Apr. 1, 2010
DESCRIPTORS: charter schools; Arizona BASIS; a rigorous and well tested curriculum and increased expectations; a different approach to teachers; teachers’ training; an offer of the best education in the country.
SYNOPSIS: The author is the founder of one of the most successful charter schools in the nation, and because of that her story of school’s way to success, her self-analysis and readiness to evaluate the school are so challenging. She attributes school’s success to a rigorous and well tested curriculum and increased expectations on students, as well as to the work of dedicated teachers who are experts in their disciplines, and also to the freedom allowed to charter schools in the state of Arizona.
BASIS Schools: Good Teachers, High Expectations and a Little Bit of Tension
It’s been 15 years since I moved to the United States from my native Czech Republic. Living in Prague, I had experienced European education as a student, as a professor at Prague Economics University, and, after the revolution, as the Vice Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Charles University. When I moved to the United States and placed my daughter in 6th grade at a reputable suburban middle school she was still learning English. For the first time I began closely monitoring her education. I was fascinated by what the school did to make her feel accepted and also by the students’ participation, discussion, and spirit within the classroom. At the same time, I was stunned by the lack of academic structure and disciplinary depth within the school. The curriculum seemed disjointed; students were simply assigned to classes that were available. Homework was an option for the students, not a requirement, and there were no consequences for late or missing assignments.
During this same time, Arizona was making a name for itself as a leader in the charter school movement in the United States. Charter schools are, for the most part, privately operated and managed public schools which are operated and paid for under a contract with a state or local government. The charter school movement aimed to encourage individuals who would not be likely to enter into the educational system through traditional routes to open and operate public schools on a contractual basis. Charter schools are often founded by former teachers, parents, or education activists and aim to provide options that are not available at traditional public schools. The structure of the original Arizona charter legislation was among the most permissive on this score.
My husband Michael, at the time a Professor of Economics at the University of Arizona, and I both lacked formal experience as managers in the American K-12 public education system; however, as former academics, we were well aware that too large a portion of American high school graduates lacked the knowledge they needed to meet the expectations of college and university professors – let alone compete with their peers in top achieving European or Asian countries.
When we opened our first charter school in 1998 our ambition was to create one of the best educational institutions in the country. We sought to reach this goal by offering a curriculum that combines the best practices of top performing education systems around the world. We wanted all students to take math and science courses on level with students in the top scoring Asian countries and humanities courses as rigorous as the best European countries have to offer, all within an American-style classroom in which students would be encouraged to participate, ask questions, and challenge their teachers. Most important, regular assessments would gauge students’ progress and knowledge, providing data and information for students, parents, teachers and administrators which would inform and facilitate the implementation of better methods to improve student achievement.
Now, 13 years later, my husband and I have founded two charter schools and are currently in the process of opening a 3rd. In May of 2008, Newsweek designated our flagship campus, BASIS Tucson, “the best public high school in the United States.” In 2009 BASIS Schools became the feature of “Two Million Minutes: The 21st Century Solution,” a documentary championing the BASIS approach as the solution to America’s poor academic performance in the 21st Century. That same year, BASIS received visits from CNN, The Economist, The Washington Post, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. In 2010, BASIS Tucson earned a #9 ranking (out of 22,000+ schools) in the U.S.News & World Report’s list of America’s best high schools. While our journey to the top was not free of difficulties, it is, I believe, a true testament to what educators can accomplish when we stop making excuses and start implementing strategies that are proven to work.
It seems the more accolades BASIS receives, the more adamantly detractors protest its success. When BASIS Tucson climbed to #9 from #13 on the US News ranking of America’s best high schools in 2010, the school was met with incredulity rather than praise from the local press. “Is Tucson's BASIS school deserving of accolades?” asked a blog post run by a local newspaper, which explained “… critics say the schools rig the enrollment system in their favor.” In the feature investigative story that ran later that month the journalist went so far as to quote a critic who maintained that having high academic standards is implicitly selective and not true open enrollment: “When you have such stringent enrollment policies as a public school, you effectively cream the top" of the pool of local students, said Eve Rifkin, co-founder of another local charter school, City High School.
BASIS Schools are open-enrollment schools which accept all students as long as there is space available. In recent years the schools have received an increased number of prospective students and, as a result, performed lotteries to determine which students would gain admission. Meanwhile, the US News ranking includes both selective and non-selective schools, meaning BASIS is ranked among the top ten schools in the country, even when being compared to schools with rigorous entrance examinations and selective admissions criteria. In fact, when compared only to open enrollment schools it is #2 in the US.
Though many try to find excuses for BASIS’s success, I attribute it to a rigorous and well tested curriculum and increased expectations on students, the work of dedicated teachers who are experts in their disciplines, the freedom allowed to charter schools in the state of Arizona, and the decision of thousands of families who have put their children’s education in our hands.
