The Life Electric Growth and Sustainability at BASIS Curriculum Schools

Review the literature on education reform and school improvement, or attend a couple of admissions open houses at traditional private schools, and you will see and hear a rather familiar list of explanations as to what makes a good school.

It’s the teachers!

The curriculum!

The community!

The lavish facilities!

The administration!

With the exception of the lavish facilities (the real estate siren to which traditional private schools have surrendered themselves with toxic social, intellectual, and financial consequences), I might have dropped a few of these myself on occasion.

This question – ‘what makes a good school?’ – is a defining preoccupation for those of us at BASIS Curriculum Schools, as the number of our learning communities grows in the United States, in China, and soon enough, in Europe, too. How do we ensure that the growth and geographic expansion of these communities is matched by growth and strengthening of the learning that occurs within our classrooms at every campus? I doubt there are merely a few parents in our schools who have not asked this same question – but in a slightly different, appropriately parental, register: “Will network growth dilute the quality of my child’s school?”

It is, of course, a fair question.

Well, this is rankings season, and those rankings play their part in how we measure the quality of BASIS Curriculum Schools, without doubt. For those of you who have been offline for a while, the unprecedented news from the recent U.S. News & World Report rankings of the top public high schools in America places BASIS Scottsdale, BASIS Tucson North, and BASIS Oro Valley in the top three spots, beating out both the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in northern Virginia. Three non-selective BASIS charter schools outranking the two insanely selective, jewels-in-the-crown, magnet schools of American public education! (If you think it is tough to gain admission to the tuition-elite private schools of Manhattan, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C., take a look at what families do to support their children’s chances of admission at these schools.) Then, of course, BASIS Peoria and BASIS Chandler rounded out the top seven schools in the United States. It is the first year that each of those schools is eligible for the U.S. News rankings.

And look at our record – year after year – in The Washington Post rankings, College Board / Advanced Placement results, and of course the stunning results our schools achieve on the annual OECD Test for Schools (based on PISA). Add to that the top universities in the United States and the UK to which our graduates are accepted, from both our legacy schools (BASIS Tucson North and BASIS Scottsdale) with years of graduates each, as well as the newer schools with their first, pioneering graduating classes (BASIS Independent Silicon Valley).

We believe in the value of managing-by-data and results such as these are crucial indices of learning quality for BASIS Curriculum Schools, for our individual students themselves, for their parents, and for the strong faculty whom we strive to recruit and retain each year. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team.

But I spend a good deal of my time visiting both our own BASIS Curriculum Schools as well as other academically outstanding and highly innovative schools around the world (it is a tough life, but someone has to do it), and I am acutely aware that these indices of quality do not quite capture what powers a great school, and what ensures that quality always outpaces growth.

They are the signifiers of quality, though not the signified itself.

When I walk the corridors of our schools, both the legacy schools and those that are newly opened, and I sit in our classrooms, my quest is singular. I hope to register the electric charge of a child’s intrinsic desire to learn, to solve, to create, to explain, to master, and to feel accomplished, confident, and empowered. It is that electricity that powers BASIS Curriculum Schools, that is made manifest in those signifiers, in our external and internal results, in our rankings, in our college acceptances, in our incredible range of student-led clubs, and (for me personally and most forcefully) in the Senior Projects our students plan, create, and execute by themselves as the final act of the lengthy but well-lit path to the BASIS Diploma.

This intrinsic desire to learn transforms student labor in a classroom into the creative preoccupation of the engineer, the scientist, the writer, the designer in our classrooms. Harness that electricity in a school, through the hard work of the students and the teachers, and all these indices of quality take care of themselves. And we all need to remember that these indices of quality matter. No, they matter not as ends-in-themselves. Rather, they matter for the choices and the opportunities they open in our students’ future lives. They matter for those students who have earned them.

Our record, over two decades and now close to thirty schools, shows this is in fact precisely what we do: we teach our students how to lead the life electric.

Dr. Q Mark Reford

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