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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 14 2012

SIGns of Change in the Mississippi Delta

I’ve had the opportunity to work at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) for the past two weeks as part of LEE’s Summer Fellowship program. I sought out this summer position for a few reasons. I’ve always been a big picture thinker, and I was very interested in learning about the entire leadership structure affecting public education, especially as it relates to constraints placed upon teachers. I had my fair share of frustrations with bureaucracy over the past two years, which piqued my curiosity regarding how decisions are made at different levels of organization. Admittedly, I also wanted to see how the MDE functioned given Mississippi’s infamous reign at the bottom of state education rankings. At the same time, however, I hoped to contribute my skills to helping the MDE achieve better outcomes albeit in some small way. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect.

Two weeks in, I have to say that I’m enjoying the experience a lot. I miss my kids as well as getting a built-in workout around my classroom everyday. I’m trying to get used to having an hour-long lunch in which I don’t have to supervise a table of 25 teenagers. Still, I do miss that daily interaction.

I was assigned to the Office of School Recovery, which oversees the federally-funded School Improvement Grants (SIG) for struggling schools who are seeking to turn around their schools.

“SIG funds provide an unprecedented opportunity for educators to implement innovative strategies to improve education for academically at-risk students and to close the achievement gap in Title I schools.”

I’m loving this mission-critical work for a few reasons:

1.) Creativity: the proposals we review include innovative ideas and provide opportunities for schools to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” We allow flexibility within the guidelines while also focusing on doing what works.

2.) Comprehensive: in order to be successful, I’ve been able to draw upon my prior experiences from student government finances to teaching. The workload of my office is a fascinating mix that seems like the work of a foundation and a consulting firm. My supervisor has a “Whole District, Whole School, Whole Child, Whole Community” approach, if you will, in order to ensure alignment between key stakeholders.

3.) Compassionate Capacity: just as a successful teacher works closely with each student to understand their individual needs, my supervisor doesn’t advise schools with cold, one-size-fits-all mindset. I’ve really enjoyed the human qualities she brings to the daunting task of disbursing $65 million dollars. While it would be easy to be condescending towards administrators of struggling schools, she instead seeks to attain mutual understanding in order to build capacity for the schools to “get their wings.”As my mother would say, the tone is “firm but loving.”

You can lead a horse to water...

4.) Cool Factor: at four full-time staff members, my office is among the smallest at the MDE. That said, it’s unquestionably also among the coolest. I felt like a part of the family from day one, and it’s fun working with people who have a strong sense of passion and purpose for their work (and a good sense of humor). There is rarely a dull moment in the office and I enjoy being involved in the various day-to-day and long-term projects.

5.) Charter Charter Bo barter Banana Fanna Fo Farter. Me Mi Mo Marter…: I’m not strictly against charter schools, but I wish they served their original purpose! As explained by Diane Ravitch (yes, I know, but she often makes legitimate claims):

“[P]ublic school teachers could get permission from local authorities to open a small experimental school and then focus on the neediest students. The school would recruit students who had dropped out and who were likely to drop out. It would seek new ways to motivate the most challenging students and bring whatever lessons they learned back to public schools, to make them better able to educate these youngsters.

The original vision of charter schools was that they would help strengthen public schools, not compete with them.”

In a way, the SIG competition and accountability measures put in place offer a chance to see this original vision fulfilled. I love the sense of a learning community my office brings to the process in the sense that we get to see which ideas work and which don’t (the 17 schools receive on average ~3 to 4 million dollars over a three year period). Charters can be wonderful assets (*side eye*) that serve a vital mission, but the public needs to understand that traditional schools can achieve gains too!

I’ll elaborate more within the next week, but it will be bittersweet when I have to leave the office. With that said, I’m excited by the sense of possibility my work with the Office of School Recovery has given me. For all of the problems facing Mississippi, there are bright spots where competent, dedicated school leaders and teachers are working to turn the tables on the lingering Achievement Gap.  I once was worried about leaving the Delta with a grim outlook on the future, but I now can authentically say I am more optimistic. Slowly, but surely, a change is going to come- and it’s going to come to those who make it happen for themselves.

Indulge me. It's an oct-sea-moron...

7 Responses

  1. Gary Rubinstein

    I see this caught the attention of Duncan. That usually is not a good sign.
    I’m all for giving struggling schools more money, but it seems to me that with the SIGs we give some schools a lot of money, they get incremental results, and then the conclusion is that it is possible to get transformational results with no more money.