A World–Standards Curriculum with Teeth
As charter school leaders we had the opportunity to set curriculum requirements for our students above and beyond the state standards. Here, we looked to the College Board for guidance. The BASIS high school curriculum is centered on the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams. Formulated as a means of assessing college readiness, AP exams are calibrated to the standard expectations of an entry-level university course. Much like International Baccalaureate (IB) exams, AP exams are externally generated and graded exams; this provides a check on the quality of our academic program and results. Within the BASIS curriculum these exams count as final course exams – meaning students’ grades depend, in part, on their performance on the AP exam. This helps ensure we are succeeding as educators in holding our students to the highest standards.
While most students in the United States cannot begin taking AP exams until the 11th or 12th grade, BASIS students can begin taking AP courses and exams in the 8th grade and are required to take at least 1 AP exam in 9th grade, 2 in 10th grade, and 3 in 11th grade. The high school program requires students to take at least 8 AP courses and 6 AP exams, but many students choose to take up to 10 or 11. AP courses and exams are offered in all core subjects (calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, government, history, economics, language, literature, foreign language, etc.) as well as a variety of elective courses (environmental science, music composition, art, computers, etc). Moreover, BASIS pays for all students’ AP testing, to ensure every student has access to academic success.
Students who score a 3 or higher out of a possible 5 on an AP exam are granted placement and/or credit at about 90% of universities in America. In 2009, BASIS students (including BASIS 8th graders) scored a 3 or higher on nearly 78% of all exams. Moreover, while students across the country averaged a 2.89 on all exams taken, BASIS students averaged a 3.47, even despite their disadvantage in age. While passing AP Exams is by no means the ultimate goal of our curriculum, empirical research shows that successful completion of AP courses and exams are valid indicators of a student’s readiness for college work.
By the time BASIS students complete 11th grade, they are eligible for graduation and have completed enough credits to be accepted to any college in the state. A large majority of students chose to stay at BASIS for their senior year which offers them a unique opportunity to put important finishing touches on their high school education which are specially designed to smooth the transition to college. Components of the senior year curriculum include the Senior Capstone Courses which provide more subject depth than typical high school courses, and a Senior Project which is intended to give students the perspective and real world skills they will need to succeed in college.
The BASIS high school program is among the most rigorous, advanced and motivating in the world. To ensure students’ success, we begin preparation in the middle school grades. By bringing high-level content standards down to lower grade levels, we ensure students are exposed to these concepts early and often and have mastered the material by the time they enroll in Honors and AP level courses in high school.
When students come to BASIS in the 5th grade they take 9 classes, including science, geography, math, language arts, Latin, classics, art, P.E., and music. In the 6th grade BASIS students begin taking biology, chemistry, and physics as separate subjects, like they do in many European and Asian countries. In the 7th grade, students have the option to continue on with Latin or take a modern foreign language such as Spanish, French, or Mandarin. All BASIS students will complete Algebra 1 by the end of 7th grade and almost half will have completed Algebra 2. Having completed higher level math in middle school, BASIS students are also prepared to take an economics course in the 8th grade which is roughly comparable to an introductory college level economics course.
In addition to bringing difficult subject content down to earlier grade levels, BASIS also prepares middle school students for the demanding high school program by systematically ensuring they have mastered the material before advancing to the next grade level. Not only are students required to pass each core course, but beginning in the 6th grade, they are required to pass comprehensive exams in all core subjects to move on to the next grade level. To me this practice seems sensible, but in America’s post-No Child Left Behind era holding students back has become increasingly rare and controversial.
Several years ago a 6th grade student who failed her comprehensive exam came to my office to ask me, quite annoyed, if I had the legal right to fail her. I told her “yes baby, I do.” Allowing students to progress to the next grade level before they have mastered the prerequisite skills and content harms the failing students as well as those who have mastered the material. Our job is to get the students up to the required level of mastery, not march them through the grades.
The Comprehensive Exams not only evaluate the extent to which students master and retain the material taught during the school year, they also gauge how BASIS students perform compared to external and international standards. In 2008, we placed a random selection of AP exam questions on Comprehensive Exams for 6th and 7th grade students. While the students and their teachers had never seen the exam questions before, the 6th grade students were able to answer 60 percent of questions correctly and the 7th grade students were able to answer 80 percent of questions correctly. Familiarizing middle school students with high stakes exams and high stakes exam questions helps train and prepare them for the demands of their high school curriculum as well as College Entrance Examinations like the SAT.
