Academic journal article Education Next

Hi Scores at Basis Charter Schools

Academic journal article Education Next

Hi Scores at Basis Charter Schools

Article excerpt

While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outper-formed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China's academic gem in the dust.

How did that happen, I asked some of the school's 9th graders, who variously sport braces and multiple ear studs; whose parents range from truck driver to epidemiologist; who talk of careers as a cardiovascular surgeon, a neurosurgeon, a hedge-fund manager.

"We do an incredible amount of work," said Alia Gilbert.

"We push each other," added Yasmeen Sharestha.

"We're always thinking about college," said Hannah Reilly. At that, the conversation moved on to the challenge of AP chemistry, what math to take after AP calculus, and a recent English class on the rhetoric of political campaigns.

Fifteen years after its founding by two economists--an American and a Czech, who fell in love at a seminar on the collapse of the Soviet Union--the BASIS network already roosts in the scholastic stratosphere. The Tucson charter school outscored all 40 countries that administered the 2012 PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment exams, with a mean math score of 618,131 points above the U.S. average. Its 10-year-old Scottsdale sister school scored even higher: 51 points above the metropolitan Shanghai area in math and 42 points higher in science.

The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, in their latest annual rankings, rate both schools among the five best in the country. BASIS students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score on them of 3.9 out of 5. When I scanned the Tucson school's bulletin board, I noticed that Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, and Williams all had accepted at least one of the 54 students in the 2013 graduating class, some of them on full scholarships; Stanford accepted four.

Teachers Are Scholars

For all that, BASIS schools are open admission. They operate on a shoestring budget: the Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the average funding for a child in a traditional public school. Classes are large: up to 30 students in middle school. Technology is "akin to cuneiform tablets," Scottsdale's head of school, Hadley Ruggles, told me.

The BASIS curriculum and its hard-charging teachers go a long way toward explaining the schools' success. Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

When I visited the Tucson school, teacher Amanda Sweeney's 9th-grade literature class was discussing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What is it about, Sweeney asked: race, slavery, freedom or, as Huck might say, "sivilization"? And why would he spell it that way? .

"I want to put pressure on all your ideas," Sweeney cajoled her students as they flipped through heavily underlined paperbacks, looking for "textual support" for their answers.

Teachers "have to be scholars" to ot teach at BASIS, Julia Toews, head of the Tucson school, told me when I i I asked what she looked for in her teachers. BASIS doesn't require state teaching certification, but teachers must be "passionate" and "recognize the brilliance of kids," she added.

Those kids are the other reason for the BASIS schools' success. The rugged academics attract kids who told me they were bored at other schools and now revel in the challenge of vector calculus and molecular biology. At the Scottsdale campus, sophomore Charlie Murphy explained that he was "never challenged" until he arrived at BASIS in 5th grade. …

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