Monday, May 19, 2014

Ever Hear a BASIS Schools Sales Pitch?

The Basis charter schools – some ten schools in Arizona and a couple more in places like San Antonio and Washington, DC – have long been a fascinating subject for this blog and others.

US News & World Report continues to rank schools like Basis Scottsdale and Basis Tucson in the top ten high schools in the nation. This happens in spite of the fact that the schools' practices result in thinning elementary and middle school classes down from a hundred to a couple dozen by graduation from grade 12. Is this the best education in the country or the worst journalism, I ask you, US News? A high school that graduates fewer than 30 students a year hardly deserves the accolades afforded Basis Scottsdale or Basis Tucson. I can assure you that within a radius of 5 miles there are several times as many high school Seniors graduating from traditional public high schools whose test scores and college admissions statistics will outdo those of Basis students.

A little background: About five years ago, Basis decided to open a private school in Scottsdale, AZ. No one knows what their motivation was since their previous schools were all charter schools. Perhaps they saw the eye-popping tuition ($15,000 and up) that was being charged by Phoenix Country Day School or Rancho Solano and thought to themselves, Why not? Basis Scottsdale was created and advertised and by opening day in the fall, seven students had signed up! Basis Scottsdale was quickly converted into a charter school – which had to be quite an embarrassment to Michael Block, Basis founder and a former free-market economics professor at the University of Arizona. This particular little test of the free market failed miserably. Crony capitalism is safer.

Not only does Basis engage in ruthless thinning across the grades, but they also practice rigorous selection of students for high academic ability at the entry grades. David Safier has shown as much in his blog, and it hit a sensitive nerve with the Basis people who attempted to refute his charges. The Basis people insist that they do no selection of incoming students and that admission is strictly by lottery. Clearly we have some word play going on here. Stripped of casuistry, I think we can clarify by saying that Basis randomly “selects” incoming students from a very “select” group of applicants. I didn’t realize just how select that applicant pool is until my friend Ellie just happened to drop by a Basis schools sales pitch.

Ellie works in downtown Phoenix. Basis had announced in early 2014 that they would soon open Basis Phoenix, a charter school in the center of the city in order to favor the unhappy parents of Phoenix with the Basis brand of education. Ellie was leaving work late one evening in March when she saw the placard announcing the Basis information meeting in the conference hall of her very own building. The capacity of the hall was 90 persons, but more than 200 people filled the room and spilled out into the hallway. For just a moment, she considered phoning the fire marshal; but on second thought, she decided to squeeze into the hall and catch the sales pitch.

What Ellie told me about what transpired during the Basis sales pitch was filtered through her years as a teacher in big-city schools across the country. The Basis people would surely claim that her views were thus corrupted and biased by her background. I would argue that her views are well informed by years of experience as an educator. Judge for yourself.

Ellie’s Report (with her reflections in parentheses)

I was stunned by the size of the crowd of parents who showed up at this “informational meeting,” but what was more shocking to see was that maybe 60% of the parents were either far east Asian or East Indian. That really seemed weird because I know that the Phoenix Elementary school district is 2% or less Asian. I saw very few Hispanic or African American parents in the room.

The meeting – it was really an hour long uninterrupted presentation with no questions allowed – was presided over by a pot-bellied man in a florescent orange shirt. Orange Shirt stood in the middle of the stage backed up by a half dozen young adults seated in chairs. He referred to his back-ups as “Subject Specialists”; they sat silently through the entire presentation, never said a word, and left without being asked any questions.

The presentation started with a series of video clips projected onto a large screen. The clips showed school teachers as portrayed in popular media like movies, and each one made the teachers look ridiculous. Of course, the famous Ben Stein scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was featured: “Anybody, Anybody?” The message was clear: traditional, ed school trained teachers are fools. Orange Shirt never referred to the Basis teachers as “teachers”; he made it quite clear that Basis employs Subject Specialists.

Here’s how things were going to run at Basis Phoenix, according to Orange Shirt. The school would start with grades K through 4, and each year a grade would be added until a full K-12 school was reached. In the beginning, grades K-4 would have 30 students each and each subsequent year another track of 30 would be added until each grade’s enrollment reached 100.

