Is BASIS too tough for D.C. students?

BASIS, which runs very rigorous, very high performing charter schools in Arizona, will expand to Washington, D.C. this fall. The school will start with grades 5 through 8, then add a high school. Fifth graders read Beowulf, sixth graders take physics and Latin, seventh graders take algebra and high school students must pass at least eight AP courses and six exams. Students who fail end-of-year exams must repeat the grade. Critics say it’s too tough for D.C. students.

Among 45,000 kids in D.C. public schools more than 70,000 school-age kids in the city, it’s “bizarre” to think there aren’t at least a few hundred who’d benefit from “a phenomenally challenging academic environment,” writes Rick Hess. Not to mention insulting.

As Skip McKoy, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board has said, “I’m all for high standards. I’m all for excellent curriculum. Kids should be pushed. But you have to recognize the population.” Mark Lerner, a member of the board of Washington Latin charter school also argued that BASIS “blatantly markets itself to elite students” and is “a direct affront to the civil rights struggle so many have fought over school choice for underprivileged children.”

So school choice should provide no choices for students who are able to excel?

After conducting a lottery, BASIS has signed up a mix of students, reports the Washington Post: 48 percent are black, compared to 69 percent in D.C. schools, and 54 percent come from public schools.

Already, students are working on study skills, reading and math in a voluntary two-week boot camp before the Aug. 27 start date.

In a math prep session, teacher Robert Biemesderfer gave a class of mostly fifth- and sixth-graders 15 seconds to complete a row of multiplication problems. Mental math ability, Biemesderfer said, atrophies over the summer. “And by the way,” he said, “can anyone tell me what ‘atrophy’ means?”

Behind him, a PowerPoint slide read “Nothing halfway,” which is a Basis aphorism, along with “It’s cool to be smart” and “Walk with purpose.”

BASIS is designed for “workaholics,” not for gifted students, say founders Olga and Michael Block, Czech immigrants who wanted a challenging school for their daughter. Attrition is high in the eight Arizona schools and few special education students last long.

It’s not a good school for every student, writes Hess, but that’s OK. “The notion that families and students in DC shouldn’t have access to a high quality liberal arts curriculum just because many students in DC need something more remedial in scope strikes me as a perverse vision of ‘social justice’.”


About Joanne


  1. dangermom says:

    Wait, those two guys are basically saying that black kids can’t do well in school. O_o How is that attitude part of a ‘civil rights struggle’?

  2. Sounds like to me that the board member seems to think that if one isn’t asian or white or from india, etc, they’re unable to do the work.

    How pathetic.

    He should have said:

    “this is a VERY rigorous program, and students who are not highly motivated will not do well in this program”.

    That doesn’t target any race or ethnic group, but just tells the truth…

  3. I read the WaPo article and a number of the comments and the dislike for very rigorous options for bright and highly-motivated kids reached the point of outrage. There were also the usual comments about the school not serving ELL or spec ed kids well and more outrage about washing/counseling out the kids who can’t keep up or don’t behave. How inappropriate! It’s not as if parents aren’t desperate to get well-behaved, motivated, bright kids out of the weak and chaotic DCPS.

  4. My kid is very smart, but I don’t think that I would choose a ‘workaholic’ school for him…that being said, I also wouldn’t stop others from being able to choose that option for their kids. As a homeschooler, I’m a big believer in parental choice.

  5. It would be even better if there was a similar choice for k-4, so similar kids would get off to a fast start. It would make the transition much easier.

  6. palisadesk says:

    D.C. public schools were lousy when *I* was a student in them. And those were the so-called “good old days.” I, and I’m sure many of my classmates, would have jumped at the chance for an alternative — even a “workaholic” one: my overwhelming memory of DCPS is of having nothing to do most of the time (one of the worst possible offences was to “read ahead” in the textbook– or any book — oh the horror).

    So I applaud the option of a rigorous program like BASIS for DCPS students — but I have some reservations. For one thing, their spokeswoman, as quoted here:

    Olga Block, a Czech native and former college professor who founded Basis 13 years ago with her husband, economist Michael Block, said their schools can educate anyone who walks in the door.

    “We know how to do this,” she said. “We’re very good at it.”

    ..seems to be making contrary-to-fact assertions. The evidence is that they do NOT know how to educate low-performing students, and that it is not their mission to do so. Why not come right out and say so?

    My district has some magnet schools that are similar to BASIS in marketing themselves to “workaholics.” Average students with a good work ethic will succeed; even very bright kids who slack off will not succeed. When students apply they are told what characteristics are required for success.They accept applicants from all SES and ethnic groups but don’t have a significant population of low-income students, largely (I’m told) because there is no transportation available and they are not located in low-income neighborhoods.

    Does BASIS provide transportation (or a transportation allowance?) That might also affect the demographics of its enrolees.

  7. Miller Smith says:

    Low performing students are generally of low ability and there are limits to what they can be made to do with the limited funds and time they have in thwir academic careers.

    The economic future of a nation depends on how well it educates its top ability groups.

  8. Actually, the U.S. as a whole spends far less on the top 5% of students in it’s schools, based on grades, IQ, standardized testing, and yes, hard work, than it does on all other students.

