There was a clear pattern running through this year’s list of America’s best public high schools, compiled by US News & World Report.
It wasn’t that four of the top five schools are located in Arizona — though that does happen to be true. It’s that those four schools, and one other in seventh place, are all run by a charter school network founded by two economists nearly 20 years ago.
At a time when both the president and his secretary of education decry the state of US public schools, instead promoting private education, BASIS charter schools seem to offer a successful middle ground. The network’s focus on high-quality teachers and big expectations for students suggests public funds can produce not just good private schools (as is the case with vouchers) but top public ones.
“There’s really no part of K-12 education in the United States that’s leading and beating the world,” Mark Redford, BASIS’s Chief Business Development and Brand Officer, tells Business Insider. “Actually, probably except us.”
The top three BASIS schools in US News & World Report’s latest ranking, created using a combination of test scores and participation on Advanced Placement tests, had graduation rates of 100%, 98%, and 97%, respectively. Nearly a quarter of the student body goes on to attend colleges in the top quarter of nationally-ranked universities. More than half attend those in the top 100.
Charter schools are essentially public schools that are privately-run, either for profit or not. (BASIS schools are for-profit, run by the corporation BASIS Educational Group LLC.) They can’t legally screen kids for acceptance, but they do have more freedom to stick to a mission that deviates from traditional public schools.
Redford says BASIS sets itself apart first by holding teachers in high regard, treating them as white-collar professionals that have autonomy in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to pursue whatever it takes to get kids excited about Latin or physics.
If one teacher’s experimental approach is successful, BASIS will often adopt it in other schools in the network, Redford says.
The method goes back to 1998, when BASIS was first founded by Arizona-based economists Michael and Olga Block on the premise of building schools based on the leading education research. The approach bears a resemblance to the one found in Finland, where national test scores have been some of the world’s highest for years.
But with teachers’ freedom comes a high bar for expertise. All subject teachers, even the first-grade teacher doing simple addition and subtraction, must have a college degree in their chosen subject.
The expectations are high for students, too. In addition to their normal standardized testing, they take internal exams each year beginning in sixth grade and lasting through high school. They’re also required to take at least six AP courses and pass at least one test.
To help students stay on track, BASIS takes a decidedly low-tech approach. Starting in kindergarten, each student receives a daily planner at the beginning of the year, known as a “communications journal,” meant to log homework assignments and serve as a repository for teachers’ notes.
In many schools, teachers publish kids’ grades in an online portal that parents can check at will. Redford says the schools avoid these online gradebooks because they put too much power in adults’ hands at the expense of student responsibility.
“We feel it’s absolutely crucial to the kids’ learning to take ownership of their own education because they have to write down their homework, their assignments in that communications journal,” Redford says.
School demographics may skew achievement, however. Like many charters, BASIS has fewer minority students, those receiving free- or reduced-priced lunch, and those with disabilities compared to traditional public schools, the Washington Post reports. Prior research has found socioeconomics often play a deciding role in student success.
In Arizona, at least, data from 2015-2016 school year show white and Asian students are considerably over-represented relative to the state’s population. Arizona is 3% Asian, yet BASIS had 32% Asian students during that school year. Meanwhile, the state was 45% Latino, but BASIS was 10% Latino.
Linda Lyon, president-elect of the Arizona School Boards Association, says the ratios may be by design. “BASIS and other for-profit charters are really good at penetrating affluent markets where they can recruit already high performing students from district schools,” Lyon told the Post.
Redford disputes the idea that BASIS schools segregate kids. He contends the schools tend to have different racial distributions based mainly on where those kids live, even if the prior school year data suggests otherwise. He also highlights that BASIS’s minority students still outperform their peers in local public schools.
Ultimately, Redford says the controversy detracts from a more pressing issue — namely, that American students underperform compared to other countries on the global stage. Standardized test scores lag well behind other industrialized nations, and they have for awhile.
While much of the education world focuses on uplifting lower-achieving kids, BASIS believes high-achieving kids need special attention, too, Redford explains.
“You can’t have a really good education without that high level of cognitive challenge,” Redford says. “And I think if you start with that, that’s as good a place as any.”