TUCSON, Ariz.-BASIS charter school in Tucson, Ariz., may be the most unassuming high school ever to receive positive treatment from the national media. Nothing about its location (downtown next to a Bank of America and across from Target) nor its building (a rather dated former daycare center) indicates that it could compete with the monolith, state-of-the-art high schools that surround it.
Yet not only does it compete with local schools that have vastly more money and resources, according to analyses by Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, it bests them and schools all across the country. In 2008, Newsweek ranked BASIS the No. 1 high school in America. It won the publication's fifth place for 2009, and has been in the top 10 every year since 2006. U.S. News and World Report further bolstered BASIS' reputation, naming it 13th on their 2009 best high schools list and giving it a gold medal for college readiness.
Such vaunted recognition for an institution that was only established 10 years ago is now prompting Washington to take a look. On Oct. 1, after attending the D.C. premiere of the documentary Two Million Minutes that features BASIS, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton-both part of the Obama administration's education reform team-flew to Arizona to tour the campus. Though their observations reflected the pair's disparate political philosophies, both praised what they saw.
Gingrich pointed out how much the school has achieved without expensive facilities and a large budget, saying that when "the educational establishment sees an institution like this, they're terrified." Sharpton celebrated the fact that as a charter school, BASIS is free to all students who want to attend and provides low-income and minority students the kind of education that was once only available to those with big bank accounts and the right skin color. With so many people asking how a school located in one of the poorest cities in the country is able to achieve so much with about $1,000 less funding per student than district-run public schools, BASIS is quickly becoming the national model for education reform.
According to BASIS founder Michael Block, the school might not exist at all, or at least not in its current incarnation, were it located anywhere other than Arizona, which he calls "the most charter-friendly place in the nation."
The Grand Canyon State is known for innovative policies when it comes to charter schools-schools that receive public funding but are run by private individuals or companies. Unlike other states, Arizona doesn't require charter school teachers to become certified and has no cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate. It also has multiple bodies that are able to authorize a charter, whereas many states have only one. "Arizona charter law absolutely allowed us to do something we wouldn't have been able to do elsewhere," says Block. "It is very much underappreciated."
It was on discovering the flexibility of these laws that Block and his wife Olga, both economists by trade, decided to found BASIS. "My wife Olga came to live permanently in the United States [from the Czech Republic] in the fall of 1996 and she brought with her a middle-school-aged daughter, Petra," Block recalls. "Petra went to the best middle school in Scottsdale, which is a pretty affluent area. And Olga found that she really liked the facilities and the friendliness and openness of American classrooms but was astounded by the lack of content."
Employed by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix while her husband was on leave from the University of Arizona to work for the governor, Olga learned a good deal about education financing and reform and convinced her husband they could forge a better model. In 1997 the pair resolved to write their own charter with the idea of combining "the best of American education with the best of European education." The following year they founded BASIS middle school and in 1999 opened the high school.
What the Blocks considered the "best of" education in the United States was its free expression in the classroom. "It's not that students aren't able to question teachers in other countries, it's just that they're able to do it with a vengeance here," Block chuckles. He also wanted to maintain the American tradition of innovation, though he saw a dire need to marry it to a knowledge base that has been dwindling amongst high-schoolers in recent years, particularly in the areas of math and science.
"I'm afraid that a lot of strutting of American teenagers is not based on accomplishment," says Block. "The rest of the world has progressed and Americans have stayed still or done slightly worse over the last 50 years, which has brought us to a situation where our K to 12th-grade education is inferior to most of the industrialized world. . . . It's no accident that 25 percent of U.S. tech startups in the last two decades were launched by immigrants."
To overcome this deficiency, the Blocks believed they needed to emulate the European approach of establishing a high, measurable academic standard, and they used Advanced Placement (AP) testing as their guide. "It turns out that AP exams are really world standard exams. They used to be a measure of what college standards were, but if you look at the rest of the world they're now the measure of what happens at the high school level," Block notes. He adds with a smile that they also happen to be "one of those great American innovations." They then upped the ante on coursework, introducing biology, chemistry, and physics as separate subjects in the sixth grade and making subjects like AP Chemistry and Honors Physics requirements for high school graduation.