Two themes permeated the presentation – all of which consisted of Orange Shirt’s monologue with no questions from the floor entertained.

  1. At all grade levels schooling would be conducted as if it were a high school. From Kindergarten up, the students would experience Basis education just like high school education: lectures, passing from room to room for each subject taught, individual lockers, etc. Children who go through a Basis school will be high school and college ready at the end.
  2. Self-selection. Orange Shirt was emphatic. Basis does not select its students; admission is by lottery. (Of course, if Basis doesn’t “select” then it can claim to be just like a traditional public school that takes all comers – a fatuous claim, of course, since a lottery from among a pool of “self-selected” applicants is hardly comparable to taking on all comers.) Yes, there is a lot of thinning going on across the grades. (Parents have reported that the curriculum resembles a gauntlet of paper-and-pencil tests.) And yes, lots of students choose to continue their education back in the dreaded traditional public schools. But – and Orange Shirt was emphatic on this point – students “self-select” out of the school; Basis does not do any selecting.
Orange Shirt rattled off a series of features of a Basis education:
  1. “Subject Specialists” have not been corrupted by having their brains filled with a lot of “ed school” nonsense.
  2. Students will study Mandarin in Grades K – 3. (Presumably this will make the school more appealing to those highly motivated Asian families.)
  3. Parents are to drive their children to the front entrance, drop them off, remain in the car, and drive away promptly; no congregating at the entrance to the school.
  4. Parents are not used as volunteers in the classroom. (In fact, the whole idea of parent involvement in the school was strongly discouraged.)
Orange Shirt’s monologue took up 45 minutes. No time was allotted for questions from the parents. I pressed forward toward the stage at the end of the talk; Orange Shirt did not seem too receptive to questions but I managed to ask him how much his “Subject Specialists” are paid. “Each contract is individually negotiated,” he said. Sure, what better way to keep the employees in the dark and off balance in any negotiations.

All I can say is that it was a bizarre experience. Looming over the proceedings were the personalities of Michael and Olga Block, the Basis founders who were spoken of reverentially. A picture was painted of small children treated as adults. I couldn’t help thinking of my own grandchildren and how I would never want them treated like miniature college students by the Basis Subject Specialists.

Yes, Ellie. Bizarre indeed. I wonder how much the average reader of US News and World Report knows about what goes on in the Best High Schools in America.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.


  1. As a BASIS student myself, I found myself shaking my head at this article. This little essay really should not be given any sort of merit. Whoever wrote this is clearly either confused as to what BASIS is like, or is simply jealous of the success BASIS has had. I could not be more pleased with my time at BASIS, I really enjoy the rigorous environment and find it rewarding. To be honest, I am tired of all these uninformed "journalists" who feel qualified to make judgment calls on BASIS schools. This article sounds very whiny and resorts to name-calling in its poor attempt at an argument. In the future, please stop knocking on BASIS because you are jealous of how well it is doing. Instead, praise it for revitalizing the way parents think their kids to be educated. Articles like this serve only to hinder any improvements in American education.
    In sum, if you don't like the fact that BASIS is improving the way kids are educated, keep that to yourself.

    1. I have to second what this commenter has expressed. Your claims of fact are simply not true.

      1) BASIS does not graduate 30 students a year. The school does have small graduating classes and that is because the school itself is small, making the graduating class proportional to the total amount of students (something we learn in 5th grade). I should also mention that at my campus alone (I am a sophomore at BASIS Scottsdale), the graduation rate amongst seniors was 100%, as opposed to the dismal figures of schools just down the road.

      2) BASIS does not engage in any form of thinning across any grade. Students do drop out because they are not fit to thrive in the difficult curriculum but the administration encourages all students to stay and receive help from teachers, especially those students who are struggling and contemplating leaving.

      3) Mandarin is not taught to students in order to appeal to families of Asian descent -- in fact this claim is racist in it's foundation. The reason is that the Chinese economy is growing closer and closer to the American economy and it is advantageous for students to be bilingual in a language that dominates the States's largest trading partner.