UNC-CH learning specialist cites grim data about athletes’ reading ability

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2014 

— An analysis of academically at-risk athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill showed that more than half were reading on an elementary or middle school level and about 10 percent could hardly read at all, according to a learning specialist who used to work with the athletes.

Mary Willingham is still employed at the university but no longer works with athletes. She has been outspoken about the university’s long-running case of no-show classes, grade changes and independent studies that helped keep athletes eligible.

Willingham analyzed data for 183 athletes admitted to UNC-CH between 2004 and 2012 and found that 60 percent had reading scores that equated to fourth- through eighth-grade levels, she said. The reading skills of an additional 8 percent to 10 percent were below the third-grade level.

The 183 athletes were among those most at risk for academic failure because they had been sent to a summer program to prepare before their freshman year. Of the athletes she studied, 85 percent came from the revenue sports of football and basketball.

More than a third of the students had learning disabilities and attention deficits, most of which had never been diagnosed.

‘It’s fraudulent’

The results didn’t surprise Willingham, she said, but were heartbreaking nonetheless. The students did not have low IQs, she said, but were so far behind that their chances of success at Chapel Hill were slim.

“How can you take someone who’s got fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade reading levels, enroll them in 12 hours of college curriculum and expect them to be able to pass those classes while you’re trying to do some remedial work with them to catch all those missing years up?” Willingham said. “It’s fraudulent. It’s impossible. You’ve got to have a system of cheating in place.”

Now the bogus African studies classes are gone, Willingham said, but there are still mismatched and easy classes that perpetuate the problem.

Willingham appears in a documentary about college sports and was featured in a report by CNN this week. She said Wednesday that she had been on the receiving end of dozens of nasty emails and a few death threats.

“I seem to have hit a nerve,” she said.

Optimistic about change

Willingham also has a grievance pending against the university for changes to her job that she thinks were an effort to make her quit, she said. And she is writing a book with Jay Smith, a UNC-CH history professor who also has been critical of athletics.

Despite the threats and the animosity, Willingham said she is optimistic about change. There already have been some slight improvements, she said, because football players’ performance is better since the years she studied.

There are also reforms proposed by some members of Congress and others that show promise, she said.

“I hope that we’re going to give these young people still a chance,” Willingham said. “I don’t want to not see them have an educational opportunity, but I want to see them have a real educational opportunity.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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