I watched the tenth and final episode of A Year at Mission Hill several times and each time my eyes welled up. Was it because the images and music brought back wonderful memories of my time as a teacher there, when I sang “Our Children” with the adult chorus at Mission Hill’s graduation (adding a tenor part)? Or was it because the episode makes a powerful argument for a particular kind of education - where children are at the center, and are well prepared for exhibitions of their work, but it is their work, their thoughts, their dreams? My sense is that it is not only my nostalgia, or even the beautiful montage of joyful children set to poignant poetry in song, but that this episode provides a rare demonstration of democratic education at work, and children coming of age.
“What has been learned?” narrator Sam Chaltain asks at the beginning of the episode. Graduates of the school attest to their ability to think more critically, and their motivation to do so based on their feeling of being cared for, and hoping rise to the expectations of those who respect them. A father adds that his daughter benefits from the culture of mutual support and help at the school. These are strong testaments that are one form of assessing the work of the school.
But the school must deal with another form of accountability - the federal, state, and city regulations that insist that standardized tests be the measuring stick. The film captures multiple voices in the school struggling with how to think about the increasing amount of testing they must administer, and principal Ayla Gavins states that the school will be in non-compliance the following year.
As a juxtaposition, the episode then moves expertly to the more “Mission Hill School” form of assessment—exhibitions of student work and reflections on the part of students, before audiences of parents, teachers and peers. We are left to wonder, as the narrator asks at the beginning, “What counts?” What really counts?
One of the central conundrums for a school like Mission Hill is that at the heart of education for democratic citizenship is decision-making in public. We see this throughout the film series: Teachers meeting and discussing school issues, students discussing with teachers and each other what they will be doing that day, children making decision about their own projects, parents meeting with teachers, and deliberating, winnowing, and deciding together the best course forward. These processes are central. What happens when the state or federal government insist that high stakes decisions are made based on distant tests with arbitrary cut-off points? When the test-makers are faceless companies that override the democratic decision-making capability of teachers and parents at a school? Well, at Mission Hill School, there is resistance. We do not yet know how it will end.
The title of this chapter is “The Freedom to Teach,” but this title should not be read to mean that teachers are individualists or renegades. That is not worth fighting for. As the film series illustrates repeatedly, although teachers have decision-making power over their curriculum at Mission Hill, the decisions are always out in the open, always under discussion, always revisited after the fact to reflect and improve on in the future. But, as Deborah Meier states in the film, “the whole point of an education is to help you learn to exercise judgment, and you can’t do that when the expert adults in your school are not allowed to exercise theirs.”
Deborah Meier has been a powerful voice in national debates about education reform and the appropriate role that standardized tests should play in making decisions about schools - as a sometimes-helpful guide, but never the final word. It is one thing to use these tests to gather estimates about student learning on a large scale, but quite another to use them to make key decisions at the school-level including decisions about students’ promotion, teacher evaluation and pay, or sanctions against a school. As Deborah and many others have shown, they can be highly misleading measures of student learning. And, as principal Ayla Gavins states in the film, “they are out of control.” Indeed, they are. This is a point Deborah has been making for nearly four decades, although she probably could not have foreseen how the tests would be used today.
Although the final chapter of this important film series has been released, let’s watch the chapters again and notice how true accountability in education can work - with public planning, performances, high expectations, but within a non-competitive and supportive community. Another underutilized form of assessment is longitudinal. For example, I found in my research on the school that 96.2% of the college-age graduates of the Mission Hill School (who responded to my survey, which was 75.4%) entered college. This is roughly consistent with the work of David Bensman, who surveyed the graduates of Deborah Meier’s Central Park East schools. I also found that graduates overwhelmingly felt prepared for high school, that they had very positive experiences in school, and that their parents were generally impressed with their children’s education at Mission Hill. We ignore the wisdom of school leaders like Deborah Meier at our own peril.
Truly ground-level democratic education is worth fighting for, but it will be a difficult battle, no doubt. This might mean working at the federal, state, and city levels to advocate for teacher decision-making ability, for small schools, and for alternative assessments. But it could also mean - as demonstrated by James McGovern in this film clip - keeping our focus on what we know is best for children, even despite warning signs on the horizon.