BASIS on MSNBC: The Truth vs. The Legend


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.


  1. “those nasty teachers unions are blocking these wonderful models that could turn all of our kids into achievers”

    Yeah, the assumption is that teachers could easily have excellent schools under any conditions and simply choose not to. For what possible reason?

  2. I think the point is that Basis serves very well a certain type of highly driven, ambitious student, as does University High. The school is a good fit for that type, but there is little evidence that the model succeeds for students who don’t fit that mold. For example, my daughter got into University High, but we all knew that she is not that type of student and would not thrive there. She chose a different school. What I tell parents searching for schools is that there is not one BEST school. Rather, there might be one best school for your child, while another child might have a terrible experience there.

    And yes, David, I am probably projecting optimism on Chuck Todd.

  3. Well, no, those models are not being used anywhere, only at BASIS schools. They have performance pay unlike anything at any public school in the United States. And, they could get similar results if they had these students all the way from kindergarten which is what they are working towards.

    Michael Block, BASIS founder, worked with Nobel prize winner Vernon Smith to pioneer network theory and analysis. He then applied those principles to education. His wife, a published economist, is even sharper than he is. She is polishing their internal systems.

    You are clinging to a simple, mythological, narrative, the ultimate cherry picking charter school wins by cheating. Even your narrative doesn’t wash. The original BASIS school has improved its reenrollment rates every single year and those reenrollment rates are now higher than typical public school reenrollment rates. No great organization ever hit the ground at top speed, they grown organically. The steady improvement of reenrollment rates is evidence that the BASIS system is a very healthy organization.

    And, letter grades should never be used to close a school. The underlying assumption behind letter grades is that the student body is homogenous. While letter grades are overall somewhat helpful, they can be badly flawed for any specific school. Particularly those that work to save the tens of thousands of adjudicated youth.

  4. I was less pleased about Todd’s reference to special and magnet schools showing greater success. He implied, I thought, that if all schools followed that model, they would improve, without considering the socioeconomic factors in achievement. He also fell into the “When are you going to close the D schools?” line of thinking. Too many members of the media, even the relatively enlightened media, have bought the conservative education snake oil. We need to learn how to respond more effectively.

  5. I saw the webcast. Only a total political tool like Huppenthal could say with a straight face that the BASIS model could work in an urban D-rated school. Chuck got it. He kept noting that none of the top schools were regular public schools, but special schools or magnet schools. Thomas hit it right. If those models could be used anywhere, they would be. [Or as the counter-narrative goes, those nasty teachers unions are blocking these wonderful models that could turn all of our kids into achievers. Selfish teachers.]