The secret behind those ‘Highly Performing’ charter schools

school crossing signLet me start by making a confession. My oldest son attends a BASIS school. BASIS schools are some of those “highly performing charters” that reformers love to use an example of everything that’s right with charter schools, while traditional school advocates use as an example of everything that’s wrong. I suspect the majority of folks who pan or extol the virtues of BASIS schools have never had a child attend one, so let me give you an insider’s look.

I pulled my oldest son from a traditional public school and enrolled him in BASIS when he was in sixth grade. His former school wasn’t a bad school. I liked his teachers. I spent a lot of time getting to know the administration.

But my son wasn’t thriving at his school. He received A’s in his honors classes but C’s and D’s in his regular classes. He was distracted in class and became increasingly disruptive (which is how I came to know the school’s administration).

He needed a change. He needed to be challenged.

I went to Parent Night at BASIS and was blown away by what I heard. An Arizona school ranked as one of the top high schools in the nation? In Arizona?? Teachers with degrees from Harvard and Yale and Stanford, with PhD’s and real-world experience. A curriculum that entails AP coursework as early as 7th grade, and the ability to finish high school with every AP class completed by 11th grade. Wow. What’s not to love?

My oldest son wasn’t happy with my decision to move him. He promised me he’d never, ever, ever like the school. But within a couple months, he was back to his old self, thriving both academically and socially.

It was the right decision, and I don’t regret it. But, like all good stories, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Governor Ducey wants to “fund the wait lists” at schools such as BASIS. He’s fond of using the school as the poster child for reform. But those wait lists are a mirage.

It’s true that hundreds of students are turned away from BASIS and other top-rated charter schools in 5th and 6th grade. But it’s also true that the turnover rate at these charter schools is astronomical, with hundreds of students opting out of the schools after a short period of time, and schools graduating as few as 20-30 students.

Many of the critics will say it’s because BASIS filters out undesirable students, such as those with learning or attention differences, while keeping the “cream of the crop.” And they’re correct.

The curriculum at BASIS isn’t advanced. It’s highly advanced, as in 2 or 3 years ahead of most schools, similar to the curriculum for highly gifted students. Remember when I said AP classes start in 7th grade? That’s not normal. And it’s not something that just any student can handle.

Starting in 6th grade, students take midterms and finals, and the final is a significant portion of the student’s overall class grade. It’s high-stakes testing at its highest. If a student fails even one class (with a small exception for some math classes), that student must retake the entire grade.

The vast majority of students, when faced with retaking an entire grade or moving on to a different school, will move on. So will the vast majority of students who struggle with such an advanced load and who find themselves spending 4-5 hours on homework every night. And the same with many students who are involved in extracurricular activities such as club sports, which requires time for evening practices and weekend tournaments.

This is why BASIS schools start out with hundreds of students and long waiting lists in 5th and 6th grade but end up graduating only a handful of students. And when a school graduates 25 students who have made it through every advanced, AP course available, one would hope these students would have sky-high test scores.

It’s easy to understand why BASIS makes the list as one of the top high schools in the nation. But to compare a class of 25 students to one with hundreds of students from every background and with every learning challenge imaginable at a school in an economically challenged neighborhood doesn’t really seem like a fair comparison, does it?

Of course not. And yet that is what our politicians routinely do.

A better comparison would be comparing the students at BASIS with the top performers at a school such as Chaparral in Scottsdale. Students at Chaparral have a similar profile to students at BASIS – higher income families with highly educated parents. When you make this type of apples to apples comparison, you find little difference, and the “magic” of charters doesn’t seem so magical after all.

The teachers at BASIS, while highly educated, can’t really be described as the secret sauce, either. Some are phenomenal and can relate their knowledge back to their students, but others struggle when faced with a class that has an unruly student or two. Even Ivy League educated teachers need classroom management skills, and this skill is often overlooked.

One other myth I’d like to debunk is the idea that charters such as BASIS and Great Hearts are somehow doing better with less money. We honestly have no idea if this is true.

Because Arizona requires little financial transparency from its charters, taxpayers do not have an accurate idea of how much money charters take in each year. For instance, at most charter schools (particularly the high performing charters in affluent neighborhoods) parents donate thousands of dollars per student each year. At BASIS, it’s an annual fundraising drive they advertise as a way to reward exceptional teachers, and it brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars that district schools do not have access to.

Charters will tell you they need this money because they cannot collect bond money like district schools, though lawmakers acknowledged that fact by giving charters more per pupil dollars than district schools. And in reality, my child’s charter school SHOULD be able to educate my child with less money than a child in say, the Roosevelt district. Why?

Stability. A student with economic stability doesn’t have to worry about when he is getting his next meal or if he will have to move, again. A student with emotional stability in the home doesn’t need to worry about whether mom will get back-handed by her new boyfriend or if CPS will be making another visit.

The first-generation college student is paving a new path and has to rely on the support – sometimes available, sometimes not – of guidance counselors or administrators to help her figure out the how to afford and apply for colleges that seem well beyond her grasp, while students with college educated parents are choosing not if they will attend, but where to attend.

The vast, vast majority of students at high performing charters have far fewer hurdles than most, especially here in Arizona where almost 1 in 4 children live below the poverty level. That’s an incredible hurdle not just for the kids but for their schools, as well.

These students need more than just a supportive and caring teacher. They need the type of wraparound services that support learning outside of the classroom, which is where a huge portion of learning happens. Services such as free and reduced lunches and breakfasts, after school programs and one-on-one tutoring are crucial to a student’s long-term success. Often, these services are the most important factor, and yet, are the first to be scaled back when a school suffers massive funding cuts or is mandated to move more dollars into the classroom.

