Review by Jesus Tirado, University of Georgia
Book Details: Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail it, and the Students and Teachers who made it Triumph. by Kristina Rizga. New York: Nation Books. 2016. 295 pp., $26.99.
Kristina Rizga’s (2015) Mission High presents a deep look at a school and the people who breathe vitality into it. As a reporter for Mother Jones, Rizga first went to Mission High for an assignment and found herself returning to the school for four years. While there, she started asking larger questions about education and what the accountability era means for schools and teachers who live with these pressures and policies. The book also provides a great look at the historical and political trends in education for readers to understand the challenges of school and its current situation. In this context, Rizga uses her work to tell stories and ask questions about if tests, standards, and new policies are really authentic measures of how students grow and learn. In doing so, the book shows the complexity of schools, questions the policies and systems that rate Mission High and its denizens poorly, asking questions like: Are reputations deserved? Are they accurate? Is it fair to use test scores and accountability measures to judge schools and their people? Understanding teachers, students, and administrators provides the most valuable parts of the book as it shows that Mission High isn’t a “failing” school downtrodden and hamstrung by the pressures and anxieties of accountability; instead, the book provides stories of resilience, achievement, and growth.
Rizga’s (2015) initial interest in education started from questions about how schools interpret, make sense of, and respond to the many policies and pressures placed on them. She initially chose Mission High, a relatively famous school in the area with some notable alumni. Under the aegis of testing, accountability, and other facets of school policy, the school fell into disrepute because of poor scores. Even the media played its part in generating this reputation, reporting about the more negative aspects of the school. However, Rizga quickly noticed that despite the school’s reputation, it had a high morale and enthusiasm. Rizga shows this during the book and her exploration of the school allow the reader to understanding much more than they would simply looking at test scores.
While Mission High may be a poorly performing school by testing and accountability policies, Rizga (2015) found stories of resilience, achievement, and growth. She met teachers who enjoyed their challenging professions and students who worked hard in their own right. These personal and professional labors take a central role throughout the different chapters and the different people; their experiences, challenges, inspirations, failures, and successes help us to see these stories. While testing comes up throughout the book, even with some success as Rizga notes, it’s amid all the familial, housing, legal, and life challenges of the school that we get a snapshot of the larger paths to success for the students faced with these challenges. Tests cannot capture the trials and tribulations that students experience. For example, Pablo, an undocumented Central American student in the book, exemplifies this struggle as Rizga follows his challenges through learning English, dealing with his sexuality, and finding his voice as a leader in the school. Pablo’s story cannot be summarized by a test that is agnostic to his struggles and reduces him to scores. Through stories like Pablo’s, readers are left asking how have tests, laws, and experts ignored, maligned and written off students like Pablo? And why?
Through this conversation that elevates stories over tests, Mission High (2015) argues that teacher autonomy should be restored and embraced. The different teachers and their motivations and abilities for teaching empower them to achieve great feats in their school and with their classrooms like meaningful projects, school-wide shows, and events that exhibit student activism and build community awareness. This motivation connects to the work of schools, but also work that is devalued by essentializing tests. In the face of testing, accountability, and the so-called “failing schools” they label, the only way to counterbalance the negative consequences of overvaluing testing is to consider the complexity of the lives of the people in schools and the process of learning in context of lived experiences. While some aspects of testing have begun to experience formal policy change with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), the legislation fails to clarify how systems should respond to the negative consequences testing has caused. Rizga questions whether the experts and policymakers are accurately examining the life of schools. The primary lesson through this logic, and through Mission High itself, is that stories about schools should not begin and end with test scores; it is dangerous and short sight-sighted to think this way.
Mission High (2015) also challenges the accountability movement’s validity to reflect the work that teachers are doing in developing their students beyond test scores. Throughout the book, teachers demonstrate a great sense of mission and purpose for their students. Their actions, concerns, and connections to their students form the foundation of a strong school community and prove how vital they are to their schools. In Mission High, we see the teachers reimagining accountability with students and put their learning at the center of the school and their classrooms. The teachers, and the principal too, all have deeply personal motivations for teaching, which is evident in their work and dedication. They are not after a better test score; they are after students who learn better. Rizga allows us a glimpse into these caring networks that teachers build with their students at Mission High.
The specter of testing looms over the school but provides such a poor tool for seeing and evaluating schools and the people who make them and live them.
Some critics might challenge that the stories included are all successes since Mission High (2015) aims to excite teachers and schools about their potential. Rizga meets students she profiles at UC Berkeley and other local colleges and all remain busy and working on their education. These success stories are important especially in reflecting how the school and teachers support the students beyond test-taking skills. While the students are successes, their stories are not linear and they have many roadblocks and serious challenges in their journeys. Stories like Pablo remind us about the challenges that students face growing up. Meanwhile, another story of a girl named Jesmyn, shows how her success in the classroom needs to be matched with her own determination to overcome all the struggles and tragedies that she has encountered. This reminds the reader that success isn’t just about college and test scores, but about determination and giving students a passion about learning and having their schools and teachers do their best to support their students. Test scores would show only one aspect, so we are confronted with the fact that Mission High is not a failing school for supporting its students. Hearing from the shining stars of Mission High remind us that these failing schools are not destroying the lives of everyone who enters their halls. Success is not a linear path and can look different than what the test scores portray. Resisting the tests with the stories from the lives of students and teachers makes Mission High stand out and provide an alternate depiction of the valuable work that schools can do for their students.
Mission High (2015) provides great insight into how complex schooling is and how history and policy shape people’s experiences today. Readers will appreciate and empathize with the struggles, triumphs, and personal insights of the students, teachers, and administrators throughout the book and see why tests should not be the ultimate and only evaluation. Throughout Mission High, the specter of testing looms over the school but provides such a poor tool for seeing and evaluating schools and the people who make them and live them. This failure is noted throughout the book and presents a very strong challenge to the scheme of testing and accountability that would otherwise tell us that Mission High is a bad place to be a student and that the teachers there don’t care. Like school, the reality is more complex than a test score.
Jesus Tirado is a Graduate student in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. His work examines the impact of power and institutional power as it affects students, teachers and community members in schools. He is also interested in how the changing demographics of American schools are changing and impacting these dynamics.
Rizga, K. (2015). Mission High: One school, how experts tried to fail it, and the students and the teachers who made it triumph. New York: Nation Books.
U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Every Student Succeeds Act. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/essa?src=rn