Craig Barrett and Michael Block lie by omission — again


by David Safier

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 6.13.00 PMScores from the PISA international tests came out Tuesday. If you just look at the raw scores, the takeaway is, U.S. students are far behind the rest of the world. It's a hopeful sign that many people in the media, possibly for the first time, are taking a more measured approach to the data and considering factors that add a degree of depth to their analysis and make a blanket condemnation of U.S. schools look questionable. But not Power Lunch on CNBC. Uh uh. Host Sue Herera interviewed the top two people at BASIS charter schools — Craig Barrett, president and chairman of the board (and Gov. Brewer's educational right hand man), and Michael Block, BASIS' founder — and asked them flat out, no nuance, why U.S. students are lagging so far behind internationally. Barrett, an intelligent man who has lots of experience in the educational field (though he's never taught at a K-12 school), answered, disingenuously,

"It's probably a combination of three things. Great education systems like Shanghai — or BASIS — have great teachers, high expectations and a degree of accountability, or tension, in the system. . . . You hardly find that at all in the United States."

I guess Barrett forgot to mention the fourth thing: both Shanghai and BASIS have highly selective school populations. BASIS uses a triple selection process to make sure its high school students are among the most intelligent and conscientious in the state. Shanghai is a city filled with China's elite. While 24% of China's high school graduates go on to college, the number is 84% in Shanghai. On average, Shanghai's parents spend as much on tutoring and weekend activities for their high school aged children as the average Chinese worker makes in a year. Oh, and children of immigrants aren't allowed to attend Shanghai's high schools. If they want to go to school, they have to return to the rural villages they came from.

Next, Michael Block chimed in, saying the BASIS secret is finding and supporting great teachers and using a world class curriculum. And this too.

"We also hold the students accountable. That takes the form of high stakes exams. Students in our middle schools have to pass comprehensive exams before they move to the next grade."

Block didn't quite finish the thought. If students don't pass the comprehensive exams, they're out — or they have to repeat the grade, which means they usually leave of their own volition. That's why only half of the 8th grade class makes it to the 9th grade. It would be a whole lot easier for school districts to post high test scores if they could send their slackers packing. But instead of having that luxury, district schools end up accepting all the kids who leave BASIS and every other charter school that weeds out the lowest achieving or most disruptive students.

A lie of omission is still a lie, which makes these two august gentleman liars when they talk about BASIS. To tell the truth about their high scoring charter school, Barrett and Block need to acknowledge that they provide an elite education to some of the top students in the state. They haven't found the secret to providing a rigorous, demanding education for every student who walks in the door.


  1. Thucydides, I know Bob Lord says it’s not your reading skills, it’s your agenda. But old English teacher habits die hard, and I worry about how you’ll do on the high stakes test coming up in spring. See, it’s going to give you a passage to read, something like my post, and it’s going to ask you to choose the main idea of the passage out of a list of options, and to decide what the author means by a certain phrase. I’d honestly like you to learn how to read a passage for its actual content, not for what you think it says. It’s for your own good, especially if you hope to go on to college.

    I didn’t compare BASIS to other schools or other students. I called Barrett and Block liars — purveyors of falsehoods, if you wish — because they insist on pretending BASIS schools succeed where other schools fail, when they know full well that they stack the student deck by using multiple selection processes to choose some of the ablest and most conscientious students in the area. Nothing in what I wrote questioned the quality of the education BASIS gives its select students. That argument is in your head, not in my post.

    I’m not going to grade you on the comments you’ve made on this post. I hope my suggestions will help you do better next time.

  2. You shouldn’t use the word lie or liars. Falsehood is much better. You don’t know what is in their hearts or minds no matter how much you think you do. For instance, BASIS student growth percentiles are above the 50th percentile. The way that is determined is to compare their students with students **exactly like their students ***. So, they do run an excellent school on an apples to apples basis.

  3. dcmom, It will take a few years to see how BASIS DC works in terms of the type of students who make up the majority of those enrolling and the numbers of students who leave each year — and if those leaving fit into certain economic and racial categories. At this point, the DC campus seems to be trying something different from the Arizona campuses. It’s attempting to be more inclusive. But the type of rigor you describe and the fact that children are required to repeat grades if their work doesn’t meet the rigorous standards (and I’ll bet many of them leave rather than repeating a year) simply reinforces the idea that the BASIS model only works for a portion of the community.

    If Barrett, Block and others acknowledge that they’re running schools catering to one portion of the student population instead of insisting they’ve found “the answer” to raising the quality of education in the U.S., I’ll stop calling them liars.