BASIS schools and many of the other highly performing charters across the state are good choices, and I’m certainly not advocating we take these choices away. But let’s be real here. These are elite prep schools, and their model is successful because the students they serve have more advantages than the vast majority of Arizona students. Their secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all, and they are not the cure for what ails our schools.

If we really want to give EVERY child a chance to succeed, then we need to get serious about how we address the children most in need of our help. And yes, Arizona, that means money. Money that’s earmarked to help failing schools, not punish them for lack-luster test scores. Money that’s targeted for “extras” that are, in fact, necessities for many.


  1. Matthew Ladner

    Ms. Erfle-

    I had this piece forwarded and found it both well written and well reasoned. I’m not sure yet where you are coming from overall but I must confess I’m anxious to read more of your blog regardless.

    You raise a broadly valid point regarding attrition rates at high-performing charter schools, but some caveats are in order. Some have recklessly equated attrition in a school like BASIS to “drop outs” but we have no tracking of transferring students. If we are able to do so, we may learn that they are more likely to graduate from college than others.

    Which brings me to my next point. Your article appropriately asked for more of an apples to apples comparison, so let’s check the Arizona Board of Regents report on college graduation by high-school:

    Notice first of all the very low statewide rate of the AZ class of 2006 obtaining a Bachelor degree in six years. Ouch. Next notice that Tempe Prep (the ur-Great Hearts campus) beats the incredibly economically segregated district schools you mention on a percentage basis. Next, look at the number for Arcadia High.

    I don’t want to pick on Arcadia High, but poverty is not exactly the issue on the south slope of Camelback Mountain, and 61% of the Class of 2006 not earning a BA degree leaves much to be desired. In short, I don’t think that Arcadia parents are being irrational in flocking to these schools-any more than you were in choosing one and sticking with it (at least so far).

    While I think that AZ needs more Great Heart and BASIS schools, it is certainly the case that we have to get much better results out of our districts. Increased parental choice is an important tool towards that end, but not the only one. Sadly we have largely made a hash of the others- dropping the cut score for AIMS, very low standards for A/B school letter grades, etc. We really need to get our other tools working better.

    1. Post
      Julie Erfle

      Matthew, I have no doubt that the vast majority of students who leave BASIS schools are likely excelling in other schools. As I mentioned, I believe BASIS serves a role and is a great choice for some students.

      But why are we more concerned about replicating schools that have worked for smaller and more affluent students while ignoring the needs that feed and sustain our achievement gap? Why are our education nonprofits and lawmakers not addressing the issues behind the achievement gap, issues such as poverty, undiagnosed learning and attention disabilities and other instabilities that make learning especially challenging? Why can we not have an honest conversation about the fact that some of our students need more resources (yes, money) than others? This isn’t because they’re not as smart as other students or are incapable of learning but rather because their challenges require more interventions.

      My other son is dyslexic. He’s just as smart as his older brother but requires a much different (and more costly) learning environment. He needed intensive reading interventions and curriculum modifications and accommodations in order to excel academically. I was fortunate enough to have the means to provide this for him, but what about the thousands of students who do not have access to these interventions? Aren’t they worth the extra cost? I think they are. Until we get serious about funding based on student needs vs. funding based on test scores, we won’t likely turn around Arizona’s education crisis.

      1. Matthew Ladner

        Take a good long look at that Board of Regents report if you would like to know why we need more rigorous schools. Less than 19% of the Class of 2006 earned a BA degree in six years. Unless substantially improved this is leading AZ straight into a demographic disaster as AZ’s elderly and youth population expands and far too much of our working aged population lack the knowledge and skills to thrive. I don’t know about you, but when I look at that report, I want as many Tempe Preps as fast as I can get them.

        This is not to solve every problem, but the stark reality we face can be seen in that report. The Board of Regents have made their point without text- the pool of high quality high schools in AZ is tiny. Again, it is not poverty that has much of Arcadia High’s Class of 2006 living in their parent’s back yard guest house on Jefferson Street after flunking out of UA. Don’t get me wrong, poverty is an issue, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking it is the only issue.

        On your point about additional spending, I’d note a couple of things. First AZ is a relatively poor state and has one of the smallest portions of working aged people in the country. Second spending levels are determined democratically- we elect our leaders who have to balance the needs of K-12 against those of things like health, transportation, higher ed, etc. It’s very alluring to say we should simply spend more on X without having to go through that balancing process with what ultimately represents limited resources. Moreover district interests put up a ballot initiative in the recent past to increase taxes, and the voters rejected it decisively.

        I am not asking you to like any of these realities, just to recognize them. AZ is not state with old money and hedge fund billionaires on every street corner or oil revenue flowing out of the ground. Spending has however gone up in the past and it will go up in the future, but it alone is not going to result in a high quality education system. The path forward is to get results out of the current investment.

        1. Post
          Julie Erfle

          Matthew, I feel like your point isn’t to actually find solutions for what ails our schools but rather to continue down a tired path of doing the same old things and expecting different results. If choice and competition was a panacea, we’d have the most robust schools in the country. It’s not a panacea, nor is it the devil in disguise. In fact, choice has had little effect on our academic rankings. Why don’t we try something radical and focus on funding for needs vs. funding for special interests.

          You’re right, voters have certainly put us in this mess by electing folks who could care less about “other people’s kids” and by electing lawmakers who value private prison growth over education. But they’ve certainly had a lot of help from those who have a financial interest in maintaining the status quo.

          1. Matthew Ladner

            I personally don’t know anyone who thinks that choice is a panacea, nor is there anything tired about my path. In the absence of charter schools for instance our already tiny pool of AZ high schools who can muster a decent amount post graduate success would be tinier still. I’m not waiting for utopia, I’m seeking improvement now.

