I recently read a fascinating piece in the Economist about a group of charter schools, called the BASIS schools, in Arizona. Founded by Michael and Olga Block in the late 1990s, these schools feature an extremely accelerated curriculum and a commitment to hiring great teachers (and negotiating their salaries individually, and paying performance bonuses a la Wall Street). Most interestingly, the schools explicitly model their curricula on the best practices exhibited in other countries that routinely trounce the US in international comparisons. For instance, we know South Korea does math well. What can we copy from that system? Of course, the US does things well, too, and in this piece, Olga Block talks about the openness of American classrooms and the questioning nature of American students as being things she wanted to keep.
One of the exciting things about the education reform movement of the last few years has been watching all the different experiments around the country. Not every person would be thrilled to attend a BASIS school (Olga Block talks about how she didn't originally see extracurricular activities as being particularly important for a school). But the idea of high expectations is universally a good idea. We have a lot of untapped talent in this country, and a lot of children who have never truly been challenged. If the BASIS schools can take anyone who wins the lottery to attend, and have such children taking college-level classes through much of high school, it seems to indicate that most schools could aim a lot higher than they are currently doing.