By Alison Levosky, Amalia Ono, Esteban Elizondo, and George Huynh
Charter schools across the nation have a range of academic performance from student bodies of wildly varying demographics. BASIS charter schools fall at the very top in academic performance standards as measured through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and through Advanced Placement (AP) testing relative to the rest of the country. It is easy and even natural to look at a school with high test scores and think that the school is doing everything right for its students, and should be seen as a model for other schools. However, many factors lie beneath the apparent success of high-scoring schools. Welner (2013) points out a number of ways that charter schools can influence school enrollment to get the already-high-achieving students they want, including attrition bias, selection bias, and lack of necessary services for high-need students. Wilson and Carlsen (2016) also explain that schools market their websites specifically to attract a select group of students by signaling a specific “fit” from which many students are excluded. In these ways, and a variety of others, schools like BASIS can look like excellent, world-class schools, but in reality they only appear that way because some populations are excluded from the school. This report discusses the lesser-known details of the seemingly idealistic BASIS.ed charter management organization (CMO), and the ways its mission manifests itself and provides favorable outcomes for only a specific subset of students.
In order to evaluate data from BASIS CMO, we conducted a random drawing of six of the CMO schools using an online random number generator. We then compared federal, state and CMO data for these six schools with data for the school districts geographically surrounding them. While there was initially some difficulty finding data on demographics and free or reduced-lunch, data was eventually retrieved from the National Center for Education Statistics.
History, Pedagogy, and Mission
The first BASIS school was founded in 1998 in Tucson, Arizona. From 2003 to 2016, BASIS.ed opened 20 more public charter schools, most of which are in Arizona, but also include schools in Texas and Washington, D.C. (Timeline and Growth, 2017). The data presented in this report come from six BASIS schools in Arizona, including BASIS Phoenix, BASIS Chandler, BASIS Mesa, BASIS Prescott, BASIS Flagstaff, and BASIS Tucson North, which serve about 3,500 students altogether.
Olga Block co-founded BASIS Charter Schools with her husband, Michael, two years after she moved to the U.S. from Prague, with the philosophy that “nothing is for free, and if you want to succeed you must work very hard” (Lopatin, 2016). She worked as a professor of economics in Prague, and upon learning about the practices of education in the U.S., brought back some of those concepts to the Czech Republic before coming back to the United States (Lopatin, 2016). When asked about the vision of the BASIS schools, the founders said that “the goal of a great education is to provide students with choices, with unbounded opportunities, to send them to college and into their professional lives empowered by the broad and deep content knowledge and critical thinking skills that will enable them to craft their own futures” (About BASIS.ed, 2016). They want to create some of the “best schools in the world,” and according to BASIS.ed scores on the PISA exam, students are well on their way to proving that mission—and as BASIS likes to emphasize, they even score better than high-performing students in Shanghai (International Benchmarking, 2016), which is usually one of the highest performing regions on the PISA exam. The curriculum from grades K-12 emphasizes critical thinking, organizational skills, time management, and high-level content standards (Curriculum Overview, 2017). BASIS.ed has no particular target population of students, and instead appears to open its doors to any students looking for a challenging academic experience. However, as shown below, the demographics of the BASIS schools present a vastly different narrative.
All data in this section are from the National Center for Education Statistics (Elementary/Secondary Information System, 2017). Relative to the surrounding districts, the BASIS schools we studied tended to have fewer students of color—in some places more dramatically than others, like BASIS Phoenix. In fact, it tends to be the case that “BASIS establishes schools only where mostly white, affluent families live” (Alonzo, 2014). This is particularly different from the demographics of most charter schools, which generally have more students of color than traditional public schools in the same area. The only BASIS school in this report that enrolled significantly more students of color than the surrounding district was BASIS Chandler, and in this case it was because the majority of students were Asian; there were very few Black and Hispanic students in that population.
For the 2014-2015 year, the NCES had no data for English Language Learners, students who receive free or reduced lunch, or students in special education, but other sources provide data and a heavy criticism of the fact that BASIS schools tend to lack students from these populations. For example, in a 2017 Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, about BASIS Schools in Arizona, the difference between BASIS schools and their surrounding districts is clear:
“In 2015-16, only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners. And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced-priced lunch, BASIS had none. Although BASIS may have some students from qualifying households, it chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program.”