Finding Talent and Letting it Flourish
Perhaps more important for BASIS Schools’ success than control over curriculum is the control the Arizona charter school law grants school leaders over school level management decisions. In Arizona, charter school leaders can determine their own metrics for hiring employees and can set their own pay structure. Teachers at BASIS are expected to be creative, independent and influential in shaping the curriculum. With teachers playing such a pivotal role in the success or failure of a school, control over staffing decisions is critical. BASIS puts capable, knowledgeable teachers in the classroom by paying well and “paying smart,” recruiting from atypical applicant pools, and treating teachers as professionals.
Arizona charter schools receive markedly less funding than traditional public schools in Arizona – and Arizona public schools provide a low benchmark, ranking near the lowest among the states in per-pupil education funding. To remain competitive in teacher retention and recruitment, we instituted the Master Teacher Program. The Program is modeled after the common practice at American colleges and universities of endowing academic departments with private funding. Rather than endowing departments, we award merit-based salary supplements and bonuses to deserving teachers. BASIS does not have a starting base salary or set pay increases for teachers who have worked at the school for a certain number of years. Instead, we negotiate salaries on a case by case basis and offer supplements and bonuses to teachers based on their performance in the classroom, student test scores and other measures of academic progress. BASIS families are able to contribute financially to the school with the assurance that their resources will go directly to improving teacher salaries and they are able to offer their input on teacher performance through anonymous parent and student surveys.
While Arizona charter school funding may pose an obstacle for teacher recruitment, BASIS has an advantage over many US schools because Arizona charter schoolteachers are not required to receive certification. While this may seem like a minor distinction, it is an incredibly important one. Unlike in Asian and European countries where schools of education often attract the top ten to 20 percent of graduates, teacher education programs in the United States generally attract students in the bottom third of their graduating class. The ability to hire uncertified teachers allows us to recruit from a more diverse group of individuals whose backgrounds are not necessarily in secondary education or who would not be willing go back to school to receive a certificate. The BASIS faculty consists of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, including former university professors, former scientific researchers, and young graduates, many who attended Ivy League schools, with no background in education.
Because so many new BASIS teachers lack formal experience in the classroom, we have implemented a demanding selection and training program. After interviewing with senior faculty members, prospective teachers must come to the school to deliver a demonstration lesson in which they teach the students for one class period. After their first attempt, the prospective teachers are given input and advice before teaching a second demonstration lesson. This portion of the interview process helps us determine whether the applicant is knowledgeable in their discipline, capable of conveying difficult subject matter to young students, and able to learn and adjust quickly to new and demanding situations.
Once an applicant is hired, they attend a weeklong training school (aka “BASIS Boot Camp”) to share pedagogical knowledge and prepare new teachers for the demands of the classroom. In the course of this training, veteran faculty members share their knowledge on classroom management techniques, teaching methods and pedagogical research with the new teachers.
While the faculty share ideas regularly, at training camps, department meetings, weekly staff meetings, or in the lounge, they are all individually responsible for ensuring their students progress. We aim to give BASIS teachers a large amount of autonomy in determining the means whereby that progress is best accomplished. BASIS teachers are responsible for determining their own syllabi design, classroom management techniques, and teaching style. With the proviso that their curriculum decisions are audited for consistency with the BASIS academic program and AZ standards, teachers have freedom to design their courses. Our goal is to expose the BASIS teachers to new pedagogical research and unique classroom management techniques and allow them to determine which approach works best for them. If you take a tour of one of the BASIS Schools, you will find almost as many teaching styles as teachers in the classroom. It is my belief that giving these educated, intelligent individuals autonomy and independence – and holding them accountable for their results – generates an environment in which creative individuals can thrive and remain passionate about their work.
It’s Really Complicated
The Economist said, “It is working. The BASIS schools rank at or near the top in most surveys of American public schools,” CNN calls it “A charter school with a modest goal: revolutionizing the American education system,” and Robert Compton, producer of the “Two Million Minutes” documentary series called it “the best school in the world.” It would be easy to bask in these incredible compliments, but I have to be honest and say I think former Intel chairman, Craig Barrett summarized it best when he said “What does BASIS do? … Good teachers, high expectations, and a little bit of tension. It’s really complicated.”
With the freedom granted to charter school leaders in the state of Arizona, we have been able to create schools centered on those three basic principles: good teachers, high expectations, and a little bit of tension. We have been able to recruit and retain world-class educators from scientific laboratories, universities, and Ivy League campuses and give them the autonomy to develop their own curriculum and manage their own classroom. We set high expectations by offering a curriculum that combines the best practices of top performing education systems around the word and holding students accountable for mastering the material. We create tension in the system by not passing students until they master required skills and content and by rewarding high performing teachers for the learning gains made by their students through merit based salary supplements and bonuses. We haven’t rigged the system like the blog posts claim, nor have we stumbled upon the magical secondary education elixir. We have stuck to a simple goal – to offer the best education in the country – and we haven’t waivered.
1 Olga V. Block, Ph. D. in Economics, co-founder of the charter school BASIS, Tucson, Arizona.