The Best Schools in the U.S. ... and S.C.
Did you ever wonder what a truly great school looks like?
Politicians, business people, teachers, etc. all talk about how we need, want and deserve great schools. But no one ever really describes what a great school looks like.
So, in doing research with the U.S. News and World Report rankings of high schools, I was amazed to learn that the top three high schools, and five of the top seven in the country, were all 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 rank and rate schools but most people generally agree that U.S. New and World Report is one of the best and its website is certainly one of the most useful. Go and look around on the site as they have tons of information on 22,000 high schools, charter schools and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools nationwide – all broken down and searchable by state.
On the site, there is data about individual schools including the ratings of the top 47 high schools in South Carolina. Academic Magnet School in Charleston was rated #1 in the state and 11th nationally – that’s pretty terrific. (Also, in a different ranking by another organization, Laing Middle School in Mt. Pleasant was recently named as the #1 STEM middle school in the country – that’s even more terrific!)
But, for the state’s other top 17 high schools, the site shows their ranking among the 22,000 high schools nationwide – it’s pretty depressing. Today, South Carolina’s #2 school ranks 271 nationally, our #5 school ranks 918 nationally, our #10 school ranks 1,580 nationally and, our #15 school ranks 2,348 nationally.
Back to the BASIS schools. The first BASIS school was founded in 1998 in Tucson, Ariz. with 50 students and six teachers. It was started by the husband and wife team of Olga and Michael Block. He is from the U.S. and she grew up in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).
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 the schools’ handbook says (BASISschools.org) “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 that some dub “deep content.” But for co-founder Olga Block, there’s nothing extraordinary about such comprehensive study – it’s simply the way she was taught as a child growing up in Czechoslovakia.
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.”
U.S. students are generally rated substantially below their peers in schools around the world and usually rank somewhere in the 20’s in most global country rankings. BASIS schools take a lot of their methods and strategies from the best international schools in countries such as Finland, Korea, the Czech Republic and Japan – all of which are rated far higher than the U.S.
Stringer continued, “Taking the lead from nations that score at the top on international exams, BASIS adopted matriculation tests that kids must pass to advance to the next grade (there are no social promotions). Following Korea’s focus on educator credentials, BASIS insists that its teachers be experts in their fields and boasts a teaching corps where 70 percent of instructors have at least a master’s degree in the subject they teach. Adopting Finland’s approach of boosting attentiveness through play, BASIS gives its youngest students extra recess. And following Olga’s experience in Prague of students owning their learning, BASIS gives kids a communication journal to transport between home and classroom — making students responsible for updating their parents on lessons, priorities and grades rather than providing an online academic portal.”
One of the features of all BASIS schools is international online classes with other students around the world. From a very young age, students learn and interact with other students around the world and in many cases, 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 all students and expect them to take academics very seriously and put in the work. And, while the school may not be a good fit for all children, one BASIS school administration said, “It’s really a program designed to make success achievable for the average student now.”
And their data seems to back them up. Most of the BASIS schools are public charter schools and students are admitted by a random lottery. The students are 40% white, 35% Asian/Indian and 25% Hispanic, African American or multiracial.
The results speak for themselves. Their graduation rate is 98%. All high schoolers are required to take six Advance Placement courses but the average student takes 11 courses and get an average score of 3.7 out of 5. And, to end where we began, they are rated the best schools in the country.
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 at least some truly great schools – why can’t we?
We can do better. Our children deserve better.