Commenter thinks I have it wrong about BASIS charter

by David Safier

I wrote a post a few days ago, BASIS Charter's education model: Success by Attrition. Using the attendance numbers at BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale, I found that the number of students in the senior class at the two schools is 60% to 71% lower than when the class began as 6th graders. My conclusion was, BASIS has attained its national status as a top high school through a process of attrition where the students are winnowed down year by year until only the most academically successful survive to their senior years.

A commenter, Cynthia Weiss, strongly disagrees with my conclusions, though she doesn't question my data, which I took from Average Daily Attendance reports submitted to the Department of Education by the two BASIS schools. Weiss has written lots of comments defending BASIS charter schools as well as Great Hearts charter schools. She's commented here on BfA, on Diane Ravitch's blog and on Valerie Strauss' Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet. Because Weiss is so determined to have her voice heard, I think she deserves a reply.

Different people can draw different conclusions from the attendance data I've put in the two tables in my earlier post to explain why so many students leave BASIS over the years, but really, the people who know most about it are those who have been closest to the school: students, parents, teachers and administrators, past and present. I've talked with some parents and students, but I would love to hear from others. Please share your experiences and observations in the Comments section — you can adopt a "handle" rather than revealing your name if you wish — or send me an email at safier@schooltales.net. I always honor people's requests to keep their names confidential.

Below I've summarized Weiss' main assertions as accurately as I can (in bold) and responded to them.

  1. Students leave BASIS at the end of the 8th grade because they want to attend a private school or a "full service high school."
    From the 6th grade to the 9th grade, the number of students in each grade usually drops 40% to 50% or more, with the biggest drop coming between the 8th grade and 9th grades. That kind of attrition is far higher than any I've seen in schools unless they serve very transitory, low income population. The question is, why the high attrition rate at BASIS? It seems unlikely that lots of students who are attending a tuition-free school with an academic reputation that would help them get into top colleges would leave because they wanted to attend a high priced private school. I also wonder, if BASIS serves a mainly middle class population, how could so many parents afford the high cost of private school tuition? You would expect more students in Scottsdale to leave for private schools than in Tucson because of the income level in Scottsdale, but in fact, the numbers indicate the attrition rate is higher at BASIS Tucson.
    I'm sure some students leave because they want to take advantage of the kinds of sports and fine arts programs available at bigger high schools, but my experience is, if the students are happy with the school they attend, if they like their fellow students, if they feel they are learning and feel successful, they don't opt to leave in large numbers to go to a big, unfamiliar new school filled with students they don't know.
  2. Students leave at the end of the 11th grade if they have met graduation requirements, which is allowed at BASIS.
    The problem with this argument is, the attendance records show no more than 6 students leaving at the end of the 11th grade in any given year. Most years, zero, one or two students leave at the end of the 11th grade. [A tangential comment: What often happens (which doesn't show up in the attendance data) is, students complete their requirements in January of their senior year and spend their last semester off campus in some kind of internment or other educational experience. Which leads me to wonder, if BASIS seniors only spend half the year in class with their teachers, should the school get a full year's funding for those students from the state?]
  3. Few students enter BASIS after the 5th or 6th grade, which are the earliest grades at BASIS, because they'd be too far behind. That means students who want to enter and aren't strong students can't be held back.
    This is an interesting argument. If few students are admitted after the 6th grade, does that mean no older students apply or ask the school about submitting an application? That doesn't pass the logic test. More likely parents of 7th, 8th and 9th grade students, knowing BASIS' reputation, either apply or ask the school about applying. If they are discouraged from applying, that reinforces the idea of the exclusivity of BASIS. If they apply and are told the students probably will be too far behind to succeed — or they will be held back a year so they have time to catch up — that again reinforces the idea that students are discouraged from entering the school unless they are exceptionally gifted or well prepared. The result is, when students withdraw from BASIS, they aren't replaced with new students, which explains why the number of students in each grade decreases until the senior class is 60% to 71% smaller than the 6th grade class.
  4. BASIS is one of the best public or private schools in Arizona and gets high marks for quality from the Washington Post.
    I agree. In fact, I made this point in my original post when I wrote: "BASIS charter schools' high school students do stunningly well in AP classes and on other data-based measures of student achievement." The point is, BASIS doesn't achieve that kind of academic success because it has cracked the code and discovered how to educate students better than other schools. It offers a very challenging curriculum for its students starting in the 6th grade, and by the end of the senior year, the small percentage of students who have run the academic gauntlet successfully are the only ones left standing. It's social/educational Darwinism BASIS-style, where only the academically fittest survive.

