Thursday, April 6, 2017

BASIS Makes a Rare Response to Criticism: Part 2

Posted By on Thu, Apr 6, 2017 at 1:31 PM

Here's a statement I would be happy to read from the people who run BASIS schools:

"We take some of the most talented children in the country and turn them into the best educated students in the world."

I could quibble with a statement like that, questioning whether the BASIS curriculum and methodology are the best way to educate kids, but I wouldn't bother. Sure, there's more than a bit of hyperbole in a declaration like that, but its message accurately describes the BASIS system, which is: Talented kids in, well educated students out. It sure beats the myth BASIS has been promoting for years, that it takes everyday, average students off the streets and turns them into educational world beaters.

And I have to say, happily, the latest statement from BASIS is closer to acknowledging the truth that BASIS's students are a select group than I can remember hearing or reading from the organization, ever.

In a few recent posts, I've written about an op ed in the Washington Post which said that BASIS charter schools teach a select group of students, which accounts for much of the schools' academic success. To my surprise, BASIS broke its usual code of silence and responded to the op ed. And in the process, it agreed that, yes, the schools' student body is not a random collection of Arizona students.

The WaPo op ed said BASIS "cherry-picks" students. BASIS turned that on its head and says it's the parents who do the cherry-picking, not the school.
There is “cherry picking” involved at BASIS Charter Schools, but it is not the type that the blogger alleges. BASIS Charter Schools do not pick their students (and cannot, by law). Rather, it is students and parents who pick us. Students and parents, in states with liberating charter laws, are able to choose between hundreds of different programs and curricula, “cherry picking” the best fit for their child.
It sounds like we all agree that for one reason or another, BASIS students are a select, cherry-picked group. A little later in the statement, BASIS doubles down on the selection process, saying it's a sign that school choice works.
To say that BASIS Charter Schools cannot or should not offer a specific type of programming (in our case, an academically accelerated, AP-infused, liberal arts academic program) that will be attractive to some families, but not attractive to all, is to attack and undermine the whole purpose of the school choice movement.
I find myself in complete agreement with BASIS when it says its program is "attractive to some families, but not attractive to all." Parents who want the "academically accelerated, AP-infused, liberal arts academic program" the schools provide and believe their children are up to the challenge are the most likely people to send their children to BASIS. Parental choice skews the schools' student bodies toward academically talented, motivated students. But that's not the whole story. In fact, both the parents and BASIS are involved in the selection process.

The cherry-picking begins when families decide to send their children to BASIS. The most likely parents to consider sending their children to the schools are those who value education and believe their children have the academic talent and motivation to succeed in the BASIS environment. Parents whose children are struggling academically are likely to think long and hard before applying to the school and setting their children up for failure. The result is, a disproportionate number of the school's applicants come from the top of the academic ladder.

Nevertheless, like all Arizona charters, BASIS schools have open enrollment, so anyone who applies has an equal chance of getting in, which means some of the children admitted might lack the right academic stuff. Here's where the BASIS side of the cherry-picking begins. Entering students are given a placement test. If a child's score is low, the parents are cautioned that the child may struggle to meet the school's high academic expectations, which is enough to make some parents reconsider and look for a different school for their child. Those students who remain and find the work too difficult are likely to withdraw sometime in the next few years. However, even marginal students may be able to make it through the elementary grades if they're willing to tough it out. But by the 8th grade, most of those struggling students realize the work will get much tougher in high school, and they decide to leave. Based on the enrollment numbers I've looked at, as many as half the 8th graders decide to go elsewhere for high school. BASIS says 65 percent of 8th graders continue to the 9th grade. Even if the BASIS numbers are accurate, that means 35 percent of 8th graders decide to leave. That's a sizable dropout rate. By the time they enter high school, the already select group of students enrolled in the elementary grades has been winnowed down to those who best fit the BASIS model. It's survival of the academic fittest.

The WaPo op ed says BASIS selects out students in other ways as well. For instance, BASIS doesn't offer free or reduced lunch, which makes the school less desirable for low income families. BASIS disagrees, saying it has a significant number of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch. Except that's not a disagreement. No doubt some low income parents think having their kids at BASIS is more important than getting a price break on lunch, but lots of other parents who might otherwise think about sending their children to BASIS consider the lack of free lunch a deal breaker.

The op ed says BASIS locates its campuses in higher income areas and doesn't provide transportation, which is another barrier to children living in lower income areas. That's objectively true in Arizona. Most schools are situated in middle and upper-middle class areas. BASIS tries to deflect the argument, saying its schools are in areas "that have wildly variant median household incomes." But when the two recent BASIS schools built in the Tucson area are located in the Foothills and Oro Valley and other BASIS schools are in places like Scottsdale and Mesa, it's hard to argue that the schools are located with the idea of making them attractive and accessible to lower income families.

The op ed states that BASIS has no ELL (English Language Learner) students at its schools, and only one-tenth as many students with learning disabilities as the state average. BASIS argues it does have ELL students, which I'm sure is true, though it doesn't say how many or their level of English proficiency. It says it has "students with a wide range of special needs." Again, BASIS doesn't say how many or what their special needs are. So the op ed is most likely correct to say that BASIS is highly selective when it comes to ELL and special education students.

BASIS also argues some issues about school finances, which I don't have the background to discuss intelligently.

The point is, that's the way BASIS runs its schools: lots of high achieving students, fewer lower achieving students, accelerated coursework, loads of AP classes and exams. Talented kids in, well educated students out. That's the secret behind the schools' oft-praised academic success. I'll leave it to others to argue whether that's a good or a bad way to run a school, but the fact is, that's the way things work at BASIS.


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