  4. “It’s probably a combination of three things. Great education systems like Shanghai — or BASIS — have great teachers, high expectations and a degree of accountability, or tension, in the system. . . . You hardly find that at all in the United States.”

    Either Barrett is a liar or he is admitting to failing miserably at his job and should be fired immediately. I think we all know that he is a liar who doesn’t care what happens to Arizona schools or children as long as he can continue raking in tax dollars for himself and his corporation.

    People like Barrett are a dime a dozen in the AZ GOP. Thanks to our complicit media and a whole lot of ill-informed voters, public education is ripe for the taking.

  5. dcmom, We are on the same page with regard to what we want for our kids. And I’m sure we agree that we want high standards for all kids. But studies show that retention does not affect all kids in the same way. Many retained students show a reduced likelihood of high school graduation. Sure, we can argue about whether some retained students are more likely to drop out, while others will be motivated to achieve. I think both results are true, based on individual students.

    The BASIS model is great for the kids for whom is works. The question is, what do we do for the rest of the kids? (If you think the BASIS model works for all kids, you need to give evidence of that.)

    I think the question is, how do we help kids become engaged learners? Here in Tucson we had Mexican American Studies which fit the bill.

  6. Mr. Safier before you criticize Basis, why don’t you come and see the student population at Basis DC. There is no selection process – everyone who applies gets a chance. If there are too many applicants, they do a lottery – just like in DCPS – except at Basis the expectations are high. They start biology, physics and chemistry in 6th grade. They do 30 math problems a night. They get grades taken off if homework isn’t handed in on time. They are quizzed regularly to ensure they understood what was taught. And yes, if they don’t pass the exams, they have to repeat the year. But in the meantime the kids have access to a lot of help from teachers and peers after and before school. Failing a grade because you hadn’t met the basic standard was normal in the past. It wasn’t fun for the kids but frankly it makes a lot more sense than letting kids ‘pass’ each grade then end up in 12th grade barely being able to read, write or articulate 2 ideas (come and see this for yourself too). Maybe if US public schools re-introduced the notion of resitting a grade, the kids themselves would have more incentive to really pass.

  7. David, it’s not a matter of reading carelessly or purposely misunderstanding you. Thucky has an agenda, with talking points to go along with it. I’m guessing that’s why he hides behind a screen name. In any case, the Thuckmeister only skims our posts for broad topic headings, then posts the talking points that are connected, however distantly, to those topic headings. He has no interest as a reader in anything you have to say. He could never learn anything from you, because his approach precludes him from doing so. He’s only intersted in making his points. But instead of starting his own blog using his true identity, he gutlessly posts comments, anonymously, on our blog.

    I actually enjoy when conservatives take my posts on in an intellectually honest way, by addressing the points I make, but Thucky doesn’t do that.

  8. Thucydides, I sometimes wonder if you’re a careless reader or purposely misunderstand what I write. I didn’t criticize the educational style of BASIS. I simply asked that Barrett and Block be honest and admit that BASIS is a selective school whose students have to be both intelligent and extremely conscientious or they don’t stick around long. The two men are intelligent and well educated. They know what I’m saying is true. Yet they continue to try and perpetuate the myth that they have created a learning environment that other less selective schools can emulate and get similar results.

    When Barrett, Block and other conservative “educational reformers” stop using BASIS as a club to beat up on “government schools,” I’ll stop calling them liars.

  9. They aren’t liars, they run a school in the classical sense, defining a school as a place where students go. You all talk about running institutions where 15 million children attend who arent students, according to Gallup, they are completely disconnected, 100 percent disconnected. You have their bodies but not their minds, we should call these institutions what they are: day prisons.

    Dont fault Craig Barrett for wanting to run a school.

  10. The have “an”, meaning one, answer, for elite, for-profit model. They cannot replicate this model on a large scale because they can cherry pick students. Watch out for this so-called “performance funding”, originating in Brewers office, although they deny it came from the for profit charter proponents, they would stand to gain this most from their cherry picked model. How much data churning would be necessary to get this money. Performance funding should be flushed from the beginning.

  11. Keep telling it like it is. They ARE liars. Anyone who claims to have a magic bullet is truly an arrogant fool. If those prevaricators really have the simple answers to turning struggling students into successful ones, why aren’t they taking their miracle into the most challenging schools? Besides the fact that their bluster would be revealed, there is no big money to be made in those schools.

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