What Education Policy Makers Can Learn From A ‘Failing School’

Jeff Bryant

How can someone make a decision about a school they’ve never even walked into?”

That question is at the heart of Kristina Rizga’s terrific new book “Mission High: One school, how experts tried to fail it, and the students and teachers who made it triumph.”

Rizga uses her considerable journalistic skills—honed as the education writer for Mother Jones—to involve readers in the lives of students and educators at Mission High, a San Francisco public school with a proud history but a “failing school” label.

The school, where Rizga spent four years as an embedded reporter, serves a student body of mostly low-income kids, many from households where the first language isn’t English, and which ranks among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country. Only 30 percent of the school’s students score at proficient or above on the state standardized tests in English, and only 40 percent score proficient in math.

But in looking more closely at the school, Rizga discovered that other data—college acceptance and teacher retention—didn’t align with the school’s “failing” label.

When Mission High principal Eric Guthertz welcomed Rizga into his school, she observed something that frustrates students, parents, and educators across the country: As these schools do everything in their power to serve their students, they continue to be judged as failures by a process that seems completely remote and disconnected from the school.

As she walked the halls of Mission High, observed classes, and spoke with the students and their teachers, Rizga came to see a very different story about the school—one of committed educators and persevering learners doing all they can to succeed despite the judgments and prescriptions of policy makers.

Recently, I spoke with Rizga about her experience at Mission High.

Your point of view in this book is not at the 30,000-foot level like many other education books. You spent four years embedded in this school. Was that a deliberate decision you made, to be really at the ground level? Or did that just evolve?

In my research as an education reporter, I always started in libraries and with books but felt what was missing were the voices of students and teachers. It’s impossible to get to the truth without those voices. When you remove those voices and talk about schools as abstractions and policy ideas, you create a recipe for ideological wars with no on-the-ground evidence supporting the positions. I felt that if I could follow the stories of students and teachers and learn what were their needs and what works for them, then I could get beyond the abstractions and the ideological war.

Doesn’t that make your work just anecdotal?

I get pushback on that. But I spent about half my time reporting from the schools, and in the other half, I read some 200 studies written by academics. I consulted with researchers, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Larry Cuban, and others. There are three chapters in the book where I review nearly a hundred years of education history to give readers an understanding of why we have such a top-down, one-size-fits-all policy for education, and why it’s been difficult to include the voices of people who are most impacted by the system.

I looked at some of your earlier writings for Mother Jones from 2010 and saw you’re from Latvia. You described the schools you attended in that country as “Soviet-style schools.” Why didn’t you bring that up in the book?

American education is so complicated I wanted to have a focus and not bring my personal background into it so much. That said, I remember upon landing in this country that one of the most shocking things to me was how unequal the funding is for schools. In Latvia, and just about every other Western and Asian country, public schools get equal funding, and schools that teach high numbers of low-income students get more funding. Whereas in the United States you have a school like Mission High, where the students are mostly low-income, that receives $9,700 per student while in Palo Alto, one of the most affluent suburbs in the United States, schools receive $14,000 per student. I found an elementary school in Sausalito, another affluent community, that receives $33,000 per student. That’s a shocking fact for anyone who comes to this most powerful and wealthy country in the world, to see so much inequality.

How did the inequality of funding affect the students and teachers you met at Mission High?

It’s obvious to the teachers and students in that school. San Francisco is one of the wealthiest cities in the country and in the world. And when you first see Mission High, you see a beautiful building that is quite old and has seen decades of neglect. The beauty of the original structure reflects the past commitment California made to education, but now, some of the furniture hasn’t been replaced since the 1950s, it looks like. The school looks more dilapidated than my high school in Latvia looked, which is one of the poorest countries in the European Union. I still get pictures from my relatives in Latvia, and the children’s schools look 30 years ahead of what Mission looks like in terms of furniture and computers.

