thinking to all students, one of the most common responses I get is some version of, “these kids are too ‘slow’ to handle critical thinking.”
Malarkey, I say, but the I Promise school’s actions speak louder than my words because by taking students who are 1-2 grade levels behind and giving them access to a rigorous curriculum with a “STEM, hands-on, problem-based learning focus,” LeBron’s school recognizes what any asset-focused educator already knows: so-called “at-risk” students typically have more critical thinking capacity than their more affluent counterparts because they so regularly have to think on their toes, assess credibility, and innovate around constraints. But they too often lack access to classroom spaces designed to unleash their inherent critical thinking potential.
The I Promise school is challenging this troubling narrative by closing the critical thinking gap on day one.
So let’s cheer for LeBron (yes, including you, Laker-haters) and the team of dedicated educators at the I Promise school through this journey. But let’s also learn by example from their efforts to close the critical thinking gap in education so all students have equitable access to this essential 21st-century skill.