Redefining success in American education

By Jon Funabiki

When education reporter Kristina Rizga first swept through the double doors at San Francisco’s Mission High School in 2009, she fully expected to see the telltale signs of failure and despair. After all, three-quarters of its students came from poor families, and 38 percent were English language learners from more than 40 countries. They had posted some of the worst test scores in the nation, making Mission High a prime candidate for major restructuring or even closure.

But Rizga discovered something entirely different. Despite these great odds, the students were not only learning, but thriving. Students who weren’t able to speak English when they started, left the school with the skills and confidence to write term papers, engage in debates and plan their futures. More than 80 percent of graduates went on to college. This didn’t jive at all with the test scores.

Trying to understand the how and why, Rizga spent the next four years visiting the classrooms and following students, parents and teachers.

The story of one student named Maria, an immigrant from El Salvador, came to symbolize the strategies that contribute to Mission High’s success. When Maria started middle school in San Francisco, she spoke so little English that she was afraid to ask the location of the restrooms. Through the eighth grade, her English remained poor and she couldn’t multiply figures. But once she entered Mission High School, Maria quickly benefited from the faculty’s high-touch strategy to personalize instruction and advising to cater to a student’s strengths and needs.

It turned out that Maria did poorly on multiple choice questions, which dominate the federally mandated tests used to rate schools. However, teachers realized that Maria is smart and has an analytical mind. They pushed her to improve her writing. Maria found a zeal for doing in-depth research on topics that interest her, such as African American history, the war in Iraq and school desegregation. By the time she graduated from Mission High, Maria had won two scholarships and acceptance letters from five colleges and universities.

Rizga distilled what she learned into a book, “Mission High,” which was published just last year. In it, she tells how she came to realize that the United States’ swing towards increased standardization and high-stakes testing is not going to rescue American’s troubled school systems. In short, the policy experts and education officials who pushed these strategies were wrong. Instead, schools need experienced, caring teachers who can and want to deal with students who come to the classroom with diverse backgrounds, skills and needs. She opened her book with the story of Maria and those who helped her, like English teacher Amadis Velez and history teacher Robert Roth.

Rizga, who also writes for Mother Jones magazine, is one of the fellows in Renaissance Journalism’s Equity Reporting Project, which we launched to help education reporters investigate opportunity gaps and systemic inequities in the nation’s school systems. She credits the fellowship program and the briefings received from noted education scholars, such as Prof. Prudence Carter of Stanford University, for helping her to analyze the different ways that poor, minority and immigrant students are shortchanged. This analysis floats to the top in “Mission High.”

For the fellowship, Rizga published a story, “Sorry I’m Not Taking This Test,” in Mother Jones. It describes high school students who have joined a revolt against the current emphasis on standardized tests. She wanted to give voice to those who are most hurt by testing overload—low-income Latino and black students. One recent study by the Center for American progress found that urban, low-income high school students spend 266 percent more time taking district-level exams than their suburban counterparts. Test scores are used to rate schools and teachers, which Rizga now understands is a blunt, ineffective way to improve schools. “The promise of education in America is really broken,” she said.

Rizga said that she came to these conclusions after immersing herself at Mission High, reporting the story, in effect, from the ground up, rather than taking the word of the policy experts and education regulators. “Talking to the people on the ground let’s you uncover hidden stories,” she said. “You won’t get this from state statistics.” The book’s subtitle summarizes the secret behind Mission High’s success: “One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph.”


Jon Funabiki is the founder and executive director of Renaissance Journalism. He is a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University.