    • Hey Gary, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, though I disagree on your main point there. I really wasn’t expecting this post to be picked up like that (obviously) but I wrote it to express my enthusiasm and optimism that good work was being done at the state level after all. Once again, I’d reiterate that the problem might be more with the analysis you reference rather than the people implementing change. I agree that it would be wrong to draw such a conclusion that it is possible to get transformational results without extra money. If anything, charter schools are proving this point. SIG is beneficial because it has the potential to demonstrate that there is a gray area between the conservative-liberal divided where one said wants to “throw money at the problem” whereas the other wants to shut these schools out in order to privatize.

      Regardless, the key takeaway I see is that the SIG process shows that transformational results are possible within existing schools without converting to a charter model but that it is foolish to expect this change to occur without additional support and resources. For better or worse, SIG presents an opportunity to measure the cost effectiveness of giving more money to schools. A lot of folks think MS is a sink hole, and until I witnessed operations behind the scenes, I believed that too. If SIG fails to show any gains, then conservatives would be right to declare these schools “beyond help.” I think it is in our best interest in terms of democracy for true educators to use the forthcoming results of SIG as a lightning rod to gain more funding, support, and quite frankly positive attention for the schools left behind.

      Honestly, I’m confused. Why would anyone seriously claim: “that it is possible to get transformational results with no more money”? That seems dumb and illogical to me- not to mention downright dishonest! At the same time, it’s not how much money a school district has, it is what the administration chooses to do with it that counts. Just like kids, you have your A/B students and then you have your Ds and Fs. My priority is to figure out what the A-students are doing that can assist and inform the F’s. THat’s the whole point. It’s different than business because in a competitive market, the A schools would withhold their success secrets from the others in order to remain on top…

      KIPP is at least noble in the sense that they share the lessons learned. What does Stuyvesant, for example, do that makes it deemed exemplary? More money, more parental involvement, more access, more selective admissions? I’m interested to hear what advice/strategies successful schools across America would share with struggling schools who serve at-risk populations.

      • Gary Rubinstein

        Hi Tony,
        Thanks for the thoughtful (as always) response. I hope you didn’t think I was challenging your sincerity and enthusiasm. Truly, I see you as a big future leader who will have the wisdom and integrity that many current alumni leaders lack.
        As ‘dumb’ as it sounds to say that schools don’t need more resources, this is constantly implied, even in Wendy’s latest book in the ‘silver bullets’ chapter. Politicians say “We tried throwing money at the problem and it didn’t work, so lets stop doing that.” basically.
        As far as KIPP goes, have they really shared the lessons learned? They have a huge attrition problem. And many KIPP schools are terrible, some on the verge of being shut down (unfairly, though) so how can they share their lessons with the country when they haven’t really been able to share the lessons within their small 100 school network?
        Stuyvesant has more selective admissions. That’s our ‘secret.’ I think our staff is excellent too, but I think less excellent staffs would get good test scores from our kids also.

        I admire what you’re doing because even though I think that there is a limit to what can be done at the school / district level, it is important that we work to approach that limit, whatever it is.


        • Much appreciated- I was just trying to make sure I wasn’t missing something! And I should probably read Wendy’s 2nd Book (http://www.motherjones.com/media/2011/02/teach-for-america-wendy-kopp). I read the first one but was turned off by the thought of the second one when I met her and she kept talking about New Orleans all day and didn’t give me a great answer when I asked about places like the Delta…

          Anyhow, I applaud your humility regarding Stuy. I’m sure there are excellent things your staff does there that might be able to be replicated elsewhere, but we’ll see.

          I read KIPP’s annual report and was surprised to see how many schools are failing and the worst thing that could happen is for politicians to say ” if charters failed then these kids are completely hopeless.” Fortunately, there are many examples of success from which we can learn. Ultimately, I hope that time will show that a big part of the solution relates to fair allocation of funding and resources and empowering educators. We already know this, but because of the world we live in, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time amassing data, evidence, etc. to prove a self-evident concept. Time is running out…

      • This article is a home run, pure and smpile!

        • No, you didn’t and neither did I. I was thguat who he was by Thomas Sowell. It was in one of his columns many years ago. There’s a small blurb on wikipedia but you’d think that if you wanted a hero to the black community, James Armistead would have his national day along side MLK. But since it doesn’t promote the America torn by racial hatred template, sadly many kids who could use a true American hero will never hear of him.

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