Education Opinion

In American Schools, What Is Quality Work?

By Sam Chaltain — May 09, 2013 3 min read

For years now, I’ve been asking everybody I meet the same question: “When and where were you when you learned best?”

I’ve asked this question because so many of our national school reform efforts are not about learning at all; they’re about achievement, which has come to mean something quite apart from the stories people tell when you ask them to recall one of the most powerful experiences of their lives.

And here’s the thing: if you stitch everyone’s stories together, a clear pattern emerges. I know because I’ve done it (see for yourself). And what emerged was that we all need, to differing degrees, learning opportunities that are challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential.

I was reminded of that work - and of the importance of relevance - when watching Chapter 8 in the 10-part video series about Mission Hill, a public elementary and middle school in Boston. It begins with a young boy holding an alligator. It continues with young children organizing and opening a bakery in their classroom. And it concludes with a group of teenagers eagerly ripping open a package that contains fresh copies of the book they have all worked to co-create.

What we learn is that the children have been asked to imagine a possible future profession for themselves, and to interview someone who does that work so they can better understand if it might really be for them. One child envisions a life as an animal tamer. Another thinks he might become a martial artist. And two other students have each set their eyes on becoming the future Mayor of Boston.

“It’s so important that the ideas come from the kids,” says teacher Kathy Klunis D’Andrea, “and that they get to see them actualized. There’s so much that they can learn about those real-life experiences that make true connections that they don’t forget. They are locked into learning.”

Of course, what we see at Mission Hill is more than just relevant projects. There’s a culture in place, an ethic, that demands the best of its teachers and students. As longtime educator Ron Berger puts it in his wonderful book An Ethic of Excellence, “Weighing yourself constantly doesn’t make you lighter and testing children constantly doesn’t make them smarter. The only way to really lose weight and keep it off, it seems, is to establish a new ethic - exercise more and eat more sensibly. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life.

“I have a hard time thinking about a quick fix for education,” Berger continues, “because I don’t think education is broken. Some schools are very good; some are not. Those that are good have an ethic, a culture, which supports and compels students to try and to succeed. Those schools that are not need a lot more than new tests and new mandates. They need to build a new culture and a new ethic.”

To build a new ethic at a school, one must begin somewhere. Berger believes student work is the logical place to start. “Work of excellence is transformational,” he writes. “Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. We can’t first build the students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.”

This ethic of excellence Berger describes is at the center of schools like Mission Hill. It’s also present in organizations like Expeditionary Learning, a national network of more than 150 K-12 schools. And the EL network isn’t only filled with established, stable schools; it’s expanding to include the places where a school-wide ethic of excellence is being cultivated for the very first time.

One such place is the Mundo Verde Public Charter School in Washington, DC. Now in its second year, Mundo Verde decided to document one of its expeditions - multiweek explorations of a topic that involve not just original research, but also a culminating project that is presented to the public - in its first year of operation. The film of that experience, La Expedición, highlights the same qualities we see at work in Mission Hill - and the same core characteristics we see in our own personal learning memories.

La Expedición from Meridian Hill Pictures on Vimeo.

As you watch both videos, consider the quality of the work Mission Hill’s 8th graders and Mundo Verde’s Kindergartners are able to produce. In schools like these, there’s no doubt about what matters most - nor is there any confusion over what high-quality student work actually looks like, and requires. But if there was any doubt remaining about why that’s the right goal to have, Mission Hill’s 8th graders are there to remind us, courtesy of the title they chose for their book: A Place for Me In The World.

Follow Sam on Twitter.

Connect with A Year at Mission Hill on Facebook.

The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read