It is evident from this information that BASIS charter schools typically tend to increase the segregation of schools in comparison to the district. This disparity may come from the fact that the missions of charter schools typically focus on closing the achievement gap, but the BASIS.ed CMO focuses on creating world class schools. In other words, it seems as though the priority of the CMO is to bring in students who are already prepared to perform excellently in their academics, in order to create the impression of a world class school.
Much of the information available on the official BASIS charter website details the aggregate achievement of all BASIS charters. Included in this information are results to BASIS’s 2016 OECD, an exam taken by fifteen-year-old students comparable to the international PISA exam. According to the website, BASIS students tested above the highest-ranked school systems in the world, including private schools in the U.S. and Shanghai (International Benchmarking). BASIS’s national percentile ranking among schools is 1% in math, reading, and science and its international percentile ranking is 3% in math, reading, and science based on the OECD exam.
In 2016, U.S. News & World Report ranked BASIS Scottsdale as the second best high school, the best charter school, and fourth best STEM school in America (National Rankings). BASIS Tucson North was ranked the third best high school, the second best charter school, and the sixth best STEM school. BASIS Oro Valley was ranked the sixth best high school and the third best charter school in the nation. In the same year, The Washington Post ranked BASIS Oro Valley, BASIS Flagstaff, and BASIS Tucson North among America’s most challenging high schools. BASIS Chandler, BASIS Peoria, and BASIS Scottsdale were instead included on the list of “Top Performing Schools with Elite Students”. These credentials are easily available and even touted on the BASIS charter website. In addition, in considering these rankings, the international comparisons that BASIS pushes make all the more sense, as U.S. News & World Report has put it comfortably at the top of U.S. schools—BASIS is looking to a more competitive pool to validate its scores.
Whereas American high school graduates earned an average score of 2.85 out of 5 and passed 57.5% of AP exams, 2016 BASIS graduates took an average of 11.5 AP exams, 86% of which were passed with an average score of 3.78 (Advanced Placement, 2016). However, it should be mentioned that this high average of AP tests taken is due to the curriculum of the schools, with AP courses being a compulsory part of the BASIS education beginning as early as eighth grade (Ono). In addition, BASIS conducts mock AP exams in the month of April in which it is mandatory of students to come in on the weekend to take a previously released AP exam in the AP course they are taking as if it were a real AP exam. All students then receive their scores and talk extensively to their teachers on what can be approved for the actual exam, which is certainly a privilege and advantage not given at other schools (Ono, 2017). 48.6% of BASIS AP test takers earned some sort of AP Scholar Award, compared to 23.1% globally (Awards and Distinctions, 2017). For the 2016 National Merit Scholar recognition, 36.6% of BASIS students received commended or better, including National Merit Finalist and Semi-Finalist, compared to 3.3% of American students. However, these scores may have been impacted somewhat by the practice of having mandatory PSAT examinations for ninth and tenth graders and PSAT workshops on the weekends in the preceding weeks to the exam (Ono, 2017).
In 2016, the average BASIS student earned a score of 1,353 out of 1400 on the SAT exam and a 30.0 out of 36 on the ACT exam compared to 1,002 on the SAT and 20.8 on the ACT for the average American student (College Entrance Exams, 2017). In 2015, BASIS students earned an average of 2,029 on the SAT, while college-bound Arizona seniors earned an average of 1490 (State Profile Report, 2015).
Average Score on College Entrance Examinations
BASIS graduates had an acceptance rate of 51.4% to the top 100 ranked universities and colleges on the U.S. News & World Report in 2016 (College Acceptances and Scholarships). Those graduated also earned almost $38 million in total merit aid. In the list included of the number of 2014-2016 BASIS graduate acceptances, 20 had been accepted by Brown University, 10 had been accepted by Harvard University, 7 had been accepted by MIT, 9 had been accepted by Princeton University, 20 had been accepted by Stanford University, and 11 had been accepted by Yale University. These facts are also readily available, and contribute to an overall environment heavily focused on achievement via acceptance to selective colleges. This is also evident in the college acceptance boards posted in hallways and selective college pennants hung in communal spaces such as the cafeteria (Ono, 2017). BASIS schools also conduct an “award ceremony” at the end of each trimester, in which students are all gathered together and several distinct categories of achieving students are called up in front of their peers and awarded with dog tags corresponding to their achievement. The categories are “Most Improved”, “Honor Roll” (students within the top 15%; these students receive silver dog tags), and “Distinguished Honor Roll” (students within the top 5%; these students receive gold dog tags) (Ono, 2017). This practice begins in the fifth grade, and only serves to foster the competitive environment. Some of the BASIS schools use balloons instead of dog tags for maximized visibility.
