There is no education news as interesting, at least to me, as the appearance of a group of astonishingly demanding charter schools in the poorest parts of Texas. The IDEA Public Schools began as one after-school program in a small Rio Grande Valley town in 1998. They now have nearly 30,000 mostly impoverished students in 51 schools.
Their lessons are tough. That’s what makes them intriguing. Even the most ambitious schools in low-income areas usually try to get no higher than grade level. IDEA aims far above that. Every student must take 11 Advanced Placement courses and tests to graduate.
The only major charters with similar goals are the 24 BASIS schools in Arizona, Texas and the District. They and IDEA fill eight of the top 10 slots in The Washington Post’s list of America’s Most Challenging High Schools. But the BASIS schools in Arizona average only 5 percent impoverished students per school. The portion of children from low-income families in IDEA schools is usually 80 percent or more.
BASIS schools are drawing extremely ambitious middle-class families and producing test results reflecting that. At the moment, four BASIS schools are the only charters on The Post’s separate Public Elites list of schools with the highest SAT and ACT averages in the country. Usually schools on that list are magnets that can choose the best students in their regions. BASIS must take every student that applies, and use random lotteries when oversubscribed, but it still gets magnet-caliber students because their parents are most drawn to AP-all-the-time schedules.
The heavy AP loads have led to criticism of BASIS. I suspect IDEA will get similar complaints when its schools become better known. But I think both the IDEA and BASIS high standards, as daunting as they may be, are worth it for their families.
AP tests, which are written and graded by outside experts and cannot by dumbed down by schools, reveal a gap between IDEA and BASIS, explained by their different percentages of impoverished students. The average AP test passing rate of the three BASIS schools in the top 10 is 84 percent. The average for the five IDEA schools in the top 10 is 21.4 percent. (Research points to significant academic benefits for AP students even if they fail the exams.)
That gap shows why we need much more challenging schools, said Joseph Hawkins, an education researcher who was denied a chance to start such a charter school in Maryland’s Montgomery County. He said the country has a learning gap because the majority of poor and minority kids “are simply cruising the academic highways at 35 miles per hour while their counterparts never drift below 65 mph.”
“You cannot narrow or close gaps by equaling the speed of those that are ahead of you,” he said.
Many don’t want to go that fast, educationally speaking, but six IDEA high schools graduated 507 seniors last year who had each taken at least 11 AP courses. That is many more than expected from little towns such as Donna, Tex., where IDEA founders Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, then in their mid-20s, started the network.
How does IDEA work? The kindergarten through second-grade program blends traditional instruction with online learning pitched at the level of each child. In third to fifth grade, students are exposed to colleges, museums, historical sites and other experiences disadvantaged children often miss.
Middle school students take pre-AP courses. The first AP course, Human Geography, comes in ninth grade. The load is increased gradually so the students can get used to it. Like their peers in many public schools, IDEA students and teachers receive bonuses for good scores on some AP tests from the National Math and Science Initiative. IDEA holds back students who fail to pass required state tests, but last year that was only 44 students in the network. Thirty-one of them are still with IDEA.
Torkelson and Gama say they want to have 100,000 students in 173 schools by 2022. Hardly anyone has heard of IDEA yet, but that will change.