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A Mission (Hill) for Education Policy?

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Guest post by Dr. Maya Rockeymoore

Watching the first installment of A Year at Mission Hill was as much disorienting as it was inspiring given the current state of education policy. What are we to make of a video highlighting the achievements of a school without even mentioning its test scores? After all, most Americans have been conditioned to look toward test scores as the primary, if not sole, measure of academic achievement. Nonetheless, the Mission Hill series presses the viewer to consider whether it's possible, or better yet, even desirable to pursue broader measures of educational success.

A case in point is that it has become de rigueur among mainstream policy elites to argue that inputs such as school resources (e.g. funding, facilities, equipment) are not as important as the quest to successfully teach to the test.

This line of thinking has contributed to our national acceptance of woefully rundown school facilities that most of us wouldn't allow our dogs much less our own children to stay in for a day. Yet, in cities across the country we expect children -- particularly those who are from low-income and racial and ethnic minority families -- to be educated in facilities that are not conducive to learning. So it becomes a radical statement when Mission Hill's principal, Ayla Gavins, declares that "Everyone has value, and it's reflected in the physical environment and in how people treat one another."

It was refreshing to hear an administrator acknowledge the link between the quality of a school's physical surroundings and its affect on the perceived value and performance of the students and teachers inside. Indeed, this link has been supported by research showing a direct relationship between a school's physical disorder, the amount of social disorder occurring within it, and the level of collective efficacy exhibited by those within the facility.

Should we be surprised that kids and teachers in poorly maintained schools internalize the state of their surroundings or that it affects their ability to perform in ways that enhance the learning process? What is considered common sense to the administrators at Mission Hill has all but escaped education policymakers even though this "broken windows theory" has gained traction in other policy areas, most notably community development, public housing, and public safety.

The level of racial and ethnic diversity apparent among the Mission Hill student body and staff was also both disorienting and inspiring. It has been widely acknowledged that the quest to create a fully integrated school system inspired by the Civil Rights Movement has been abandoned, and in some instances actively derailed, by administrators, parents, and policymakers who seem willing to accept our national drift toward the resegregation of U.S. schools.

Yet the Mission Hill series forces the viewer to question the wisdom of this trajectory given the reality of our nation's demographic future and the fact that research has affirmed that diverse educational settings enhance learning for all children. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that a majority of children born today are racial and ethnic minorities and that the same will be true for a majority of youths under the age of 19 by the year 2019.

Given the changes, it is prudent to ask what national purpose it serves to maintain an apartheid system of education when our nation's economic and democratic future depends on our ability to successfully educate all children regardless of income, race, or ethnicity? Administrators, policymakers, and parents everywhere should be looking towards Mission Hill to identify best practices for creating engaging, effective, and respectful learning environments that serve the needs of a diverse student body.

A Year at Mission Hill highlights other "design principles of learning" that can be reinforced by public policy. Lessons like how to create the space for teacher collaboration; how to recruit, maintain, and reward great teachers; how to empower administrators and teachers to set and achieve priorities important for their schools; and how to prepare teachers to support the individual needs of students while also meeting group learning objectives should be a part of an intentional process to improve prospects for our nation's public schools and our democracy.

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is the President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a strategy firm dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments.

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