            I’m glad that you have the option to send one of your children to BASIS and I’m pretty certain that if they stick with it they will be deeply rewarded for their persistence. I and many others in this state have fought very hard for a very long period of time, including two trips through the Arizona court system, to expand options for children with disabilities as well. Experience in other states strongly suggests that simply having access to programs like this even if they don’t choose to directly utilize it.

            I wholeheartedly agree that we ought to be employing other strategies to improve our rather dire situation. I simply wish that everyone to recognize that there are severe limitations to a “let’s spend our way to awesome schools” strategy here in AZ that moves it from a realistic conversation to the realm of a dorm room hooka gabfest. Regardless of what level of spending the polity embraces, the most important thing is to get as much value out of it as possible.

          2. Post
            Julie Erfle

            Matthew, I haven’t suggested “throwing money at the problem” so much as targeting more money for those most in need of additional resources. That’s a very different idea from the one that suggests we reward schools with high test scores. And I’m also looking for improvement now, that’s why I believe we need a radically different approach to how we define success and how we fund our schools.

            I’ve also fought for expanded opportunities for children with disabilities, but again, take a much different approach. I’d rather fight for best practices in schools that serve students with learning and attention differences (something that is NOT currently part of our policy) than believe that simply attending any private school will get my child a better education. That’s a very simplistic approach to the much more complicated issue of how we teach students with learning differences.

    2. John Washington

      >I don’t want to pick on Arcadia High, but poverty is not exactly the issue on the south slope of Camelback Mountain, and 61% of the Class of 2006 not earning a BA degree leaves much to be desired. In short, I don’t think that Arcadia parents are being irrational in flocking to these schools-any more than you were in choosing one and sticking with it (at least so far).

      You have to realize that not all of AH students live “on the south slope of Camelback Mountain.” I don’t know the exact figures, but a statistically significant number are out-of-boundary or out-of-district students, some from Phoenix who are undoubtedly trying to get a better educational experience than offered by their home district.

    3. Patricia Hale

      Not every child wants to attend college. Not every profession requires a college education. Funding K-12 education at the rate that Arizonans want and the court upheld would go a long way toward improving educational outcomes at all levels. Where does the Goldwater Institute stand on AZ paying K-12 the court ordered $1.3 billion owed?

      And as an aside, It took my daughter 9 yrs to graduate from college, because she had to work while she went to school. Your longitudinal study may not be long enough.

      1. Sheryl

        Not every student wants to attend college – and determining success by gauging a 6-year period is not long enough.

        My husband and I both graduated with a Bachelor of Science, and me further two Masters Degrees – certainly not within 6 years of graduating. Is that what determines the success of a school – how many kids get a Bachelor Degree within 6 years of graduating? If so, that’s fairly inaccurate.

        Both of us opted to serve our country, and pursue our education when we were done with our enlistment, when we were in our early 30’s – I completed two Masters Degrees after, and neither of us currently use our degrees. We are business owners in the Phoenix area with a combined income of over $300,000.

        So if “success” of a high school is determined by how quickly their graduates attend and complete post secondary, then it’s inaccuracy at it’s finest.

        College is clearly not required to be successful in society today – we have 4 kids and I neither of us discourage college, but I will be the first to say that a college education does not make you any more “successful” than the average person on the street next to you.

    4. Sheila Rubio

      Regarding Arcadia High: Two of my children attend this school and it is extremely diverse. The percentage of economically disadvantaged students is 27% compared with 5% at Chaparrall and no students at Basis and Tempe Prep. Source: U.S. News & World Report

      I agree completely that you cannot compare charters and public schools. Transportation to these schools is the first road block any parent would face.

  2. Fred Barlam

    Thank you Julie for your excellent perspective. You did a good job in describing why BASIS is successful, and why it is foolish to hold it up as a model for all schools throughout the state. I view BASIS in the same way that I view the elite public high schools (Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx High School of Science) that I am familiar with in New York City, the place of my birth and K-12 schooling. These public high schools have entrance tests to get in, attract and accept “La crème de la crème,” and have astonishingly high achievers who win every major American academic award, and whose graduates go on to the most elite colleges and universities in the nation. Are these type of schools needed? Undoubtedly, and children who have the potential to succeed in such a highly advanced academic environment deserve them. But to hold it up as a model for all schools, and to say that every student in Arizona can be successful in this environment is utter folly.

  3. Arizona Eagletarian

    Excellent insight. The most important thing you did with this post may be to illuminate just how bizarre Scrooge McDucey’s use of the Kochtopus buzzword “opportunity for all” is when what he’s really pushing is an austerity that is destined to further decimate Arizona K-12 public education.

    Thank you.

  4. Ryan

    Yeah, but the issue here is that the State can’t supplant the home environment that makes the kids in Roosevelt so apt to fail in the public education system. No matter how much Pre-K or after school programs you fund, the relationship between the child and the parent is a critical factor. And this is operating under the assumption that the Republican government will actually fund programs that go to people they’ve identified as “takers.”

    1. Post
      Julie Erfle

      Ryan, you’re correct that the state can’t change the home environment or make all of a student’s challenges disappear. But they can certainly help make it easier for these students to learn by supporting some of the services that are so critical for at-risk kids. Right now, they’re doing the opposite by punishing schools that serve a large portion of at-risk kids while incentivizing schools with high test scores, creating an even wider gap in funding inequality.

  5. Sue

    I am not sure that a lot of what is said is true- yes maybe for BASIS Scottsdale or one of the Great Hearts in an affluent area- but charter schools likewise thrive in under-served areas too. Charter schools do not pick and choose and filter out students as much as they do parents- it takes a committed parent to keep your kid in a charter school- no bus, no cafeteria program, no neighborhood friends.
    yes, there is a high turn-over rate but I think part of the reason is that parents are not wiling to go the extra mile.
    My kids have spent nearly their entire education in a charter school and the 3 collective years we spent in our district school was an eye-opener. The teachers were great, the buildings were great, the bureaucracy not so much.
    Are charters a panacea? Nope. But they are a great alternative for parents who want kids educated where the bar is held high.