However, although all of the previous statistics are provided through the BASIS charter website, the results on the Arizona standardized exam, AzMerit, support the trend of the provided information: on the 2016 exam, the statewide percentage of students grades 5 through 11 had a passing rate on the mathematics portion of anywhere between 26-46% and a passing rate on the English language arts portion of anywhere between 29-45% (Department Releases Preliminary 2015-2016 State Level AzMerit Results). In comparison, BASIS schools had passing rates between 70-100%, with BASIS Chandler at a high of 93% for mathematics and 92% for English language arts (Search AzMerit Results).
From the information available on our six schools (BASIS Phoenix, BASIS Chandler, BASIS Mesa, BASIS Prescott, BASIS Flagstaff, and BASIS Tucson North) within the BASIS Charter Management Organization, it seems as though there is virtually no disciplinary action taken. The only two schools where suspensions were given out were BASIS Mesa, with a mere two white students receiving one or more in-school suspensions, out of 351 total students, and BASIS Tucson North, where two Hispanic students received one or more in-school suspensions, out of 913 students. That amounts to four suspended students in our six schools out of 3,130 students, or a rate of 0.13%. Relative to their surrounding districts, this percentage is incredibly low, given that schools around BASIS Mesa had a rate of 7.47% of their students receiving one or more in-school suspensions, and schools around BASIS Mesa totaling a rate of 3.28%. Collectively, all the district schools around our six BASIS charter schools had a significantly higher suspension or arrest rate, at 5.19%, with 10,223 students suspended or arrested out of 197,163 total enrolled students. The amount of disciplinary action taken in public district schools is about 300 times greater than their neighboring charter schools. It is likely that the relatively small size of the schools and the exclusionary, selective nature of the admission process employed by BASIS lead to extremely low disciplinary rates.
Marketing and Media
Much of the advertising around BASIS schools is highly focused on test results on the OECD exam, SAT exam, and AP exams, as well as college acceptances. In its marketing, BASIS draws constant comparisons between the scores on these exams taken by BASIS students and the U.S. and international averages. The BASIS Charter Schools website goes into very fine detail in this regard, including a comprehensive list of college acceptances and multiples graphs representing the performance of BASIS students. For instance, below is the performance of BASIS students on the OECD exam:
The marketing is highly dependent upon quantitative measures of success. In addition, this CMO has been in the news a fair amount, with news outlets expressing anything from fascination (Why Are 2 of U.S. News’s Top 5 ‘Best High Schools’ Arizona Charter Schools?), to admiration (High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools), to disgust (What the public isn’t told about high-performing charter schools in Arizona). Either way, BASIS schools have gained much publicity in the wake of success. Below is the advertisement video that demonstrates the above-named characteristics of BASIS marketing. This video also demonstrates BASIS’s international focus mentioned in the achievement section. The message of said video seeks to push the idea of the BASIS model as the solution to America’s low international testing rank with most of its evidence grounded mainly in test results. Any sort of student growth or happiness beyond scores goes unmentioned.
Accountability and Oversight
With 18 BASIS charter schools in Arizona, three in Texas, and one in Washington, BASIS Educational Group, LLC has exploded ever since BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale became top-ranked schools on Newsweek’s “America’s Most Challenging High Schools List” and eventually rose to the Best High Schools list of U.S. World News & Report (Burris, 2017). The BASIS charter schools are self-acclaimed “no-excuse” schools, as attrition rates exceed 50%. Burris tersely explains the cause of this high figure: “During each successive year, students leave when they cannot keep up with excessive academic demands.” There is almost no regulation by the government for the unethical practices that BASIS seems to employ, as “salary and travel transparency disappeared in 2009 when the Blocks, managers of two BASIS schools, opened a private, for-profit limited liability company, BASIS Educational Group, LLC” (Burris, 2017). The most recent audit has revealed significant losses, and a total deficit of over $13 million. This is particularly troublesome given that BASIS continues to operate without actually having enough money to pay their teachers and administrators, and no one is stopping their illegal practices stemming from an apparent conflict of interests that arise from allowing a for-profit entity to exist alongside a non-profit one.
