Volume:2, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2010

A Response to Olga Block’s article
Ginger MacDonald [about]

The story of BASIS schools is a story, well told in National media (e.g., Newsweek, US News and World Report, and The Washington Post) of a very impressive school.  Drs. Olga and Michael Block have succeeded in taking the best of their knowledge, administration, and permissive local legislation, to create a remarkable education program. A significant observation in Block’s article is her sense of the level of participation, discussion, and spirit within the American classroom, accompanied by the lack of academic structure and disciplinary depth.  That fairly well sums up the strength and weakness of the American system. I will comment briefly on the strengths of BASIS as an alternative to our current system, and offer a challenge as well.

The strengths of the BASIS schools, as Block articulated well in her article, are that they know what they are good at and they do it well and consistently.  They deliver tested, respected, liberal arts and sciences curricula and have built their reputation on high expectations and outcomes.  They respect parents in their role, but do not rely on them to motivate the students to do homework. Teachers have autonomy to teach in any way that produces learning by students.  The Blocks have freedom to dismiss teachers who do not live up to the contract of student achievement.  Parents and students know that within a small window, lack of competency based mastery means dismissal, and BASIS follows through on this rule, with a fairly high rate of departure in the lower grades.  It is a strong motivating factor for students who want to be there.

These strengths are meaningful to students, teachers, and parents.  As they have shown, students will rise and achieve much higher expectations than many expect.  This is a school where it not only is acceptable to be “smart” it is expected. The self-defeating, anti-intellectualism prevalent in many American high schools is not allowed.  Self-esteem here is earned.  Teachers (whether certified or not) come to the workday knowledgeable, prepared, and energized.  They are rewarded by students who want to learn, or at least want to succeed. Classroom management problems are rare.  This is an environment most teachers only dream about.

I must comment however, on the challenge that is portrayed by this example.  In the United States, one of the biggest challenges in public schools is created by the heterogeneity of the population of children to be educated.  This is not just a problem; it is a problem we embrace, because we believe that all children deserve equal access to excellence in education, including those with special needs.  Many of us in education also believe that it is good for students to learn in environments with others different from themselves—environments more reflective of the world in which they will live the rest of their lives.  However, when many students and/or their parents in a given classroom have limited English proficiency, are transient within a year, experience extreme poverty and the accompanying challenges, the obstacles in maintaining a learning environment of motivation, compliant management, and predictable outcomes are at times overwhelming.  Modern teaching methods in which teachers are trained to differentiate instruction according to learners’ needs and contexts help remove the barrier, but challenges persist.

There are lessons to be learned from the BASIS charter school model in Arizona.  Most teachers would be happy to have such clear goals and expectations for their students, school support for the learning environment such as mentor teachers, autonomy in instructional matters, and a decent salary with options for bonuses through performance.  Students and parents who knew that competency and mastery was the only mode for advancement would take homework and class work more seriously.  School principals with authority to dismiss teachers who do not teach well — or ability to hire non-teachers who do, would be able to build much stronger learning environments. Districts would need to have the same privilege with principals.

We should not hold the Blocks to a standard or value of social justice that they do not profess. They are driven by a value that children can learn much more than for which we give them credit, and our system is failing them by our lack of challenge.  We should take the positive outcomes they have shown, and apply them as rigorously as possible to a heterogeneous, complex school environment.  We must work within our more cumbersome, bureaucratic systems, with unions, unpredictable public funding, and shifting populations to find ways to maximize the student potentials BASIS has shown us.

Note of disclosure: Washington is a state in which charter schools are not legal.

1 MacDonald, Ginger, Ph.D. – Professor of Education, Graduate Faculty, University of Washington Tacoma.





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