    1. Jennifer

      I don’t think there is high turnover rate at many charters. I believe is there is a high turnover rate at BASIS it is simply because that school can only well serve a very small group of kids. My son attends a charter in Phoenix that is K-12 and many kids remain there for all those years. That school is not trying to live in the world of outstanding test scores, although it does have awards for excellence. It has a different, more inclusive approach that seeks to help individuals reach their goals and explore their talents. Students are encouraged to explore the arts and also have an opportunity to take AP or dual enrollment classes. They know that the path to success looks different for every person. Also, they send out financial reports to parents every year and all information is available, so I don’t really appreciate the painting of all charters as being shady in that manner.

      1. Post
        Julie Erfle

        Thank you, Jennifer. I’m not trying to paint charters as shady, just point out that there is little financial disclosure required for charters, especially compared to what’s required by law for districts. If your charter is going above and beyond, that’s fantastic. It sounds like you found a good fit for your child.

  6. Sue

    And the name calling of politicians who happen to view things differently than the liberal bent here is also alarming. Not Julie but those commenting- can’t adults have different views without name calling?

  7. Karen Treon

    This is the best article I have read on this subject. Thank you again for elevating the conversation. Your voice is a gift to Arizona.

  8. AnnaMarie Knorr

    This piece is so well done and thoughtful. I serve on a public school board in Arizona and I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. I volunteered to serve because we live in a rural area and ‘school choice’ isn’t readily available. I felt that our District needed to focus more on students and classroom spending. While we are moving in the right direction, it’s amazing to me all of the constraints and requirements that are forced upon us from the Legislature and Governor that are not required of Charters. They want to compare charters to public schools but charters don’t have to play by the same rules. It’s an unfair comparison at the most basic level.

    1. Jennifer

      I don’t think it is unfair, it is pitting one model against another. We want choice and we want to have access to the models that work. Of course we should get our legislators out of the business of micromanaging our teachers and driving the business of school admin and focus on what is happening in the classroom. And by focus what I mean is support teachers, not control them.

  9. Jim Ellis

    Hello Julie,

    “Their secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all, and they are not the cure for what ails our schools.”

    This is the kind of statement that I would expect from someone who has never seen a BASIS class or knows any of their students. I’m not a teacher for BASIS but rather I am a private school teacher in Vienna, Austria. We cater to internationals and Americans. Anyhow, I’ve visited BASIS many times and correspond with many at BASIS and I am incredibly impressed with their teaching methods and how the entire BASIS system functions to breed success as an “opt-in” school. Is it hard? Yes. Do parents and students new to the format struggle and pull out themselves opting for something easier? Yes. But the dedication and skill of these teachers to do incredible things is the model I hold myself to going forward. There is a reason why you have your child at BASIS and it’s very likely that its because they teach in ways that are atypical and are better than an older model for education.

    I wish that you had a better understanding of what is going on at BASIS each day and that you had real numbers about how many drop out and how many graduate and I wish you were able to compare those real numbers to state and district averages regarding transfers out, drop outs and graduation rates. Should you find and report those numbers and if you investigate what makes BASIS teaching so special, I would like to guess that your article could be much more even handed.

    I do want to concede the importance of wrap around services and the community role of a public school. I would also add that their culturally sensitive and cultural integration plays a huge role in a public school’s success. You are right.

    Oh, I’m an AZ resident and US citizen who votes Democrat in AZ. I’m willing to guess that Ducey has no real idea why BASIS is worth the effort any more than it appears that you seem to know.

    1. Post
      Julie Erfle

      Jim, I suggest you reread the article. I wasn’t talking about students dropping out of BASIS but rather opting out because the work is incredibly challenging. I also wasn’t diminishing their work, just being honest about the student population they serve. This article isn’t about demeaning charters or choice but rather having an honest conversation about how we define successful schools. In my opinion, there’s a lot more to a successful school than high test scores.

  10. Ross Ojeda

    julie, as a childless citizen, I appreciate the insight I gained from your comments. A better understanding helps me to know what needs to be done to support all children in their educational needs. Thank you.

  11. Matthew Ladner


    University High, a highly regarded magnet program run by Tucson Unified School District, is a far better example of the type of school you describe in AZ. If you look at their admission policy:

    You’ll find delightful statements like “Students must meet the admissions criteria for their grade level and cannot enroll in UHS through Open Enrollment. There are no exceptions – there is no waiting list.”

    Then if you click on the specific requirements, you find a formula that includes GPA and an admission test:

    I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I can tell you that the schools we are discussing here have none of these things. They are demanding and upfront about their requirements, but if any of them are giving an admission test someone might need to go to jail since they are being funded as charter schools.

  12. Tom McDermott

    Thanks for the great article Julie. It’s nice to finally see an honest, thoughtful, well-reasoned and well-written article, from a different, experienced perspective.

    Can you share some additional insights? I’m curious, pun intended, how well they ignite a child’s own curiosity and sense of wonder… I want to know if they are pushing and encouraging them, as individuals, to excel by chasing their own curiosity and sense of wonder? Are they teaching and encouraging each and every student, how to spend their lives and life’s work, passionately chasing down the answers to their own most profound questions? Or, are they mostly pushing them to excel on the subjects/content they teach? Two very different things; especially if you want to actually create passionate life long learners, that can and will share their own discoveries with the world some day, and impact the world as a result.

    Instead, it sounds like they’re simply incentivizing teachers/curriculum and students to elevate their test scores, so students have “a better chance” to get into a “better school” so they can supposedly get a “better education”….

