Another Look at the BASIS Charter Schools
When I last blogged about the BASIS charter schools, I hadn’t had a chance to watch Two Million Minutes: The Twenty-First Century Solution, which is the fourth in the Two Million Minutes series. Now that I’ve seen the full documentary, I can revisit the question: “Is BASIS the 21st century education solution?”
I’m impressed by the dedication of BASIS schools’ founders, and by their commitment to bring students to a high level academically. However, it’s still unclear to me that BASIS could be replicated on the scale that would be necessary to change American education.
BASIS schools are not large. One of the students says, “This is such a small school,” and several describe it as a close-knit, caring community. The family-like environment allows the teachers to get to know individual students and help them catch up. One student recounts how she worked through several extra textbook chapters each week after she first enrolled in BASIS. It might be difficult to motivate kids to do that if they didn’t have a personal connection with their teachers. And, because of its size, BASIS is not directly comparable to the big suburban high schools shown in the first Two Million Minutes documentary.
The mention of distributing fliers on a university parking lot makes me suspect that BASIS students are above average in educational background, as do some of the students’ hobbies and interests — such as opera. And, while BASIS now runs schools in two cities with different demographics, it’s hard to tell whether the student bodies are representative of their respective communities, because in both cases, BASIS has encountered a lot of opposition from neighbors and drawn students from beyond its immediate surroundings. BASIS doesn’t report how many of its students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, making it impossible for an outsider to judge whether its claims of economic diversity are accurate.
The schools’ founders are aware of criticisms of BASIS, and they respond briefly in the documentary. In particular, I appreciated Olga Block’s comments on the challenges of integrating students into BASIS midway through the program. I agree that she’s in a catch-22. If her schools don’t improve student achievement, she’s not doing her job; but when the students outperform their peers, she faces the charge of running an elite school.
Although we’ll have to wait to learn if BASIS can scale up, it’s already a good example of a charter that serves its students well. What matters for American education is not whether a specific school like BASIS is able to expand, but whether equally ambitious schools will be permitted to open and compete.
Olga Block says it best in this essay:
The curriculum and policies specific to BASIS are not formulaic. They cannot simply be applied, like fertilizer, to any system and ‘watch the students learn.’ The formula that makes this sort of success possible is the freedom to innovate and reform at the school level.