by David Safier
Scores 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.