Mission Hill School: An Alternative to “No Excuses” | IDEA

Mission Hill School: An Alternative to “No Excuses”

Posted by Dana Bennis on May 06, 2013 - 07:20 AM

This is a guest post by Matthew Knoester, a National Board Certified Teacher and former teacher at the Mission Hill School, and currently Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Evansville. Matthew recently wrote a book about the Mission Hill School, entitled Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School (Teachers College Press, 2012) and edited a book called International Struggles for Critical Democratic Education (Peter Lang, 2012).


Mission Hill School founder Deborah Meier has authored a column, or “blog debate,” on the website of Education Week since 2007. She began by debating Diane Ravitch, where they discussed a wide range of educational issues and where Ravitch surprised readers by agreeing with much of what Meier wrote. Since Ravitch left the sight to focus on her own excellent blog, Meier has interacted with an impressive list of educational thinkers, including Pedro A. Noguera, Alfie Kohn, Eric Hanushek, and, most recently, Elliot Witney, one of the first principals of a KIPP charter school.

One of the central issues discussed by Witney and Meier was the idea of “No excuses,” a common refrain among school leaders who claim to allow little room for students to make mistakes, academically or behaviorally. Meier argued that that is the wrong approach: “The term ‘no excuses’ bothers me the same way a whole host of other slogans harden our hearts and brains to the fact that there are ‘excuses.’  At its heart, our legal system rests on the demand that defendants have a right to present their ‘excuses’—to be heard.”

Meier noted that adults in fact “hear” and respond to students’ excuses, but differently, due to pre-conceived notions, as well as accepted forms of acting and communicating in schools. She continued, “I have experienced the sad fact that some folks learn to expect their right to be heard out—with their ‘excuses’—and some not. On the whole, it's partly because of their skill at making excuses and partly because of who they are—gender, race, class, etc.—that some do and some don't.” There are always “excuses,” but our job as educators must involve considering the perspectives of students, their experiences in life, their assumptions and habits, and helping them to see other people’s perspectives as well, and live together in shared space. Hearing “excuses” is a part of that process.

The seventh chapter of A Year at Mission Hill offers another revealing portrait of the school, not only with an illustration of engaging and rich curricula, but by offering examples of the continuing struggles of students and adults to live and learn together. The film shows students having challenges, but rather than being punished in a “no excuses” type of “time out” or suspension, the short clip records adults continuing the discussion with students, and insisting that students articulate their viewpoints, as well as learn to understand those of others.

The most revealing quote from the film came from a teaching intern, Leia Baylor, who described her change in understanding of children during her time at Mission Hill. “Before I used to think there were good kids and bad kids,” she said, articulating an either/or mind frame common in schools. “I’ve slowly learned that those kids…there are things behind the scenes that I don’t know…they’re not the bad kids, they need some work, they need help.” The practitioners at Mission Hill are dedicated to that work and help, of never giving up on students, but even through behavior challenges, insisting that students learn to use their minds well, including developing the understanding of their own and other people’s perspectives.

I just returned from the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a gathering of more than 12,000 educators and scholars, this year held in San Francisco. I was able to have very good discussions about many of the issues discussed on this blog, including my work at the Mission Hill School. There were presentations I heard that offered hope that a deeper understanding of education for democracy in a deeply unequal society is possible, but I also heard deeply unsettling facts and analyses. University of Washington-Bothell Associate Professor Wayne Au recalled the history of the standards movement of the 1990’s and how many educators had high hopes for these standards to improve education, not knowing that high-stakes testing would overshadow these efforts and prevent teachers from making decisions that they thought were in the best interest of their students. Au saw the same pattern taking place now with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). There are educators who respect these standards as they are written, but perhaps naively assume that the tests that will soon follow will not strap the ability of democratic schools and teachers to teach to their own mission and use their professional judgment.

The most news-worthy moment of the conference was when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed a large auditorium in the Hilton Hotel on Tuesday. He quickly made clear that Wayne Au was correct. High-stakes tests are coming, and more tests than ever. Duncan spoke about not only yearly tests, but also both “formative” and “summative” tests that would be used to measure students’ test-taking abilities in the same year. Teachers will be evaluated using these tests, and other decisions will also be tied to them. Many members of the audience were audibly frustrated. Dozens of audience members held signs that read “Not in My Name.” And a group of AERA members protested outside of the auditorium, upset that Duncan, who they viewed as the author of policies that contradict a large amount of educational research, was even invited to speak.

The film series about Mission Hill School offers positive depictions of serious educational work taking place. But there must be room for righteous anger as well, at the policies that make this work more difficult. It is hard to believe that the current amount of high stakes standardized testing is not enough for those who believe tests can deliver “accountability.” I clapped along with the gentleman who, at the end of Arne Duncan’s speech, asked for a moratorium on high stakes standardized testing until persuasive evidence can be presented that these tests improve the educational opportunities for children. Duncan refused. He is of the belief that opposing high stakes testing, and teachers’ evaluations based on those tests, is equivalent to making “excuses.” He wants “no excuses.”

But if that auditorium was any indication, I believe many people, including large amounts of those who voted for Obama, will be much more outspoken about their frustration with Obama’s educational policies now that he has been re-elected. Is it possible to stop this train of never-ending high stakes standardized tests? If enough people speak out, it may be.

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