Also, classes are larger, and teachers in Mission High work much longer hours than teachers in places like Palo Alto. Because the students at Mission High come from all over the world—from El Salvador, Guatemala, China—the teachers have to provide a lot more personal support before and after school, during lunch, over the weekend. And the classroom preparation takes so much longer too than it does when teaching in a school where the student population is relatively homogenous. Also, many of the students at Mission High come from some of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Their families are often under-resourced, and there tends to be instability. So students are dealing with home issues, and teachers have to address those personal issues before they can get to academics. That takes more time too. Despite all these extra hours, teachers at Mission High actually get paid $10,000 less than a typical teacher in Palo Alto.

So lack of resources and demands on teachers’ time are big problems at a school like Mission High. Why don’t policy makers get this?

Educational policy is mostly driven by outsiders—philanthropists, politicians, business folks, and tech moguls. They tend to focus on things they know, such as organizational restructuring, management practices, data collection systems. They tend to ignore the most important things about teaching and learning.

Like what?

So many things that happen at the classroom level are completely invisible to most people who aren’t teachers. As the science teacher Rebecca Fulop, who I profile in my book, pointed out, most people feel they’ve spent enough time in classrooms to know what education is all about. But much of what goes into teaching and learning is invisible unless you’re the actual teacher, such as the pace of the class, the variation in instruction, the grading and analysis of student work, the relationships with students. This is why it’s so important to have teacher and student voices in the policy conversation, to make sure policies address these invisible issues.

For someone who wanted to write a book that’s above the “ideological wars,” that sounds pretty ideological.

After four years at Mission, I’ve spent enough time to know the importance of including the voices of teachers and students in policy conversation because they know more than any other academics, politicians, or philanthropists what works in the classroom.

Nearly all the educators you portray approach their practice from a social justice frame. Isn’t that pretty controversial?

I can’t speak about the history of a social justice teaching approach. I can speak about what I learned from the teachers at Mission High School. They all had awareness that schools can be set up as institutions that can replicate racist patterns in society, or they can be institutions that help reduce these racist patterns. At Mission they call it an anti-racist teaching lens.

So where does academics fit in with correcting social problems?

When the teachers at Mission School look at their work through an anti-racist lens, they look at the content and notice whether or not it recognizes that 95 percent of the students in their school are students of color. After students learn the standards in the canon, do they have opportunities to do their own research, and are they allowed to learn about things going on in society that they care about? When it comes to the craft of teaching, are teachers recognizing the needs of African American and Latino students? Are there patterns in grading that unconsciously reflect the race of the students? What support services are there in the school – student clubs, tutoring, help with college application, English classes for immigrant parents, and access to computers?

Another thing you’re adamant about in the book is that a copy-and-paste way of replicating education policies doesn’t work—that you can’t just take what has been effective at one school and assume it will work at another.

Because the cultures of the schools may be very different. Nothing I learned at Mission High can be used as a top-down blueprint.

But aren’t there some main things that just about any school can learn from your experience at Mission High School?

Yes, there are many important principles and ingredients at Mission High that others can learn from.

First, the teaching in this school is student centered. Sure there are standardized tests, but the instruction is centered on the interests, experiences, and needs of individual students. That is the driving force, not the standardized tests. Second, there is an enormous focus on the craft of teaching. Both the administrators and the teachers make sure there is always time set aside to give teachers opportunities to plan lessons together and share knowledge with each other, which is so rare in other schools based on my conversations with other teachers around the country. Third, there is an intense focus on issues of race and equity. Teacher leaders at Mission High are always disaggregating school-based data—not just the standardized test scores, but data on absences, grades, referrals, and other school-based statistics—to identify gaps. They’ll also look at qualitative information, interview teachers and students, look at lesson and unit plans, and student work to ascertain where students are struggling and what kinds of supports teachers need.

This is the type of support teachers are generally thrilled to receive because it’s respectful. It is based on relationships, not to fire them or give them a bonus. The teachers I met at Mission High in my four years there want to be successful. They are in this profession for very little money because they want to work with kids and help their students succeed.


This article is also published at The Progressive.

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