BASIS uncovered

"BASIS uncovered" Continued...

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

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."


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