In fall 2017, the Upper West side will become home to New York’s second BASIS Independent school, serving grades K–8 (a Red Hook, Brooklyn Pre-K–12 campus opened in 2014). This is big news for the city’s education landscape – a whopping five BASIS Curriculum Schools populate the latest U.S. News and World Report top 10 high schools list. Yes, that’s literally half.
So, what makes these schools so different? For starters, the BASIS Curriculum sets international standards for its students, borrowing from aspects of schools in Europe and Asia. This makes a lot of sense — globally, the U.S. is ranked at only number 24 when it comes to Program for International Student Assessment scores. Languages are a focus: Kids in grades K–4 learn Mandarin, then study Latin for two years, and eventually go on to select a language of choice. STEM is also key: Elementary schoolers learn engineering and focus on math, while middle schoolers break up the sciences into biology, chemistry, and physics. And those are just a few things that set the program apart.
To get into the nitty-gritty of what makes the model uniquely successful, we chatted with husband-and-wife co-founders Dr. Michael Block and Olga Block. The Blocks opened the first campus in Tucson in 1998, and the network of independent and charter schools now spans 31 locations across the country and in China.
What was your initial vision when you founded the very first BASIS Curriculum School, and how did inspiration first strike?
Michael Block: The inspiration for it was both personal and intellectual. Olga’s from Prague; her daughter was educated in the Czech Republic. When Olga and I got married, the first school that we put her daughter in was a suburban school in Scottsdale. There were some good things about that school … but there were some puzzling things for Olga about American education at that level. It was very light on content and it was very disorganized. A year later, we moved back to Tucson, and we enrolled her daughter in what is quote-unquote “a good suburban middle school,” and had the same experience.
I was a faculty member at the University of Arizona teaching economics. Students educated outside of the United States almost always did better than even the best students educated in the United States. Unless, as I didn’t believe, that the ability distributions are different, it had to be the education. The education in Europe is much better than the education in the United States for preparing students for college in terms of math and science, and economics is heavily math. Even reading abilities are just better because they tend to read more serious literature. The vision was, let’s take the American model, a dynamic, challenging, interactive student model, and combine it with the heavy content and seriousness of schools in Europe and Asia. That was the founding mission.
It’s fundamentally different than anything that exists in the U.S., or where Olga went to school in Europe, or in Asia. It’s a completely unique experience of blending these two.
You’ve touched on this, but how has the initial vision evolved over the last 20 years?
MB: The first school we founded was a middle school organized around Core Curriculum because we were both college faculty people. We didn’t know as much about K-12 education as we ultimately would, so we went out and looked for something remotely like a serious curriculum. We used that for a few years, and the evolution was then driven upward by starting the high school. Whatever science and math they had still seemed a little bit shallow, so we formed our curriculum around AP exams, in part because we wanted colleges to recognize the quality – we needed some external standard.
We also wanted a type of outside verification that students were actually successfully mastering the material in courses like chemistry, calculus, and the humanities, and we used Advanced Placement exams. Everywhere else in the world, they use some sort of matriculation exam. For example, the British system uses A Levels, which are almost interchangeable with APs, and they test mastery subject-by-subject. We decided we’d use APs in the American system to actually check mastery – very few people use Advanced Placement that way. Usually, it’s some sort of Christmas tree ornament: You show the colleges that you can do college-level work, and that’s it.
We actually use it how the rest of the world uses matriculation exams. It’s a way of ensuring that the students master the material, and then they’re able to show it externally. It’s not just a BASIS Curriculum Schools exam.
Because we decided to use AP exams, we redid the middle school to make sure that it was preparation for an advanced high school. In the American system, oftentimes middle school is not highly specialized and doesn’t have a lot of content.
Olga Block: The third really radical change from the original concept was when we added the K–4 program. That closed the whole system, so at this point, we have actually preschool through 12th grade.