The Blocks also embrace pioneering practices when it comes to compensation and staffing, setting up a system of performance-based pay raises and merit bonuses to incentivize teachers and hiring subject specialists rather than drawing from the standard pool of education majors.
"I get in a lot of trouble for saying this," admits Block, "but the truth is that most teachers come from the bottom third of their graduating class. And the lesson from around the world is that exactly the opposite is necessary for great schools. You have to have capable people leading classes, and I'm not convinced that the undergraduate education schools are highly populated with capable people. Of course there are some, but I think as a whole you're getting some of the least qualified undergraduates. That's not a good place to start."
Block believes that public schools focus on pedagogy to the detriment of proficiency. He says he and Olga made it BASIS' aim to reverse those priorities and provide pedagogical training to experts who are steeped in their subject.
One such expert is George Rising, who teaches AP U.S. Government while also serving as the high school's director. Rising boasts a Ph.D. in philosophy as well as a M.A. in history. He has also authored several books. But as Rising points out, the public school system considers him unqualified to teach high-schoolers because he hasn't been certified by the Arizona Board of Education: "I taught for seven years at the University of Arizona and taught at a prep school for four years, so I have 11 years of teaching experience but I would not be able to get a job in TUSD (Tucson Unified School District)."
Rising maintains that the achievements of BASIS students proves the value of the Blocks' approach, saying, "It's difficult to judge teachers but there is a correlation between how well you're teaching and how well your students are doing." And it's hard to argue with him given the data. One hundred percent of BASIS students who stay on for high school have gone on to graduate. One hundred percent have been accepted by and attended university. (Rising doesn't have college graduation rates yet because of the school's relatively short tenure, but he says 98 percent of its graduates are still in college.) And in 2009 BASIS was the only school in the state to have 100 percent of its students pass the AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) exam in every subject tested.
It's hardly surprising given such results that BASIS parents are thrilled. Lisa Zimprich, whose 12-year-old daughter Mackenzie is in the sixth grade at BASIS Middle School, describes an incident that she says explains her support for the school: "Recently a friend was over at our house whose daughter is a sophomore in high school. She was sitting at the table with my daughter helping her with her chemistry homework. After a few minutes [the sophomore] started shaking her head. Her mother asked her why, and she said, 'We were just going over this two weeks ago in my class.'"
While such reports are impressive, they also bring up the two biggest charges that critics level against the school. Namely, that such advanced coursework creates a pressure cooker environment and that only elite minds can succeed there; kids of average intellect need not apply.
Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Kath echoes the feelings of other students interviewed for this story when she says she considers herself an "average mind" who is challenged by her classes but enjoys rising to the occasion they present. "It's difficult, but the teachers are always there to help you. If you don't understand it, they're not going to let you fall behind. I'd always had problems in school before, especially in math, but since coming here I'm able to do calculus. Everybody who goes here has a shot. You have to really want to fail."
Zimprich also disputes the intellectual elitism charge, pointing out that at a typical BASIS end-of-term awards ceremony, over half the class has a greater than 90 percent average: "If it was just smart kids, you wouldn't have that many A students because being smart doesn't preclude you from being lazy. . . . You get that kind of result with a program that teaches kids to work hard."
However, what bothers Block more than criticism from his fellow education professionals is indifference. He says he has tried to contract with various state districts to use their vacant buildings to implement BASIS classes, and so far no one has expressed an interest.
"This is one of the world's great schools, and in its 11-year history it's only had one visit from a TUSD teacher," he says. "We've never had a visit from an administrator, though they all have their pet theories on why our results can't be reproduced. So they don't spend any time criticizing us because they don't think we're relevant no matter how much evidence we offer that we're not just a school for brainiacs. It's not in their interest to believe us because we are proof that you can do a lot better than they're doing."