The first BASIS school was opened in 1998 with the intention of creating an open-admission public school that could produce results as good as the world’s top-scoring schools in places like Shanghai, Finland, and South Korea. Founders Michael and Olga Block succeeded, then went on to build a string of similar schools using philanthropic funds. In each of them, BASIS administers a rigorous, Advanced Placement curriculum to all students, across the board. “We have been severely underestimating all kids,” argue the Blocks. Science and math are a particular focus of BASIS schools—all students complete Algebra I by the end of their seventh‐grade year, and in grade six students begin taking biology, chemistry, and physics as separate subjects. Also beginning in sixth grade, students are required to pass comprehensive exams in all core subjects in order to be promoted to the next grade.
This mirrors the demanding course schedule of many top‐performing European and Asian schools. To make it work, BASIS negotiates an initial salary individually with each teacher, and offers performance‐based financial incentives. Teachers of A.P. courses, for instance, earn an additional $100 for every student who makes a grade of four on the A.P. exam, and an additional $200 for every student who earns a five (the top score). Rather than traditional sick days, BASIS gives teachers a “wellness bonus” of $1,500. They lose a predetermined amount of that for each sick day taken.
The results of all of this are outstanding. The average BASIS student takes ten AP exams. Though only about one percent of the 1.5 million high‐school seniors who take the PSAT test every year are selected as National Merit Scholar Finalists, more than 25 percent of all BASIS seniors earned that high achievement in 2012. International tests like the PISA exam show that BASIS students are competitive with the very best scholars anywhere in the world.
With support from donors like Craig Barrett, former CEO of the Intel Corporation, and his wife, Barbara, the network of BASIS charter schools is now undergoing expansion. It operates 18 schools as of 2015, with more in the works. In addition to its public charter schools the organization is experimenting with moderate-cost, high-performance private schools, opening prototypes in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the D.C. suburbs, and San Jose.