    It would appear that ‘dumbing down the population’ is a good thing, since a dumbed down population won’t know how to challenge authority.

    What would have happened to this nation had patriots like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Patrick Henry, and others were ‘dumbed down’ to the standards of today?

    I suspect we wouldn’t be able to have the protections we’re slowly LOSING in the U.S. Constitution, or for that matter, any constitution at all.


  9. Cranberry says:

    The DC area supports many private schools.

    It’s unlikely, but let’s assume the BASIS school were only to siphon students from Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Day, etc. That would be a fine development. The spots not filled with the BASIS kids would be filled by great students whose parents would otherwise move to the suburbs. Some of the parents might work for politicians and influential nonprofits. It would be a good thing if that group of parents (connected, education-oriented families of all races) were to send their children to the public schools.

    However, I agree with Rick Hess, there are certainly children who will do well in such a school. New York, Chicago, Boston, etc. manage to support public exam schools. Entry to this school isn’t regulated by an exam. Students are free to leave if they can’t keep up. Isn’t it more honest to be honest about the demanding curriculum before enrollment?

    • palisadesk says:

      Yes, exactly, so that is what makes the statement by Ms. Block so puzzling. She seems to be claiming that the school is suitable for (and that the Arizona school has had success with) ANY kind of student – which is manifestly not the case.

      Why try to play both sides? Naturally they cannot say “no IEP kids need apply” but they could emphasize that weak students or those with special needs have a low probability of success.

      • Cranberry says:

        I think Ms.Block has a non-American attitude to the roots of academic success. I read frequently of studies which maintain Americans ascribe success to inborn qualities (IQ, or IEP vs. gifted, etc.), whereas international students, teachers and parents are more likely to credit hard work.

        Most public schools don’t turn anyone away. Nevertheless, many parents exercise a certain degree of selection. Several years ago, Joanne Jacobs linked to a newspaper report about upper middle class parents avoiding certain high-achieving California districts, because they thought the workload was too intense.

        The Basis formula offers austere, European-style rigor — eighth-graders must pass the University of Cambridge international benchmarking exam — without many of the usual extracurricular bells and whistles of U.S. high schools.

        “I have a math program. I have a physics program. I have a calculus program. What is this about a music band?” Block told the Arizona Republic in 2006. She said her classrooms were for “workaholics.”

        The lack of extracurriculars will limit the appeal to parents who want football, marching band, and lots of clubs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’ll be interesting to see if the graduates manage to get into colleges without extracurriculars.

        IEPs cover a wide range, though. Could the school be a good fit for some Asperger kids, who might love science and math, but fall apart in a curriculum which demands lots of group work and high social skills?

  10. Brian Jones says:

    I chair the DC Public Charter School Board, the entity that authorized BASIS in DC. I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of bringing the BASIS model to the nation’s capital. I am a believer in educational choice for parents. And I enthusiastically voted for the grant of the charter, and am thrilled (and not terribly surprised) by the fast start to which BASIS and its team are off. But I think you’ve been unfair to my PCSB colleague, Skip McKoy. True, Skip voted against the grant of the charter. However, the concern he raised at the school’s hearing related, not unfairly in my view, to his concern about the school’s plan to prepare the much more diverse population of kids in DC for the rigors of the BASIS curriculum that has been so successful in AZ. (And the fact of the matter is that the very next sentence after the one you quote here made just that point.) As Skip noted in the BASIS hearing, in DC the school must be open to all and, if over-subscribed, the school must award places by random lottery. So there is, fairly, a challenge posed to charters to serve all comers in DC. Accordingly, the leadership of the school, working closely with the staff of the PCSB, myself and my colleagues, proposed to meet that challenge and delivered a highly detailed plain to prepare students for its rigors and to support them in their efforts. With that done, Skip noted — and noted publicly — that he in fact supports the school today and is hopeful for its success.

  11. I live in Arizona and my daughter attended BASIS Scottsdale for one quarter in 5th grade a few years ago. While the school was not a good fit for us, I have to say I was very impressed with the school, the teachers and the curriculum that they used. I personally would have thrived as a student in an environment such as at BASIS, even though my daughter did not.

    The school is definitely for hard-working students, not slackers. My daughter had homework in just about every subject, every night. Three to four hours, every night. However, the school offered a number of extra-curricular activities as well.

    I was quite impressed with the teachers at BASIS, though some were of course better than others. They were all willing to work with the students, and were available to them and their parents. However, there was no coddling of the students.

    The curriculum used by BASIS was what should be used in all public schools, in my opinion (If it hasn’t changed in the years since my daughter attended). Saxon Math was used from 5th grade through 12th. English/Literature did indeed cover Beowulf, but also shorter classical works and basic grammar. They also studied History, Geography, Latin, Art and Music. They had P.E. classes twice a week I believe.

    This kind of education should be open and available to all students. I wish this sort of education was what Public Education was, even if it were a little less intense, or modified for Special Needs students. There is no reason why any child, who is willing to work, very hard, cannot be successful in this school (except for Special Needs students of course).