Regarding testing accountability, all BASIS schools in Arizona, Texas, California, and DC are required to take the same state-mandated tests that public schools are required to take (Kronholz). However, BASIS schools place heavy emphasis on Advanced Placement exams. These charter schools are not exempt from federal testing regulation. Teacher regulation is also less stringent than in public schools. These teachers are not unionized, and there is no teacher certification (Sullivan). In fact, the Chairman of BASIS Charter schools, Craig R. Barrett, explicitly lists these as barriers to to how much students are learning in his message to the program (Barrett). While students are expected to be held accountable through state-mandated tests, it does not appear that charter school teachers fall under these same regulations.
As a charter organization, BASIS schools are publicly funded but not to the extent of public district schools. In Arizona specifically, charter schools are funded $1,180 less than the average district student (Charter Schools). However, BASIS schools raise a considerable amount of money from parental contributions, with a suggestion of families giving at least $1,500 a year per child for the teacher bonus program (What the public isn’t told about high-performing charter schools in Arizona, 2017). At some BASIS schools, donors may be memorialized publicly, such as with BASIS Scottsdale’s “Legacy Bricks” (Legacy Brick Campaign). BASIS schools also enjoy the support of benefactors—for example, BASIS Scottsdale has received funding from Craig Barrett, the former chairman of the board of the Intel Corporation, chairman of BASIS Charter schools, and namesake of the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University.
BASIS has an aesthetically-pleasing, attractive recruitment website called www.jobs.basised.com, where teachers and managers can find images of motivated students, available job postings, and messages coaxing them to join BASIS, such as “Join the Revolution—Help Lead the Revolution,” as well as a variety of thoughts from current teachers (About BASIS.ed, 2016). Locations include their base of Arizona, Texas, New York, California, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Washington State, and even China. Openings are categorized into primary school teaching, middle/upper school teaching, school management and administration, central office, non-teaching school staff, and marketing & student recruitment. Listed separately under job qualifications for open teacher or administrative positions are “minimum qualifications,” which includes “a Bachelor’s degree or minimum of 3 years teaching or administrative experience and valid fingerprint clearance,” and “preferred qualifications,” entailing experience with children, proficiency in Microsoft Office skills, a high level of of personal responsibility and optimism, strong communication skills, and comfort with a fast pace of learning. It’s clear that BASIS prefers experienced, motivated teachers, as any group of selective, competitive schools would.
Relationship to the District
BASIS Charter Schools have an insignificant-to-no relationship to their surrounding school districts. They do not participate in organized sports with the local school district due to the cost of competing in them (Sullivan). For example, Tucson North participates in an alternative sports league rather than the costly, larger league in Arizona. Students who wish to compete at a higher level will join club sports teams, and may interact with students from the main district through these leagues but this is largely incidental. A former student described her school’s relationship with the local district-run high school as “indifferent to slightly hostile”. However, she noted that this relationship was “just due to proximity” (Ono). BASIS Charter operates independently and does not work with local school districts.
BASIS Charter schools have surged to the top of school rankings and emerged as some of the premier charter schools in the country. However, their ascent to the top has not been without controversy. While BASIS students are admitted by lottery, their retention is not nearly as random. Practices such as not taking part in free or reduced lunches can potentially turn away some families from the schools. The for-profit corporation managing them has come under fire for transparency issues, and this has generated controversy for the publicly-funded entity.
That being said, there is no denying BASIS success on national, standardized test scores. Their performance significantly surpasses the surrounding area and even the nation. The top BASIS schools are on-par with the best schools across the world, and the charter corporation does not shy away from these statistics. Their undeniable success on paper forms the core of their advertising campaign as they hope to attract high-achieving students to enter their lottery. Once students are a part of BASIS schools, they become part of a school system which sees over 50% of its students walk out the door before graduation, an attrition rate more than two times higher than West Point. The apparent success of these schools, juxtaposed with their controversies, perhaps perfectly highlights some of the key issues in the charter school debates. While we can quantify the strong academic performance of the school, academic performance is not the sole indicator of school success. High-performing charter schools can be selective about the students they take in through various means, which alters the pool of students they educate (Welner 2013). By being more selective with the students they take in and the students they retain, BASIS is able to achieve success on paper, while failing the students that have to walk out its doors. There is no denying the academic success of its graduates, but instead of simply taking high-achieving students out of the surrounding district schools, BASIS needs a more inclusive and comprehensive solution for all students.
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