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March Madness in the Classroom: Duncan Discusses NCAA Graduation Rates

Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a conference call with reporters to discuss the latest NCAA graduation rates, including the rates of teams participating in men's postseason basketball play, and his recommendations for improving academics in collegiate basketball.

Also joining the secretary on the call were Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, University of Central Florida.

The call came on the heels of the release of the institute's annual report, "Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Success and Academic Progress Rates for the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament Teams."Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader The report uncovered some troubling findings for the NCAA: 10 of the 68 teams participating in this year's March Madness have academic-progress rates below 925 (meaning the team has less than 50 percent of its athletes on track to graduate).

With that in mind...

Duncan first recommended that "teams not on track to graduate half of their players should not have their chance at postseason glory," pointing out that the Knight Commission made that exact suggestion back in 2001. The secretary asked how serious a school who graduates half its players is about its students' success—which, admittedly, is a tough point to argue against.

Next, he threw his support behind two academic-progress measures developed by the NCAA: the aforementioned APR, and the Graduation Success Rate, developed in 2005. While the federal government counts student-athletes in good academic standing who transfer as "nongraduates" for the original school, the GSR allows schools to exclude those student-athletes from consideration, as long as they would have been academically eligible to compete had they stayed.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports also excluded the federal graduation rates from consideration in its report, saying they "give an unfair depiction of a school because [they] do not account for transfer students.

Finally, Duncan suggested restructuring the NCAA tournament money-distribution formula, citing a Knight Commission report released today that found men's basketball teams who failed to meet minimal academic standards earned nearly $179 million from the past five NCAA tournaments. The NCAA's current revenue-distribution plan awards more than $1.4 million to a team's conference for every game the team plays in the tournament. In the five most recent tournaments, nearly 44 percent of the total $409 million distributed was earned by teams with APRs below 925.

"I simply cannot understand why we continue to reward teams for failing to meet the most basic of academic standards off the court," Duncan said.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports' report also found that while the overall graduation rate for Division I players increased by 2 percent, the achievement gap between white and minority athletes is only expanding. More than half the NCAA tournament teams had a gap of at least 30 percentage points between the graduation rates of their white and black athletes. White players had an overall graduation rate of 91 percent, while black student-athletes only graduated at a 59 percent rate—a disparity Duncan called "absolutely unconscionable."

Luckily for Duncan, he may have an unlikely ally on his academic bully pulpit: the Round Mound of Rebound himself, Charles Barkley. As part of the NCAA tournament's new TV contract with TNT, TBS, truTV, and CBS, Barkley will be on the broadcast team calling tournament games this year, and he'll be shining a spotlight on teams' poor graduation rates.

"That's the only reason I'm doing this," Barkley told Newsday. "I want to talk to them about not graduating players. That's my concern. I'm not going to just jump on the bandwagon and let y'all make all this money on these kids and just not say anything. I sat them down before I said I would do this."

"You can't be giving them basket-weaving degrees," Barkley continued. "These colleges have an obligation to make sure they're going toward graduation. You can't just put them in classes to keep them eligible."

So, how does this all tie back to K-12 sports? Well, when asked if the academic problems found in college could be traced back to high school sports (and the AAU basketball circuit in particular), Duncan largely glossed over the issue. He pointed out, "We have students from very similar backgrounds of challenges and disadvantages going into these programs, with wildly different results."

He then tossed the question to Jealous, who continued hammering home his theory on who's to blame: the college coaches.

"The only thing that these schools have in common (when you look at the schools who are failing) is that they have a lack of leadership from the coach. These are schools that simply have coaches who have decided that it's not their job to make sure their athletes succeed in life."

Jealous said that the college-basketball equation has constants and variables: The constant is kids coming from challenging backgrounds; the variable is the priorities of the coach.

Legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. would likely agree with the secretary and Jealous, as Thompson developed a reputation for caring about his players' success off the court as much as on the court during his coaching career (which is becoming more and more of a novel idea in this day and age).

But, as Michael Kinney from The Norman Transcript points out, it's easy to blame the coaches and administrators for their student-athletes' academic failings. Too easy, in fact.

"The main responsibility is with the players, their families, and a culture where education not only takes a backseat to athletics, it's no longer valued," Kinney wrote.

To be fair to Duncan and Jealous, there's no question that some folks in the college-coaching ranks aren't exactly Good Samaritans. There are undoubtedly some seedy coaches in Division I, thinking more about their own job security and job prospects than their students' success in the classroom and future after basketball.

But the eagerness of Duncan and Jealous to put coaches in the crosshairs reminds me of a larger, ongoing debate in the world of education: Are teachers entirely to blame for their students' shortcomings, or must their students take some personal responsibility before succeeding academically?

Should college coaches value their players' academics for more reasons than just "will my player stay academically eligible?" Without question. In fact, Duncan's suggestion of tying postseason eligibility to graduation rates seems entirely reasonable—it shouldn't be a tall order for a team to have at least half its players on track to graduate.

But to place all the blame on coaches seems to ignore the fact that players are the ones ultimately in control of their academic destinies. And for Duncan to implore the NCAA to raise academic standards for teams entering postseason play, then turn around and blame schools and coaches for players' academic struggles, there's not much question about why the NCAA hasn't been quicker to act on these academic findings.

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