They’re #1–and They Teach To the TEST??!!

That’s BASIS charter school in Tuscon, Arizona.  On the 2008 list of Newsweek’s top U.S. high schools, BASIS came out on top (in 09 it dropped to #5, in 07 it reached #6, in 06 #3).  Now it’s the subject of a documentary (Two Million Minutes: A 21st Century Solution) produced by Robert Compton, whose previous documentary Two Million Minutes set a couple of exemplary U.S. students against their counterparts in Bangalore and Beijing with depressing results.  (You can read my review of the first movie here.)

BASIS is a charter school that has struggled through neighborhood protests and funding cuts, plus the usual resistance that charter schools face, but its success speaks for itself.  Now, it’s a bragging point for the city, and recently Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton took their show to the school for a lively event.

Compton’s film is partly responsible, but what the leaders of BASIS say in the film runs squarely against some of the soundest convictions in education circles.

Michael and Olga Block, the founders, along with administrator Carolyn McGarvey, are interviewed at length, and what they say about curriculum is worth repeating.  First of all, BASIS found, curriculum was the easy part.  They had a model readily available, the AP roster of courses, and a measure of success, the AP test results for BASIS students.

Yes, they teach to the test.  Olga says, “We thought that those exams will lead us into a good quality program.  So, that was the idea–we will concentrate on the result and we can fill it with whatever we believe would work.”

Standards are high, and content requirements would make many educators shudder.

Starting in 9th Grade, Carolyn says, “They must set a minimum of eight advanced placement courses.”

They have students take the AP Calculus exam in 11th Grade and offer them Game Theory or Differential Equations in 12th Grade.

“In English,” Olga says, “we thought we would go a little deeper in grammar.”

In math, they ask for more “repetition.”

Students take Latin in 5th and 6th Grades, in part to reinforce lessons in grammar in English.

The full curriculum appears here.

One student reports leaving his public school to enter BASIS. His old school placed him at the top of his class in math. When he took the entrance test at BASIS, he scored 10%. That gives an idea of standards at the school.

And BASIS is not an elite school.  It has open enrollment.

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