The best schools in the U.S.
Politicians, business people and teachers all talk about how we need, want and deserve great schools. But no one ever really describes what a great school looks like.
In doing research with the U.S. News and World Report rankings of high schools, I was amazed to learn the top three schools, and five of the top seven, are run by BASIS, a chain of 27 tuition-free charter, private and international schools in five states, Washington, D.C., and China.
There are lots of organizations that rate schools, but most people generally agree U.S. News and World Report is one of the best. They have tons of information on 22,000 schools nationwide, broken down and searchable by state.
Academic Magnet in Charleston was rated No. 1 in the state and 11th nationally. That’s pretty terrific. In a ranking by another organization, Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant was named the No. 1 STEM middle school in the country. That’s even more terrific.
But for the state’s other top high schools, it’s pretty depressing. South Carolina’s No. 2 school ranks 271st nationally, our No. 5 school is 918th, our No. 10 school is 1,580th and our No. 15 school is 2,348th.
The first BASIS school was founded in 1998 in Tucson, Ariz., with 50 students and six teachers. It was started by Olga and Michael Block. He is from the U.S. and she grew up in Prague.
The schools’ mission statement is ambitious: “To empower students to achieve at globally competitive levels with a transformative K-12 academic program. Our academic program is an accelerated, comprehensive liberal arts curriculum taught at internationally-competitive levels for all students.
“Our college-preparatory program equips students for the competitive college admissions process, helps them become eligible for scholarships, prepares them to prosper at top colleges and enriches their lives in an all-encompassing manner.”
The schools are tough. As their handbook says, “Our educational model is simple in concept, but complex in practice.”
BASIS makes advanced, immersive coursework a requirement for all students, from pre-K through high school, an approach some dub “deep content.” But for Olga Block, there’s nothing extraordinary about such comprehensive study. It’s simply the way she was taught as a child.
For BASIS schools, the idea of “internationally competitive” is not mere rhetoric, but a founding principle. As writer Kate Stringer reported, “BASIS schools teach their students like Europeans and Asians do. Now they beat them on international tests.”
BASIS schools take a lot of methods and strategies from the best schools in Finland, Korea, the Czech Republic and Japan, all of which are rated far higher than the U.S.
One of the features of all BASIS schools is international online classes with students around the world. From a young age, students grow up alongside their peers globally.
As one BASIS principal said, “We want students to focus on something outside of their own world view to see a larger world … there is something beyond just your zip code.”
The schools demand a lot of students and expect them to take academics seriously. While it may not be a good fit for all children, one BASIS administrator said, “It’s really a program designed to make success achievable for the average student now.”
Most of the BASIS schools are public charter schools and students are admitted by a random lottery. The students are 40 percent white, 35 percent Asian/Indian and 25 percent Hispanic, African-American or multiracial.
The results speak for themselves. Their graduation rate is 98 percent. All high schoolers are required to take six Advanced Placement, courses but the average student takes 11 and gets an average score of 3.7 out of 5.
It would be unrealistic to expect that every school in South Carolina could reach this level of educational attainment, but some could. And a whole lot more could get a whole lot closer than they are now.
If others states can have some truly great schools, why can’t we? We can.
We can do better. Our children deserve better.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.