The final point Weiss makes is, if I want "to get the truth," I should contact Michael Block, the founder of the school. I would be delighted to talk to or email with Mr. Block if he wants to contact me to correct any misconceptions he thinks I might have, but I would be aware as we communicated that he has a very big dog in this hunt. Block has a for-profit Charter Management Organization that runs the nonprofit BASIS schools. About 70% of the money each school gets from the state of Arizona goes to Block's CMO where it disappears from sight. When Block headed BASIS nonprofit, he and his wife Olga gave themselves large salaries which could be found on the schools' tax returns, which, like all nonprofits, are public. We have no idea what they pay themselves now, and they are unwilling to release the figures. The Blocks are also in the process of rapidly expanding BASIS schools, and their ability to expand is dependent on the BASIS reputation. So while I would get valuable information from Mr. Block, I doubt I would get the objective, unvarnished truth.

0 responses to “Commenter thinks I have it wrong about BASIS charter

  1. David Safier

    Thanks for the comments, Harvey. You sound like you know what you’re talking about, either through parental or teacherly experience.

    What you say about the students barely hanging on is important, and sad. Lately I’ve been hearing that students in the lower grades are in similarly high pressure situations, which makes the high dropout rates inevitable. Some students — and people in general — thrive on maximum stress and create their own if there’s not enough already. But other students can be driven nuts by demands that are more than they can tolerate. Students have got to be able to succeed on a number of levels in a good and humane school, even a school that’s very demanding.

  2. I can speak about the “flagship” BASIS Tucson (now BASIS TUCSON NORTH). There is indeed a more significant drop after 8th grade mostly because students leave for UHS. But the year to year attrition is indeed largely due to kids getting ground down & weeded out. For this reason, the BASIS DC experiment will be interesting to follow. Contention #2 is simply not true for BTN – I would say less than 5 students have graduated early in the last 6 years and it is strongly discouraged by the admin.

    But on a more general level, I think BASIS is comfortable with its “we are not for everyone” image. They frankly disclose this to parents. It is a charter school offering a niche product and that is exactly what the charter movement was supposed to add to the public school system.

    So what I would highlight is not so much the attrition – if they can stay profitable and attract students that is all that matters in a charter school system. The two troubling issues are (1) lack of financial transparency (which you have mentioned) and (2) the plight of many of the very capable students who remain. In every class among those who remain about 50% or so are barely hanging on, burnt out, stressed or fundamentally unhappy and underserved by the test-based accelerated curriculum. (Especially sad are the ones forced to remain due to determined parents convinced BASIS is the only road to MIT or Harvard no matter what their kids might want or need.) Yes most are able to perform on standardized tests, but I seriously question their ability to become independent-minded thinkers in college and beyond. The top 25%, however, are truly remarkable. These are the kids touted by the admin on the press releases. But I think these kids would rock it wherever they went, and probably would have been better served by a more rounded curriculum than BASIS provides.

  3. David Safier

    Cinqueencreek, Are you talking about a Great Hearts school? Your comment makes me want to know more, especially your statement, “Out of three students, one graduated.” Were you a student? Parent? Teacher? Feel free to email me at safier@schooltales.net if you don’t want to write more in the Comments section (though I would love to have you continue here).

  4. cinqueencreek

    I have no experience with BASIS, but I do with Tempe Prep. Similar Ideology. The attrition rate was HORRENDOUS! Especially in the early High School years. There is no flexibily. Great in math, need help in history… tough tookies. In fact, the pinnacle of my experience would be the statement “Curriculum comes first, not students” Out of three students, one graduated.

  5. Educating smart kids is easy. I won’t be impressed until BASIS performs their miracle with ELLs, kids with IEPs, and average students.
    Lack of transparency in their spending also suggests some hanky panky. How much do the Blocks really make, and do they each really deserve a six figure salary provided by taxpayers when they educate so few students?