by David Safier
As part of its Education Nation series, MSNBC sent Chuck Todd to Phoenix for a discussion with a panel consisting of John Huppenthal (Superintendent of Education), Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor (Senate Minority Leader), Joe Thomas, (Vice President of the Arizona Education Association) and Rep. Andy Tobin (House Speaker). The conversation ranged all over the education landscape. Not surprisingly, one segment was about BASIS, where I saw a fascinating transformation take place. First came The BASIS Legend from the mouths of two media people who've heard it so often they've memorized it, followed by Julia Toews, Head of BASIS Tucson North, and Hupp, who repeated and embellished it. Then came Joe Thomas — the man is ready for prime time, he did a great job all through the discussion — who busted out with The Truth and deflated The Legend.
The best line came from Joe near the end. When they were talking about whether the BASIS method could be scaled up or transported whole to other schools, Joe said, "If we could scale up BASIS, BASIS would have scaled up in Tucson, and they would be 10,000 strong by now." Perfect.
Chuck Todd led off with The BASIS Legend. It's the story he knows, because it's been repeated ad nauseum by the conservative "education reform" crowd that created it. Here's what Todd said, with my comments in brackets:
I've seen huge solutions from BASIS Schools [No you haven't. You've seen misleading stories about huge solutions]. Right now, BASIS Tucson North is considered the best high school in the country [No, there's nothing near universal agreement that BASIS is close to being the best high school in the country. U.S. News & World Report put out a deeply flawed high school ratings list that had BASIS Tucson as Number 2, and uninformed members of the media, prodded by conservative propagandists, swallowed it whole]. What are you doing right? [Better question: What are you doing, right or wrong, to get those high ratings?]
Kim Covington of Channel 12 News followed Todd's praise with more of her own, then asked BASIS Tucson Head Julia Toews to tell her what BASIS is doing right. Toews replied:
I think we're doing everything right [True, if by "everything," you mean thinning the herd until only the top academic students survive]. I think the key is rigor [True, so long as one of the results of the rigor is a thinning of the herd]. . . . We have raised our expectations for all students [True, if you mean all students who are in BASIS and manage to survive, acknowledging that the raised expectations eliminate two-thirds of the students from the 6th to the 12th grade]. We are open enrollment, tuition free [This is the favorite and most misleading part of The Legend, implying that BASIS takes a random group of students and molds them into educational world beaters].
Todd, enthralled by The Legend, asked Huppenthal if you could take the BASIS manual, hand it to a D rated high school principal and turn it into a top 100 school. Hupp said, yeah, sure. Just bring in the BASIS form of performance pay for teachers and create an all AP environment. Then he added, it could be a challenge and take a few years, but . . .
Only someone living in a dream world of his own creation who has never been a teacher would think all you have to do is import the very difficult and demanding AP curriculum into a school where reluctant students are working below grade level and inspire them to meet the challenge — so long as you dangle a performance pay carrot in front of teachers' noses.
Finally, Joe Thomas, a working teacher, put everyone in their place. No, he said, the AP-style curriculum with its high pressure and demands simply won't work for everyone. Then came the zinger:
"If we could scale up BASIS, BASIS would have scaled up in Tucson, and they would be 10,000 strong by now. . . . It's a wonderful option for students, it works for particular students, but even they struggle with dropouts."
With that, the BASIS bubble popped, and Chuck Todd heard it pop. For the rest of the discussion, Todd turned to some public school models and said, Maybe these can be reproduced elsewhere.
I'm hopeful that, after Joe schooled him, Chuck Todd realized the truth about BASIS is far away from The Legend he's been fed. I also hope The Truth will confront The Legend more often and take away one part of the right's cherished School Choice myth.