BASIS and DC: Achievement Gap Mania Strikes Again

By 08/17/2012

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The arrival of the BASIS charter school in DC has drawn a slew of barbs. BASIS, which currently runs eight schools in Arizona, seeks to offer an enriching, accelerated liberal arts education to its students. The results thus far are impressive, with two BASIS schools consistently ranked in the Top 10 nationally, and many of its students taking 10+ AP tests before graduation.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, critics have suggested that the incredibly rigorous BASIS model with its emphasis on love of learning, mastery in STEM subjects, and preparing students to compete in the global economy is a poor fit for the “demographic” of Washington DC. As Skip McKoy, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board has said, “I’m all for high standards. I’m all for excellent curriculum. Kids should be pushed. But you have to recognize the population.” Mark Lerner, a member of the board of Washington Latin charter school also argued that BASIS “blatantly markets itself to elite students” and is “a direct affront to the civil rights struggle so many have fought over school choice for underprivileged children.”

Now there are about 45,000 kids in DCPS and more than 70,000 school-age kids in Washington DC, so the notion that there aren’t a few hundred who would stand to benefit from a phenomenally challenging academic environment strikes me as bizarre. In this morning’s Washington Post article, Khazan points to criticism that the school will not be able to “meet the needs of low-performing, English-language learners and special education students.” Are these critics suggesting that students who would benefit from BASIS don’t deserve a school that meets their needs? The BASIS school is a public charter school — all parents have the opportunity to enroll their children. And the notion that families and students in DC shouldn’t have access to a high quality liberal arts curriculum just because many students in DC need something more remedial in scope strikes me as a perverse vision of “social justice.” (For more on this, see my 2011 National Affairs piece, “Our Achievement-Gap Mania.”)

Arguing that DC should only welcome charters that have the mission of boosting proficiency in reading and math seems a surefire way of shortchanging kids who are capable of much more. Truth is, we need schools focused on basic proficiency and we need BASIS – we need schools that serve all students. Just to put a fine point on it, the BASIS student population almost exactly reflects the demographic makeup of DC. While cofounder Michael Block unapologetically notes that “BASIS is not a school for everyone,” I find it hard to understand why people would imagine that only suburban parents and students should have access to the kind of remarkable academic experience BASIS offers. In my experience, there are lots of kids and families across America who would want and deserve such opportunities, and I think it’s a damn good thing that BASIS is bringing them to DC.

-Rick Hess

This blog entry originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Comment on this article
  • Ed Jones says:

    We’re always hearing that these neighborhoods haven’t the “social capital” to succeed.

    How are they ever to get that capital if none of their kids get the education to become civil engineers, doctors, programmers, managers, marketers?

  • julie Wolfe says:

    Thank you so much for this article.
    Why would anyone criticize a public charter school that might bring more to the table for students that are capable of a higher level of learning. Why hold these children back.

    For any other students there are challenges that push them a to try a little harder. In my daughters class at BASIS there are students that are finally being challenged into raising their standards and are now more confident and happy with themselves!! There are struggles and victories for every level at this school. Isn’t this what we would all want for the DC system!
    Julie Wolfe

  • Leif B. says:

    I agree, BASIS schools offer an excellent opportunity for a select group of families that have the time and resources to push their students to new heights.
    But this isn’t the problem. This article is a fine bit of misdirection.
    The problem is that BASIS schools are compared to other public schools using the same standards. So BASIS might accept almost no ELL or Special Education students (students that are prone to achieve at lower levels on standardized testing). Then when state-testing time comes, BASIS looks phenomenal according to state-issued report cards for schools. Their student achievement is higher on average, but mostly because of their demographic selection of students.
    Meanwhile, public school district schools are forced to push ALL student demographics to new heights and they are penalized in their state-issued report cards for not keeping up with charter schools like BASIS.
    I say fine to having schools like BASIS, but let’s not penalize public schools for contending with the “real world” when it comes to student demographics.

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