Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph

Kristina Rizga

Nation Books, 2015

Agent: Jill Marr

Darrell is a reflective, brilliant young man, who never thought of himself as a good student. He always struggled with his reading and writing skills. Darrell's father, a single parent, couldn't afford private tutors. By the end of middle school, Darrell's grades and his confidence were at an all time low. Then everything changed.

When education journalist Kristina Rizga first met Darrell at Mission High School, he was taking AP calculus class, writing a ten-page research paper, and had received several college acceptance letters. And Darrell was not an exception. More than 80 percent of Mission High seniors go to college every year, even though the school teaches large numbers of English learners and students from poor families.

So, why has the federal government been threatening to close Mission High, and schools like it across the country?

The United States has been on a century long road toward increased standardization in our public schools, which resulted in a system that reduces the quality of education to primarily one metric: standardized test scores. According to this number, Mission High is a "low-performing" school even though its college enrollment, graduation, attendance rates and student surveys are some of the best in the country.

The qualities that matter the most in learning, skills like critical thinking, intellectual engagement, resilience, empathy, self-management, and cultural flexibilitycan't be measured by multiple-choice questions designed by distant testing companies, Rizga argues, but they can be detected by skilled teachers in effective, personalized and humane classrooms that work for all students, not just the most motivated ones.

Based on four years of reporting with unprecedented access, the unforgettable, intimate stories in these pages throw open the doors to America's most talked aboutand arguably least understoodpublic school classrooms where the largely invisible voices of our smart, resilient students and their committed educators can offer a clear and hopeful blueprint for what it takes to help all students succeed.


"Rizga delves deep into what is not often shown or known: what's working. She pulls back the curtain on test scores, painting a vivid picture of what a low-scoring, highly successful school looks like and why test scores shouldn't matter as much as they do."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Mother Jones education reporter Rizga delivers a firsthand report on a 'failing' school systemthis skills-based model represents a shift in thinking that could very well establish a shift in results."
Kirkus Reviews

"Recommended for parents, teachers, and administrators concerned with the problems in our educational system and looking for fresh ideas on how to fix it. Rizga is convinced that Mission High has found answers others can learn from, and she makes a compelling argument."
Library Journal

"An intimate look at how an alternative, progressive approach to education works Accessible and thoroughly researched, Rizga's book covers a brief history of America's education reform and the path to high-stakes testing, and weaves in profiles of Mission's students and faculty. These profiles form the heart of the book, showing students who find community and success (even if not measurable by a multiple-choice test), teachers who provide encouragement, personalized instruction and more meaningful assessments, and a principal who refuses to 'teach to the test.'"

"A thoughtful, well-researched account of her time [at Mission High], using it as a case study to explore the problems with education reform in the U.S. ...In clear and cogent prose, Rizga makes a compelling case for allowing schools to direct their own learning. Mission High is both a breath of fresh air and an inspirational, practical model for struggling education communities around the country."
Shelf Awareness (starred)

"This book is a godsend. For years we at 826 Valencia have known how great Mission High isits students, its teachers, its myriad innovationsand we've told everyone we could. Now Kristina Rizga has put it all together in a highly readable and moving portrait of a school that succeeds despite being often misconstrued or mislabeled or even dismissed. There is joy in the hallways of Mission High and daily academic triumph at Mission High, and this book explains how this extraordinary school gets it done. This book is a crucial primer for anyone wanting to go beyond the simplistic labels and metrics and really understand an urban high school and its highly individual, resilient, eager and brilliant students and educators."
Dave Eggers, co-founder, 826 National and ScholarMatch

"Kristina Rizga writes for those of us weary of trendy ed reform dispensed from on high. Instead, she listens hard to the students and teachers who must deal with their daily consequences. Andwith rigor, common sense, and empathyshe tells of the teachers and students confronting shifting tides of reform and profoundly stacked odds, and succeeding. The Mission High that Rizga describes is a beacon, and her deeply textured, heartbreakingly humane book also shines a beautifully clarifying light."
Jeff Chang, author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America and Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

"In Mission High, Kristina Rizga embeds at a San Francisco public school to show the high standards, professionalismand even lovethat belie the easy label of "failing school." A much-needed corrective to an education debate that often fails to ask how students and teachers experience reform on the ground."
Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession

"A clear-eyed, evidence-based, and wonderfully fresh understanding of what education 'reform' truly means."
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the The Nation

"By introducing us to the struggles and triumphs of teachers and students, Rizga has redefined what success means in American education. It's not what testing reveals, but what lives are transformed. Mission High is one of the best books about education I've read in years. It should be a conversation changer."
LynNell Hancock, professor of journalism, Columbia University, and director of Spencer Fellowship for Education Journalism

"Kristina Rizga's Mission High depicts an educational paradox: schools that perform poorly on tests, on average, can also be some of the most deeply engaging and productive learning spaces. Through vivid, compelling portraits of dynamic, resilient students and thoughtful, committed educators, Rizga captures beautifully how young scholars are encouraged and developed. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the holistic nature of teaching and learning."
Prudence L. Carter, professor of education, Stanford University, and coauthor with Kevin G. Welner of Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance