Education

The Problem with the 'Failing' Schools Label

The measures that lead to a school being designated"failing" can have little to do with what's actually happening in the classroom.

Photo Credit: Karen Roach via Shutterstock.com

With the implementation of state standards and assessments to measure student and school performance under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), many public schools have wound up with their curricula painfully narrowed. In too many schools, the focus on testing in language arts and math has led to the erasure of art, physical education and music programs, as schools, particularly in poorer districts, scramble to keep their heads above water to avoid being labeled “failing,” which puts them at risk of incurring devastating sanctions.

The stated goal of NCLB was to bring accountability and additional resources to low-income schools. But a growing list of critics argue that the legislation has instead forced teachers to spend too much of their time teaching to the tests, instead of imparting essential skills to their students — like collaborative and critical thinking — or being able to foster true joy in learning. When standardized tests are one of the only metrics used to assess whether students are learning, schools can often wind up deemed failing, with little regard for what’s actually taking place in the classroom.

Kristina Rizga, a former Mother Jones education reporter, wanted to explore one of those so-called failing schools to see what things really looked like on the ground. She ended up at San Francisco’s Mission High School, ranked as one of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, according to its test scores (just 30 percent of all students scored at proficient or above on the state standardized tests in English; 40 percent did so in math).This meant the school was at risk of radical restructuring, which could have included revamping the curriculum, replacing half the staff, replacing the principal, or closing the school. Yet Rizga, who spent four years in the classes at Mission, didn’t see evidence of a failing school in her time there; instead, she found engaged students and committed teachers, high college acceptance rates, and declining suspensions.

In the course of her reporting, Rizga’s view of standardized testing shifted dramatically. Once she had considered these tests, however flawed, the best measure of overall school performance. But at Mission, she saw that some students who did well on subjective assessments, like presentations and writing papers, were unable to match that level of achievement on standardized tests. Painting a complete picture of student learning, Rizga came to understand, was only possible by taking stock of more holistic measures — by, for example, evaluating students’ day to day work and performance in the classroom, not just their scores on a single test.
 
Rizga’s time at the school, and her change of heart while there, led to her new book, Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph. Rizga combines portraits of students, teachers and the school’s principal with a powerful analysis of how we got to the place where standardized test scores are the main measure of a school’s success. Rizga, who lives in San Francisco, sat down with AlterNet to talk about how the culture at Mission strives to support students academically and socially; the myth of “failing” schools; and the need to listen to teachers about what really makes a school work. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. (Disclosure: this reporter knows the principal at Mission High.)

Emily Wilson: Why did you want to investigate an underperforming school and how did you end up at Mission High?

Kristina Rizga: My editors and I were thinking that so often when there are stories about education, journalists go to successful schools, and we rarely hear stories from underperforming schools and give them a chance to explain why they’re struggling. We wanted to find a so-called “failing” school, and give them a chance to explain why it was such a challenge to turn it around. So I looked at the list of the lowest five percent of performing schools, and I went door to door and tried to get into some of them. I started in September, and everyone is really busy and they prioritize students over journalists, as they should. I couldn’t get into the first three schools I reached out to, but by the time I got to Mission it was mid-October and things were more manageable. Eric Guthertz, the principal, responded right away, so I got in.

EW: What did you see that surprised you?

KR: When you walk into Mission, the place just feels good right off the bat. The first people I met were security guards, and they and the students were extremely welcoming. I couldn’t find a single student the first week who had any criticism of the school. They said they loved it, and it felt like a community and a family. I started looking at other data and it was hard to connect how it could be labeled as a failing school. College acceptances were 84 percent that same year as they were labeled a low performing school. In 2010 it was on the chopping block through Race to the Top policies.

While that was happening, college acceptances are up, graduation rates are up, attendance was up, and suspensions were way down. And what I saw were high standards and intellectual engagement in the classroom. Also it not only supported high grades, it was a school promoting leadership skills and tolerance and respect for people of different backgrounds, so it was beyond test scores and grades.  

EW: How did your experiences there change your opinion of standardized tests?

KR: I used to think that while crude and imperfect, they’re basically the best set of data we have to measure the quality of schools. I changed my mind completely after going to Mission. There’s so much data that teachers and staff at Mission use to look at how their students are doing, and it includes qualitative and quantitative data. On a regular basis, they look at grades and attendance and they interview students and teachers. Most importantly, they walk around the classroom and look at actual work the students do, so rather than judging a student on how they perform one day a year on multiple choice questions, they’re looking at what did the students produce today and how did they progress from the class the other day.

