Better than Shanghai

“While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China’s academic gem in the dust,” writes June Kronholz on Education Next.

How do they do it?

“We do an incredible amount of work,” said Alia Gilbert.

Founded in Arizona by economists Michael and Olga Block (she’s Czech), BASIS admits any student — anyone who’s willing to do the work.

Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

Students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score of 3.9 out of 5

BASIS teachers said that they offer slower learners abundant extra help, and that kids rise to meet the schools’ expectations. But at the same time, those expectations may scare off the less-able, less-interested students, which can mean a test-score bump for BASIS. (Sophomore Charlie) Murphy told me that his class had 120 students when they arrived as 5th graders, but the group has dropped to 40, as youngsters have transferred to schools with bigger sports programs, more social offerings, or an easier course load.

The Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the funding for a child in a traditional public school, writes Kronholz. Classes are large. Technology is minimal. With highly motivated and capable students, it doesn’t matter.

A new Washington D.C. school, which enrolls a high percentage of disadvantaged, poorly prepared students, is struggling to accelerate the curriculum, but test scores are far higher than in district schools.

BASIS teachers, who are expected to be “scholars,” start at about $40,000 and peak in the “mid-80s.”  They receive “bonuses based on the number of their students who pass AP exams—$200 for each student who passes with a score of 5; $100 for a 4—but schools must raise money themselves for other performance bonuses.”

BASIS Schools, Inc., a for-profit, “secures the charters, employs the teachers and handles centralized functions.” Each school is a nonprofit that owns its building. New BASIS schools use pre-fab buildings that can be assembled in four months for about $8 million, including the land. That’s half the cost of a typical Phoenix school.

U.S. News ranks best high schools

U.S. News has come out with its 2013 Best High Schools Rankings. Nearly all the top-ranked schools are specialty schools, magnets or charter schools. Arizona’s BASIS, an ultra-rigorous charter network, has two schools in the top five. Twenty-eight of the top-ranked 100 high schools are charter schools.

The survey looks at the performance of students overall and disadvantaged students compared to similar students in the state; if schools post above-average results, the survey analyzes Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test results.

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’.”