    While well intentioned, and on the surface sounds absolutely right, this does not guarantee a better life… nor does it do a better job helping to ensure that these students will make an impact. More money maybe, but not necessarily an impact.

    Eager to get your thoughts.

    1. Post
      Julie Erfle

      Tom, I would say that depends on the class. As I mentioned, my son has had some outstanding teachers that have fully engaged him in the learning process and others, well, not so much. But that will happen at any school – charter or district. Teaching really is an art form, and some are just better than others. Hopefully, he is learning to be inquisitive not just from his teachers but also from me. That’s part of what I alluded to when I talked about learning that takes place outside of the classroom. It can either supplement or inhibit learning inside the classroom. There are so many factors to consider when addressing what works and doesn’t work for students. It’s why we can’t simply look at one school or one data point and declare success.

  13. Pingback: To Use Their Minds Well: BASIS | Getting Smart

  14. Nguyen

    Thank you for nicely written article and your insight. We live in the Arcadia neigborhood and moved here specifically for the public schools. My husband and I were big supporters of public schools and had always sent all our children to them. It is true that the mission of the public school is to educate every student, regardless of their family and socioeconomic backgrounds. For that alone, I respect their mission although it was not a good fit for our children.

    We are very grateful for being able to have school choice for our children. After several years in our neigborhood school, we moved our children to a Basis school. As with any school, there are some outstanding teachers and there are some mediocre ones. But these teachers are not tenured and the ones who do not meet expectation do not return. In my view, Basis offers an outstanding curriculum and also teaches the students study and organizational skills. Basis does not have the numerous half days like public schools and the teachers work long hours and provide tutoring support for all students. An academic counselor places students on student support when they are struggling. My youngest child even gets help organizing his binders every week. There are special education services provided too.

    We are grateful for this amazing opportunity for our kids. Indeed, the homework load is heavy and your child’s success also depends on having a solid support system at home.

    Let’s hope that there are ways for impoverished students to also have access to an education they need and deserve.

  15. Molly Donnelly

    Just a note here, my son is an 8th grader at a BASIS school and will remain there for high school. Many of his friends are leaving for public high schools. The reason? They want the “high school experience.” Football games and sports programs, music and dance programs. My kid couldn’t care less about those things, has made friends and so will stay.

  16. Larry Wittig

    Thank you Julie!

    As a person who spent 33 years of his life teaching Arizona’s high school students, I can only conclude that the main reason for student failure is families living under economic stress, working harder and harder just to survive. This stress also exists today among classroom teachers who are being forced to do more and more while watching financial support for education diminish year after year. However, unlike the students they teach, educators have other choices. They are leaving classrooms in droves and finding other occupations. Whether people want to admit it or not, the primary reason for failure in both the family and the classroom is a lack of financial support.


    LRW, Retired secondary teacher

  17. Peggy Forbes

    I agree with so much of what has been said here. But I do want to make four points, and I’m not really sure how to do it eloquently, so I’m just going to dive in:
    (First of all, in full disclosure, I teach at a Charter School – one that I am incredibly proud to be associated with – Arizona School for the Performing Arts. I am a certified Secondary Education teacher with a positive experience working in a “district” school, but who made a choice to work at this particular charter school because of the extraordinary people who work and study there.)

    1. I do not understand this “us” vs. “them” mentality…pitting charter schools against “district” schools…Aren’t we all part of the public school system? Who are we serving when we demonize the other side? Let’s take the “yes and…” approach that Julie suggests, as in yes, Charter schools meet the needs of some and, what else can we do to meet the needs of all?

    2. I do not understand the funding formula for schools.

    3. I do think that more money should be spent, but on one thing only: teachers –high quality teachers and more of them.
    Julie writes that:
    “These students need more than just a supportive and caring teacher. They need the type of wraparound services that support learning outside of the classroom, which is where a huge portion of learning happens. Services such as free and reduced lunches and breakfasts, after school programs and one-on-one tutoring are crucial to a student’s long-term success. Often, these services are the most important factor, and yet, are the first to be scaled back when a school suffers massive funding cuts or is mandated to move more dollars into the classroom.”

    While I agree that all these services are critical, I strongly believe that none of these services are effectively utilized unless a caring, informed, capable teacher has the time to make connections with each of his/her students in order to identify them as candidates for said services and ensure they have access to those services.
    Teachers must be much more than content experts and some of my best teaching moments have come about because I have the luxury of time to spend working with my students one on one and discovering what the root cause of an issue or stumbling block was for a student. I can make that happen in a high school class period with 24 students…but not with 35, 38, or 40 students in a room.
    With greater funding comes greater responsibility – and I believe teachers must be held accountable for their performance. But not their students’ performance on some random state mandated test that changes from year to year. With regard to performance reviews for teachers, I don’t know why this is so difficult – we all know what “good teaching” looks like – and if one doesn’t, then I’m not sure why one is in this field to begin with. It’s up to principals to explain which performance indicators teachers need to improve upon in order to best serve their students and provide re-training, if necessary. Then those same principals need to have the courage to terminate teachers who cannot or will not make those changes. I’m not sure why this seems to be such a difficult thing to do.

    4. The key to closing the achievement gap is early intervention – and by early I mean 0 to 3 years of age. This is where we will get the biggest return on our investment. Click here to read more evidence to support this idea – I won’t bother to extol the virtues of the Thirty Million Words Initiative when it’s much simpler to see for yourself at the website.

    1. Post
      Julie Erfle

      Peggy, you raise some excellent points, and I’m so happy you responded. We really need to include teachers in this discussion. They’re the ones who know more than anyone what works and doesn’t work. Thank you.

  18. Paul H

    The Arizona constitution requires the state to provide a “general and uniform” education for all students. The courts have rightly interpreted this to mean equitable. This charter system that we are meandering towards seems willy-nilly and certainly is leaving gaping holes and moving toward an upper and lower-tiered system.

