by David Safier
Arizona is the Wild West of Charter Schools, so it's fitting that a line from a John Ford western so neatly sums up the way Arizona's BASIS charter schools are praised by the conservative "education reform" crowd and how they're covered by the media: "When the legend becomes fact, print The Legend."
The essential BASIS Legend, repeated endlessly by the education privatization crowd, goes something like this: BASIS Charter schools prove students in the U.S. can achieve at world-class levels if a school maintains high standards and high expectations. BASIS is a public school that has to take all applicants, yet its students' achievement soars above the failing "government schools." BASIS has been recognized as the best high school in the nation on a number of occasions and equals or exceeds the international test scores of the highest achieving countries.
The problem with The Legend is, it ignores the fact that BASIS students are a highly select group, especially by the time they make it to high school. Students who can't make the grade fall by the wayside before they make it to their senior year. Most of the students who succeed would excel wherever they were — district, charter or private school. BASIS' reputation for excellence has far more to do with the students
who manage to survive the schools' rigor than the quality of the
education offered. If you have reasonably good teachers presenting demanding material to the top-level students who survive at BASIS, you can be guaranteed they'll ace all the tests that come their way.
If you want to create a reasonably accurate comparison between BASIS and a "government school" — a school that's part of a school district — compare it with TUSD's University High, which is also composed of select students and also scores high on national rankings. The only reason you hear so much more about BASIS than University High is because the BASIS Legend is a perfect — and perfectly inaccurate — way for the conservative "education reform" movement to demonize traditional public education and show how good education can be if you take it out of government's hands. An obscenely well funded coalition of organizations exists to sing the praises of schools like BASIS as part of their continuing efforts to push their privatization agenda.
BASIS schools begin with a reasonably high achieving group of 6th grade students (recently they added a 5th grade). Of those 11 and 12 year olds, only one out of three will make it to their senior year. The other two-thirds withdraw, mainly because the expectations and pressure are so great, they know they won't be able to succeed. The biggest student dropoff is from the 8th to the 9th grade. Any middle schooler who's struggling to keep up knows the pressure and expectations will be far greater in high school as the coursework becomes increasingly more demanding and they're required to take a number of AP courses. However, even among the ninth graders who make the cut, between 30% and 50% don't last to their senior year.
The high attrition rates and student selectivity don't fit the BASIS Legend, so they're not mentioned by the schools' promoters. Most of the media tends to echo the hype instead of investigating how BASIS gets those unusually high test scores — scores that should look suspiciously high to any journalist with a well-developed BS detector. Unfortunately, reporters and columnists eager to tell a feel-good story about American education latch onto the BASIS Legend and repeat it verbatim.
Take NY TImes columnist Tom Friedman, for example. In his recent column, My Little (Global) School, he begins by bemoaning the poor test scores of U.S. students compared with their peers in other countries — a disparity that is overstated by conservatives and accepted by most journalists who don't spend much time looking into educational literature and research. Then Friedman moves onto the "good news."
The good news, though, said [Jon] Schnur, “is that, for the first time, we have documented that there are individual U.S. schools that are literally outperforming every country in the world.”
“BASIS Tucson North, a nonselective high school serving an economically modest middle-class student population in Arizona, outperformed the average of every country in the world in reading, math, and science,” the report said.
Calling BASIS a "nonselective high school" is ridiculous if you know that only a third of its students are still at the school when they're seniors. Friedman, like so many others, prints The Legend instead of looking at the facts. And to compare the select group of students at BASIS to "the average [achievement] of every country in the world" is equally ridiculous, since BASIS high school students don't begin as average American students who are miraculously lifted to astronomical academic heights. They're the best and the brightest selected from a pool of strong students, most of whom aren't quite strong enough to make the cut.
Then Friedman goes on to talk about the "secret" of schools like BASIS.
So what’s the secret of the best-performing schools? It’s that there is no secret. The best schools, the study found, have strong fundamentals and cultures that believe anything is possible with any student: They “work hard to choose strong teachers with good content knowledge and dedication to continuous improvement.” They are “data-driven and transparent, not only around learning outcomes, but also around soft skills like completing work on time, resilience, perseverance — and punctuality.” And they promote “the active engagement of our parents and families.”
The problem is, BASIS isn't a "success" in the way that paragraph implies. For the BASIS model to be held up as an example of how to educate U.S. students, the majority of the schools' 6th graders should don their BASIS caps and gowns on graduation day instead of finishing their educations elsewhere. The real BASIS "secret" can't be reproduced at most other schools which take all students who apply and try their damndest to educate all of them, from the highest achieving to the lowest.
BASIS has every right to create highly academic, highly selective charter schools. But the schools and their promoters should be honest about how BASIS operates. It may be a successful school for a select few, but it isn't a model most other schools can follow.