EW: You say in the book that because Mission teachers don’t teach to the test, they can do a lot in their classrooms, and you found some classes more engaging than the ones you took at UC Berkeley. What were some of the things you saw in terms of teaching that were impressive to you?

KR: I went to City College of San Francisco, then to Diablo Valley, and I transferred to UC Berkeley, and I was a history major, but I’m sitting in classes at Mission High School, and I’m forgetting I’m a journalist because I got completely engaged in the content. What I saw was teachers organizing things around themes that you’re never going to find in the textbooks. I learned about African American and Latino organizers in the '20s and '30s, I learned about Mendez v. Westminster, a case I’d never heard of about Latino parents in Los Angeles who organized against segregated schools, which was used as a precedent in Brown v. Board of Education. Teachers brought in oral histories and articles written by these parents that were primary documents; we looked at photos and really tried to understand the context of why this was happening in Los Angeles and how it happened. I learned so much about the history of the U.S. that was never covered at UC Berkeley.

EW: What do you think has created this culture at Mission?

KR: I think it’s support from the administration, who understand that teachers are the experts. They’re the professionals; they know more than anyone about what goes into learning and teaching. They know how to engage children and assess them, and the administration respects that and gives them a lot of freedom and support; it’s that leadership at the school level. It’s kind of a hopeful story for Mission High School — it was just a small group of dedicated teacher leaders that got together and decided that they were going to focus intensely on their craft. In spite of all the distractions and difficulties and lack of time, they [decided] to dedicate time to get together, whether on the weekend or after hours; they [decided] to spend time looking at their craft, and at race issues and disparities in their schools, to figure out how to reduce those gaps.

EW: How did you choose the students you profiled?

KR: I spent time with about 100 students over the past four years. At a very basic level, these were students I met and immediately had an emotional and intellectual reaction and connection with. They were incredible, and I could tell they would be willing to spend two, three years with me.

Of course, I was always on the lookout for students who represented the school more broadly. I also wanted to highlight certain themes; for example, Maria, the student from El Salvador who barely spoke English when she came to Mission, and by 11th grade she was writing research papers on the war in Iraq and on Mendez v. Westminster. She was always asking the question, How come my school is labeled as failing when so many of my friends are succeeding? I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know how to multiply, [but now] I am accepted to college, and these teachers teach me more than anyone, and they’re there for me more than anyone.

She was very articulate about her struggles with multiple-choice questions versus assignments that allowed her to rely on all her skills. She did so poorly on multiple-choice questions, and she did so well on everything else: essays, presentation, organizing skills. She was a leader in the school; she was incredibly generous and helped other newcomers to the high school. And she got accepted to five colleges when she finished high school.

EW: You talk about the negative public perception of Mission. What do you think will change that?

KR: That’s such a complicated question, and that’s one of the reasons why I spent so much time at Mission. I think because we use these test scores as the main proxy for the quality of schools, it has undermined the public confidence in so many schools in which we have English learners and students from low-income families. So then parents choose not to send their kids to these schools and it increases segregation. We need to change our accountability system and our metrics to include a broader measure and to give us a fuller picture of what’s going on. California is leading the way on this right now; we’re redesigning our accountability system to include a variety of measures.

But to change public perception, word of mouth is most important — parents telling other parents, “I love Mission, come visit it. Don’t judge a school by test scores alone.” I always tell parents their college enrollment data is 74 percent, so you need to look at a variety of data. These schools that focus so much on test scores overlook these other skills that are so important in the workplace and life: Can you get along with people who are different? Can you work through misunderstandings? Can you cope with them? Do you know how to be respectful? Can you debate thoughtfully? There’s so much research now that these so-called social and emotional skills are so important.

EW: Anything else you really want people to understand about the current educational climate?

KR: One thing I want to get across is that because we rarely hear from students and teachers, there is such a disconnect between what the so-called experts talk about and what’s happening in schools. Politicians, economists, philanthropists, and state officials – they dominate the public discourse about education reform and what’s best in teaching and learning, and very few teachers and students are part of that conversation. There was a Media Matters study that [showed that] on cable news, only nine percent of the guests are teachers when they talk about education. It just leads to policies that are misguided and bad. If it were up to teachers, we would have invested in teachers learning on the job, getting better, and leading at their schools. I’m hoping we shift our priorities to school level and local level accountability.

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Emily Wilson is a freelance writer who teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.