  19. Lloyd Lofthouse

    What you described reminds me of Navy Seal Training. Each year, about 1,000 men start SEAL training. Although training success rates vary per class, usually about 200-250 succeed each year. The drop out rate for SEALS is 80% or more.

    But G.W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind ACt mandated that public schools and public school teachers be successful with 100% of children so they all graduate college and career ready as if every recruit who goes through SEAL training could also become a SEAL a year later when the training ends.

    And when public school teachers don’t graduate 100% of those children to be all SEAL successes (college and career ready), then those teachers and public schools are punished which eventually means every public school and teacher in America—teachers will be fired, their unions broken and public schools closed to be replaced with corporate Charter schools that several Stanford studies have already revealed are mostly worse or no better than the public schools they replaced.

    The fact is that every man can’t be a Navy SEAL and every child can’t grow up to be college and career ready by age 17/18.

    Imagine what would happen if the U.S. Navy punished the SEAL instructors like the United States is now punishing public schools and public schools teaches because of that 80% drop out rate. How long would it take before the Navy couldn’t find any instructors to train SEALS?

    But then, of course, the U.S. Navy could just hire Teach for America recruits to train the SEALS, couldn’t’ they?

    1. paul morris

      It’s fun to compare the SEALS training to contemporary education policy. If you have a training facility with an 80 percent failure to graduate rate, we should close those facilities and fire those instructors. What? You can’t fire them because they’re part of a large union-like organization (the military)? Instead, we should give the soldiers vouchers so they could go to better performing facilities. Maybe they need to test more frequently throughout the training. Those who are having trouble could simply repeat the training until they are successful. If there are other choices, these vouchers will help create competition so we can create more effective facilities. Better yet, let’s privatize these facilities so we can see more creative solutions to producing more SEAL graduates. Let’s give bonuses to those instructors who graduate higher rates of SEALS. Etc. SEALS training seems highly inefficient.

      Of course, it’s a silly comparison to match SEALS training to contemporary education. SEALS are taught very specific vocational skills for a profession that only requires a small number of graduates every year. Very specialized training for a very specialized job.

      The day of educating people for very specialized jobs has passed. We can no longer predict which jobs are going to be needed in the future. Some examples of jobs that no longer really exist: travel agents–we can all do our own travel arrangements; television repair people–no longer needed when it’s easier and cheaper to simply discard electronic devices that fail; WordPerfect programs–that program is no longer used. Twenty years ago if you had told me to study skills for the internet, I would have asked you to explain what an internet was.

      Technology and the world is changing quickly. Better to educate people to have a wide variety of skills and learning so they can adapt to changing demands and new technologies. The increasing emphasis on vocational elements in general education is not the way to go. We need education that teaches people to be creative, to understand change and to adapt to surprise.

  20. Shefali

    You raise a valid point however the advantage of having a charter schools is they provide optuons for kids with different learning styles and competencies. I have 2 very very bright daughters and one of them chose to go to a Kyrene school and is excelling while the other is thriving at Basis. Charter schools become self selective for a reason. Basis is an excellent school for just a select few, like your son and other kids who thrive in a structured yet very challenging environment. The ones who leave do so because they are not a good fit here. But surely they have other options where they can thrive – an arts based charter school, a language focused school or a regular public school. No school is right for every child and should NOT serve all types of students, as in this case they.are a disservice to all. Public schools try to teach to everyone and end up serving just the mediocre with both high and low performing students suffering.

  21. Jill Kessler

    This is an article that shows compassion for those students unable to succeed in a highly academic program. We needs schools like Basis, but we also need high performing public schools and excellent private schools, who not only deliver outstanding academic programs but care for the social and emotional well being of ALL children.

  22. Pat


    Your post provides many insights into what seems readily apparent with the charter model and confirms many of my own findings. Conversations about rigor as the solution to our nations education woes is missing one of the biggest realities in education.

    My third semester calculus based physic professor made todays education reality very clear to me almost 30 years ago. Students in the physics course were struggling understanding why we needed to have three semesters of calculus based physics, four semesters of calculus, a semester of linear algebra (don’t let the name fool you it’s not algebra) to get an engineering degree. The instructor simply stated “Students today are not dumber than previous generations as some argue. Students today have so much more to learn.” When I completed an engineering degree in 1990 only a few years earlier two semesters of calculus and two semesters of calculus based physics were required to obtain the same degree.

    The increased material to learn should be obvious to anyone who remembers slide rules, not being allowed to use a calculator in math, typing was it’s own class, etc. What was once a career has been replaced with electronic devices or is now assumed a basic skill for any worker entering the work force. Many past careers of the routine and mundane were replaced with billions of transistors and a fraction of workers using software and computers.

    Does anyone remember getting their tv repaired as a kid when one of the dozen vacuum tubes (today’s transistor) burned out and you had to have a special tv repair man fix it? Where did all those tv repair men go? The device you are using to read and communicate on this blog is using billions of transistors that replaced those old vacuum tubes on the equivalent space of a pin head to accomplish millions more operations.

    Today it is implied education and kids are a failure if kids don’t learn at a Mohr’s law pace. Conversations about the amount of time it takes kids to graduate college is merely a symptom of reality. If people expect the duration of time kids are in school to obtain a degree to remain constant while the amount of material they must learn exponentially increases something has to give.

    People who argue the rigor solution are either not sincere, don’t understand what today’s kids need to learn to enter today’s professional career world or they just don’t want to provide the funds. Politicians point to rigor centric programs as the solution so they don’t have to consider more school funding. Charter proponents feed on parents fears their kid will be left behind since the duration in education is held constant. When the duration of education is held constant and the learning materials increases exponentially can only result in the myopic rigor arguement. Not many kids will be able to cut having to learn college calculus by junior or senior year of high school to complete engineering in 4 years. This is clearly how we logically end with the fair comparison of the top 25 students from district schools to the basis 25 student graduating class.

