‘Mission High’ Shows Depth, Complexity of School

This review was originally published at my EdWeek Teacher blog, Capturing the Spark, on 12/2/15.


There are many ways to compel action, but perhaps none to compel excellence. Volumes of research into motivation have demonstrated that excellent performance arises from positive rather than negative motivational forces. There many ways to reward or incentivize excellent performance, but few if any external motivators can compete with intrinsic motivation-especially when we seek excellence in work that is complex and related to our sense of self. In her deeply engaging and thoroughly readable book, Mission High, journalist Kristina Rizga probes the disconnect between education policies that operate based on compulsion, and a school community where teachers and students find their own drive to learn and excel, in spite of the very policies intended to help them. As stated in the extended book title, this is the story of “one school, how experts tried to fail it, and the studetns and teachers who made it triumph.”

bookcover@2xThe timing of Rizga’s research coincided with a time when arbitrary test score targets put Mission High in various forms of jeopardy, potentially forcing losses of personnel and funding, and undermining a whole variety of excellent work that couldn’t be measured in standardized testing. We’re a society far too eager to quantify, grade, and rank, and dangerously dissinterested in the quality of the measurements we use. But when a school’s teachers and students are really thriving, it’s not the external measures that count. A Mission High student, Darrell, understands what matters more than grades or other inducements: “There is no other feeling like a sense of accomplishment, when you know that you honestly pushed yourself and you got to some new place, because of your own hard work, and your own thoughts. It’s the highest high” (62).

What’s unique and eminently valuable about Rizga’s work is the depth of her experience with San Francisco’s famed Mission High School: she spent four years immersed in the life of the school and its teachers, and even in the lives of some of the students. I’ve read stories and seen news reports that involved weeks of observations and research, but never anything to compare with Mission High. The magnitude of that undertaking, and the volume of raw material it generated, has been deftly edited into a manuscript of perfect length, striking an effective balance between portraiture and research.

By “effective balance” I don’t mean 50-50. It’s the portraits of students, teachers, and their prinicpal, that dominate the page count and make the book so compelling. Rizga brings each person to life through observations, interviews, deep background, and occasional post-script glimpses of students who’ve graduated. While the book ultimately seeks to honor and celebrate the students and staff of Mission High School, Rizga refrains from pursuing that goal by selecting only stories that would paint an artificially inspirational picture of the school, or the lives of her subjects.

Mission High and its teachers are continually questioning, evaluating, and changing. That’s why math teacher Taica Hsu wasn’t satisfied merely helping student’s improve on academic measures and tests, and led the school’s math department to investigate teaching methods that would additionally foster engagement, critical thinking and collaboration. That’s why English teacher Pirette McKamey suggests teachers need the skills and autonomy to mix up their instructional methods for different students in different situations, and why she’s receptive to student suggestions about how to present their learning about academic texts in connection to current events.

Similarly, the students presented in the book may experience inspiration, academic growth, and college acceptance, but these achievements do not insulate them from hardship; the school and its teachers may be exceptional in many ways, but the broader picture of students’ lives makes clear that this is not a “savior” narrative. Pablo finds support and acceptance as a gay student, and becomes a campus leader in promoting LGBTQ awareness and inclusion, but that doesn’t mean the school climate is now perfect, or that Pablo’s fractured relationships with his family are restored. Jesmyn’s eventual success at Mission seems rather improbable when she arrives at Mission High with a 1.1 GPA; she becomes a solid student and a graduation speaker, works with struggling teens through a community organization, and goes on to college, but tragedies in her personal life may still prove overwhelming.

In between the personal stories and school-based narratives, Rizga provides useful history and policy background information, putting Mission High School today into context relative to its past, its city, and the broad arc of educational theories and reform efforts. In that regard, Mission High offers some of the same valuable perspective found in Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, with the added ability to illustrate deeply some of the localized effects. Her conclusions about policy and practice then come as no surprise. The nation and the state of California have engaged in a series of ill-conceived efforts to hold teachers and schools accountable for too much that is beyond their control, and have reaped no rewards. The test-and-punish theory of change, still with us despite the excess and failure of NCLB, is still unvialbe considering what we know about motivation, organizational management, and Campbell’s Law (regarding the corruption of measures after they’re given excessive importance). As I said at the outset, you can’t force people to excel, especially in an enterprise as complex and personal as education. Rizga puts it this way:

“The most effective policy changes to improve the quality of public education and reduce achievement gaps would prioritize building up the capacity of classroom teachers to be in charge of school reforms and accountability. Teachers in all schools-and in high-poverty schools like Mission High especially-need more time, resources, and support” (245).

But ultimately, the best reason to read Mission High is to live for a while with the people there, as Rizga did. Just pause to consider the trust that forms the foundation of such an enterprise. Consider the depth of that commitment, to invest that much time learning about a place, and how public education works there. Anyone who works in schools will appreciate the implications of those years, the opportunity to develop valuable and intimate knowledge. The advantages of being embedded that long show up in the book in myriad ways; my favorite smaller element of the book is when Rizga interviews campus security guards who have longstanding connections to the school and community, and who’ve also worked at several other campuses in the city. Teachers know that our non-teaching colleagues often play significant roles in student and campus life, and Rizga clearly became part of the campus too. That deeper knowledge also shows up in Rizga’s concluding attempt to articulate the dimensions of teaching, what she has learned about how instruction “unfolds.” Borrowing from a teacher’s description of seeing her craft in three dimensions, Rizga almost implies that what we see in a classroom is two-dimensional (despite the connotations of shallowness). We see the length and width of work and instruction. Rizga suggests that the depth of school and classroom activity is in the before-and-after; it’s almost literally behind-the-scenes, in the collaboration, planning and reflections that shape the experiences. It’s within the minds and lives of everyone involved.

If you want to honor the complexity of education, and the urgency of empowering teachers, schools, students and communities, I encourage you to read Mission High. And if you value the effort and commitment it took to create this work, encourage others to read it as well.

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