Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review of Mission High by Kristina Rizga

I have managed to read one of the two books I promised in my Monday update, which means that my score for this week is 50%.  Are you going to designate me a Failing Blogger? Are you going to give my local librarians an improvement plan that includes some micro-management by people who have not spent any time in a library? If I don’t un-slump by the end of the year, are you going to shut my library down and put a Wal-Mart in its place?

Given my lack of reading growth and general inadequacy, Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried To Fail It, and the Students Who Made It Triumph by Kristina Rigza is ALMOST exactly the book I wanted to read this week. The author spent years inside a large, public high school in San Francisco interviewing students and teachers and observing the day-to-day work and play and sweat and tears of education. However, this isn’t your ordinary account of a struggling school.

Rigza’s conclusion is that standardized data don’t tell the whole story about the life and spirit and quality of a school. Mission High School isn’t a “successful” school by No Child Left Behind standards, but Rigza witnesses a rather extraordinary teaching community and some equally extraordinary learning. And with that, she claims that our education reform movement, which places standardized test scores as the single barometer of teaching and learning quality, might be impeding rather than fostering great education.

The problem I have with this book is that Rigza’s conclusion is also her premise. This is the story she wants to tell; it isn’t a story that necessarily tells itself. We don’t really see “experts trying to fail this school” and the pressure educators feel around federal sanctions. We don’t really see the school “triumph” except in cases of a few individual students. We don’t experience a school year timeline that would show us the day-to-day tensions of trying to work against the grain in public education.

I really love narrative nonfiction, and my favorite nonfiction books have all the elements of a good novel – complex characters that live and breathe, a plot with a beginning, middle, and an end, and some conflict that adds suspense. There are stories within this book that have those elements, but they don't come together in a way that pack a punch.

All that said, this is a good first panel in a new quilt of stories about what’s really happening in today’s schools.  What strikes me most is that the center of this school seems to be an autonomous, collaborative teaching community that works to really know and understand its students. The relationships seem to by the keys to the culture they have created. I would love to learn more about how they built that community and how it manages to survive.

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