    Rigor leaves little room for creativity, exploration and a chance to learn from failures. Steve Jobs floundered many times in his life and found creative solutions not through rigor but through time, exploration, creativity, technical advances, leaning on highly detailed technical people and assembling various ideas of others in new ways.

    We must keep sight, kids are not a commodity for companies to increase productivity and should really weigh the costs of jumping too heavy on the concept of monetizing education for profit as the solution. The ultimate outcome will be a result of what we value most.

  23. Lisa Urias

    The debate with many in our state legislature starts with the premise that if you segment out a certain population – namely working poor families – “we’re doing just fine” in education. In other words, “OUR kids are doing just fine.” However, as you state, more than 50 percent of our families are working poor and those students need more wrap around services to establish a level playing field within their schools. Only then will these students have the opportunity to be truly successful and reach their potential. Only then will the state realize the benefits of this investment in our future by reaping the rewards with more business attraction and development.

    However, the current policy direction does not consider the Public Green, and in fact, is just the opposite; it would literally “take from the poor and give to the rich,” providing even more advantages for upper middle class and wealthy families to receive more taxpayer funded public services than those who truly need it.

    But then again, I’d like to get my child a scholarship to Harvard. Let the rest of them eat cake…

  24. Shannon

    I am the parent of a BASIS student, a student who goes to a different charter school, and a public school student who will be soon attending BASIS. I am so glad that we have a choice in schools. As a strong proponent of the traditional public schools, I have been increasingly disappointed in them. Yes, not all children are cut out for the academic rigor of BASIS, but for those who are, we found that the traditional public schools could not challenge our children. I feel that the teachers have their hands full in trying to meet the needs of a wide range of abilities and also dealing with behavioral disruptions, that the brighter students are left to fend for themselves.

    My oldest child started at BASIS after attending our local elementary and middle schools. His biggest surprise when he started at BASIS was that there wasn’t all the poor behavior in class and in the hallways as he had seen in his public middle school. He came to us in 8th grade asking to go somewhere else. Later, when I asked him why he wanted the change, he said that he had been sitting in his “enriched” English class in middle school and realized how little he was learning. While the academic load was very difficult his first year at BASIS, he enjoyed the challenge and rose to meet it. I was impressed that, while BASIS expects a lot from their students, they also expect a lot from their teachers. The administration also seems to support their teachers and behavioral disruptions are dealt with and not merely tolerated.

    Our other son, who attends another charter school for middle school (we will NOT go the public middle school route again, where they seem to want to just get the children through and on to the high school), goes there because the BASIS workload would be too much but he needs the bar held high. I was very impressed at our first conference in the Fall, when his science teacher looked at him and said, “you are not a C student and this is why”. In the end, she offered him after school tutoring as well. I like that behavioral and academic expectations are held high, and that both teachers and students are expected and supported to meet those standards.

  25. Jeremy Schiffer

    Hello – This post showed up in my Facebook feed this morning, and I really enjoyed it and wanted to add a few comments to the discussion. Overall, I think your points about inequitable resource allocation and misplaced priorities in education are spot-on. And Arizona in particular is in a tough spot because so many families in the state – of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds – simply don’t value education highly.

    I grew up in Tucson, graduating from its eponymous high school in 1995. I was offered admission to University High School, but turned them down because my interests at the time were heavily focused on the performing and fine arts. Specifically, the band and photography programs, for which THS had no rivals in 1980s and 1990s.

    I have to admit, I’ve had quite a tremendous laugh at the rankings that place BASIS and UHS among the top public school in America. Having lived in Minnesota, New York, and now Maryland – all states that consider public education a priority and not an afterthought – I’ve seen neighborhood schools that blow away the population at UHS and selective public schools (e.g., Stuyvesant in NYC and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia) that are so far ahead of anything in Arizona it’s almost unfair to grade them on the same scale.

    > Teachers with degrees from Harvard and Yale and Stanford, with PhD’s and real-world experience. A curriculum that entails AP coursework as early as 7th grade, and the ability to finish high school with every AP class completed by 11th grade. Wow. What’s not to love?

    A lot. AP courses are nice, but if you are aiming to attend an elite college (i.e., Ivy, near-Ivy, or top-tier liberal arts college), AP courses often provide very little return. My alma mater, Carleton College (a perennial top-10 national LAC), generally does not accept AP credits. You can use test scores for placement in math and science, and a 5 on a language exam satisfies the language requirement for graduation, but otherwise, AP exams are largely a waste of time and money (and at $91 each, the exams are very expensive for many families, which gets back to the unequal access problems).

    > Starting in 6th grade, students take midterms and finals, and the final is a significant portion of the student’s overall class grade. It’s high-stakes testing at its highest. If a student fails even one class (with a small exception for some math classes), that student must retake the entire grade.

    I think this is terrible. The high-stakes testing regime is completely out of control, and to push it down to children that young is sadistic. The students who go through this pressure cooker are going to burn out before they finish college. I see the results of this testing focus in my students (upper division undergrads in a respectable albeit not elite business school, where I teach part-time), who are so focused on “will it be on the test?” that they’ve lost sight of the intrinsic value of knowledge acquisition.

    > It’s easy to understand why BASIS makes the list as one of the top high schools in the nation

    Sure, so long as AP scores are the primary driver of the rankings. But if you looked at how well-rounded the students are, I am willing to go out on a limb and posit that BASIS would not be nearly as high on those lists.

