Let’s say you decide to start a school for sixth through 12th graders that gives students a rigorous, world class education: demanding courses, lots of homework, sky-high expectations.
You begin the first year with 100 sixth graders. Because the word is out about the school’s high academic standards, lots of the kids are already top students, eager to learn and willing to work. Others are less gifted and motivated. Of course, teachers put in extra time helping those students. But the school’s expectations are non-negotiable. Everyone has to keep up.
Things work pretty well through middle school. By the end of the 8th grade, some students are thriving and others are just getting by, but most of them have stuck with the program. High school, however, will be a far more challenging academic world, and the students know it. They’ll be required to take at least eight Advanced Placement (AP) courses and complete the national AP tests for six of them, on top of their other demanding, labor-intensive coursework. It’s a daunting prospect even for the best students, but those who’ve struggled just to keep up know they don’t stand a chance. Half of the original 100 students withdraw before their freshman year.
Student attrition continues in high school until by senior year, only 33 students remain. Those left standing are testament to the strength of the school’s curriculum, but what about the 67 who left before they graduated? It might be too harsh to say the school failed them, but there’s no question the school didn’t succeed at raising them to its high standards.
What I’ve just described is the way things work at BASIS charter schools. The standards are high, the workload is daunting and two out of three students don’t make it to their senior year. The schools work fine for a select group of students, but they certainly don’t provide a model that can be used in schools that educate all students who come their way. Yet ardent supporters love to tell a false story about BASIS that makes it sound like the schools have found an answer to our educational problems. They claim BASIS takes a broad sampling of students from the community and molds them into educational world beaters. If schools were more like BASIS and less like our traditional public schools, the story goes, our students would be far more successful than they are.
Many people in the media repeat the BASIS legend because they’ve heard it so often. They’ve also seen how high the schools place in national rankings. Doesn’t that prove BASIS offers a model other schools should follow? No, in fact, it doesn’t. The rankings are based on the number of AP courses students take compared to the number of seniors in the school. The more selective the student body and the fewer students in the senior class, the better the rankings. In 2008, for instance, when BASIS Tucson was ranked Number 1 by Newsweek, it had only 18 seniors, down from the 57 who began as 6th graders.
The BASIS legend is trumpeted by conservative “education reformers” whose goal is to promote charter schools and private school vouchers while dismantling the traditional public school system. They present BASIS as the shining academic city on the hill and insist that traditional public schools are failures by comparison. The fact is, you can’t compare BASIS to schools that take children of all abilities and keep working with them even if they don’t match up to some preset standard of excellence. Niche schools like BASIS are fine for what they are, but universal public education doesn’t select out the highest achieving students and show everyone else the door.
What we need here is some truth in advertising. Let’s give BASIS its due for offering a rigorous education to a select group of students. Let’s not give it credit for showing us a better way to educate our children.
(Editor’s Note: Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.)