MB: Starting with middle school, we first grew upward, and then grew down. Growing down is actually unique too, because starting in first grade, we actually have departmentalized courses, so students actually take courses from subject experts. Each class has what we call a learning expert, sort of a traditional grade school teacher, who takes care of the pedagogical and emotional side and makes sure that there’s enough differentiation in the education, and takes the students from class to class.
What would you say are the most important things that the U.S. can learn from other countries when it comes to education?
Michael Block: Something that American education can take from the rest of the world is implementing a serious general education – liberal arts at a very high level – in high school. Colleges are now cutting back on liberal arts courses because those graduates can’t get jobs, but everyone recognizes that you should be broadly educated and not just narrowly educated. If you take the high school model from the rest of the world, then you get that general education in high school, and then you can specialize in something that’s marketable in college.
OB: It’s very funny because whenever I’m back in Europe, people ask me what they can learn from American education. The trick is that education is a very complicated, professional endeavor, where the best of the best need to be in the classroom providing the education to the kids. Thinking that there is some genius system, some genius curriculum that will fix it all, or some genius technology that will fix it all, is naïve. The only way this works is if you focus on the results, you measure your results, and you actually approach this as a very complicated and sophisticated system that needs to be managed well. Again, the goal is to get the best people to the classroom to teach.
MB: The teaching quality in the rest of the world is probably higher. The knowledge base of the teachers is higher, and we brought that also to the schools.
OB: People very often think that the way you address this issue is to pay teachers more money. Of course, it’s necessary that teachers get paid properly, but what’s really important is to treat them as professionals. If you give them some kind of a script to read from and follow, then you don’t get the people that you want your children to be educated by. You need people that are willing to create their own script, that actually know what they’re doing. Creating an environment at school for experts that actually care about what they are doing … does the trick.
MB: In terms of things that we learned and incorporated from the rest of the world, there’s also this high level of student accountability, as well as teacher accountability. When you look at how well we do compared to the rest of the world, the best judge of that is the OECD Test for Schools. Just recently, in the last five years, the test has been available to individual high schools and we give it to every one of our eligible schools. The highest scoring places in the world are Shanghai, China, and Singapore, and our students, consistently, in all of our schools, score higher, on average, than those countries. We’re not afraid to compare ourselves using data. I think the most frustrating thing about private education, especially in New York, is it’s all words … and no data. You can talk all about creativity and everything, but we have data on it because the OECD test is not a test simply of facts: It’s a test of applying what you know.
OB: The focus on creativity puts the whole cart in front of the horse because you’re trying to teach the kids to apply, but you’re not as rich on knowledge, and if you don’t have anything to apply, then it’s not going to work.
Tell us about the new school in Manhattan. What makes this campus unique, and what are some of the things you’re most excited for in this inaugural school year?
OB: Manhattan is the 30th school that we’re starting. From each previous school, we learn something new. Now we have strategies to make sure that a new BASIS Curriculum School becomes “us” very fast.
Our school building is right next to the park, and the team that we have for the school is brilliant. There’s a lot of people that have experience from previous BASIS Curriculum Schools, but these are also people that taught in the neighboring schools, so they know the community pretty well, and they’ll help us fit in very fast. I’m pretty sure that this will be an amazing school.
MB: On a personal level, I was born in New York, in Manhattan. It’s a long route back but in many respects, it’s the center of the world. That’s a good place to put a school – it’s exciting to be in such a dynamic place. The information sessions really are interesting. You meet lots of interesting people. When you go to an info session – and I do it quite frequently – in Manhattan, then you find people who know your school in China because they have connections there; they know your school in Silicon Valley because they have connections there. This is a sophisticated audience with a lot of options.What we offer is different, and it’s kind of counter-cultural. The institutional form is best understood, I think, in terms of the model of a tech startup: Essentially, this is a disruptive influence. It’s different than everything else, and we think is better.
Want to learn more? Attend the upcoming information session on October 16 at 6:30 p.m. in Manhattan.
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