    Despite attending a inner-city public high school, I was a 2-time member of the Arizona All-State Band, placed second in the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America Skill Olympics in the Commercial Photography event, won one event and placed third in another in the AZ Science Olympiad, and participated in countless other events and clubs during high school. Does a student at BASIS have the same breadth of opportunities available to them? It does not appear so. And yet, more than superior test scores, these are the types of things colleges look at when making admissions decisions.

    > These are elite prep schools, and their model is successful because the students they serve have more advantages than the vast majority of Arizona students. Their secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all, and they are not the cure for what ails our schools.

    They are elite test-prep factories, but I’m not sure much can be said beyond that. If that is the goal of our educational system today, then I think Arizona and much of the rest of the country are in serious, serious trouble.

    1. Carol

      “Does a student at BASIS have the same breadth of opportunities available to them?”

      And then some, at least at the BASIS where my children attend…

      •Health & Wellness
      •Track & Field

      •French Honor Society
      •National Art Honor Society
      •National Honor Society
      •National Junior Honor Society
      •Tri-M Music Honor Society

      •Chamber Ensemble
      •Digital Music
      •Composing & Recording
      •Fiddlin’ Around
      •Guitar Club
      •Jazz Ensemble
      •Rock Band

      •Chess Emporium
      •Computer Science
      •Model UN
      •Science Bowl
      •Speech & Debate
      •Quiz Bowl
      •Math Counts
      •AMC 8/10/12

    2. Teaching Economist


      Carleton accepts up to 36 credits from any combination of AP credits, IB credits, or other approved pre-matriculation credits (the latter policy is unusually generous in my experience.). The source is here: . Generally a score of 4 or 5 is required to grant credit, but that is certainly doable.

      I should add that one of my children found AP chemistry sufficient preparation to do very well in a two semester course on physical chemesty that he took at the local university when a senior in high school.

  26. Robert Rice

    Julie, thank you for sharing your insightful observations on our important education issues. My 12 years as a Chandler school board member have brought me to the same conclusions. I believe you have described the situation with accuracy and clarity without the rancor and spite that colors much of the debate. More importantly you challenge us to put aside our political ideology and look for real solutions. Unfortunately many policy makers and pundits are more interested in rhetoric than solutions. Really improving the education outcomes for all our students requires us to clearly focus on the needs and provide the right resources. Thanks again for your clear voice.

  27. Pingback: Arizona: Charter School Parent Tells All About BASIS | Diane Ravitch's blog

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  29. Nancy Davis

    BASIS Mesa opened for the 2014-2015 school year. My son started there last year and was a 5th grader. He is a straight A student at BASIS and has been since he started. Why are we thinking of moving him to the Chandler School District when he is obviously doing so well? We believe that there is more to school than teaching for AP exams. Our son has many outside interest that he no longer has time for. It’s a rush every night to get home, eat quickly and start working. All those after school clubs…well it’s great if you can afford them. Also, so many times, he has so much work, that staying until 4:45 when the club ends means he’ll be up late finishing homework and studying.

    His classes consist of taking notes and then spitting them out on exams. There is no time in any of his core classes for any meaningful discussions about the subject matter. It’s a race to copy the notes and then study the notes to then take the weekly exams given in all core subjects. Two February’s have passed and not one teacher has made mention of Black History Month. Recently we had our very own Arizona astronaut launch into space; again no mention of this. His Language Arts class consists of weekly packets that are not gone over in class yet the kids are expected to complete them on their own at home and then take the unit exam at the end of the week.

    What we have found at BASIS is that only the strongest survive. The kids who leave behind all their extra curricular activities and focus solely on their academics. Very smart kids are leaving the school so that they may have a better balance of school and life outside of school. We also have found that the BASIS kids have no idea of current affairs, what’s going on in the world now. They also do little to no community service.

    Why are we thinking of taking our son out even though he is a top performer? Because life is short and there is more to life than studying 24/7. We want him to be well rounded. To understand about the world he is growing up in and to care enough about it to grow into a person who wants to make it a better place. It was great for him to go there for 5th and 6th grade because his other charter school could’t keep up with his level of advancement from year to year. He needed the advanced math and sciences. Now that he is going into the 7th grade the Chandler School District can accommodate his educational needs. He’ll be able to be in advanced, honors and AP classes. Even better, he will have a choice of what subjects he will take his AP’s in instead of being forced to take AP exams that are mandated by BASIS. If he stays on the path is on he will still graduate with as many AP classes as the students at BASIS but it will be in subjects he is interested in and at a pace that will allow him to also grow into a responsible person who understands that life is more about what you scored on a exam.

    BASIS schools are a good idea in theory but I think they are leaving out the human touch. They have many dedicated teachers and administrators who truly care about the students, but whose hands are tied by the sheer volume of information they need to cover in a particular year. It’s the inch deep, mile wide approach to education that may look great on a transcript but may leave your child with great deficits in other aspects of their lives. Also, since many of the teachers have no actual teaching experience or background they lack what it takes to engage and motivate students and are not the best choice for teaching such advanced material.

  30. Nancy Davis

    **Correction to above comment. BASIS Mesa first opened for the 2013-2014 school year. It is currently in it’s second school year; 2014-2015.

  31. Justine Pechuzal

    Thank you for sharing your insights. I am an educator and believe that the more knowledge our public has, the better we can support ALL our students. Keep up the good work.

  32. Dave Kauffman

    The writer is spot on. Using BASIS as an example of what a successful school is, is preposterous. They are essentially culling the top 1% of the top 1% and then declaring themselves the nations top school. Ability and motivation are not normally distributed, therefore using BASIS as a model school is just statistical fraud. I think it’s fine for people to send their kids to elite schools if that is what they want, but the students in those schools in no way represent a wider population. I am not knocking BASIS, the kids that go there or the parents that send their kids to the school; but like University High they are in no way representative of a typical school with a typical school population.

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