Read This: Former TFAers Trying to Make a Difference in the Delta

Is the wave of post-TFA community activism something to cheer or fear?

A recent article by Jackie Mader of Hechinger Report, featured on Next City, brings to the nation a discussion that many of us here in the Mississippi Delta have been having for a while. Former members of Teach For America, some of whom are Mississippi natives, are remaining (or returning) to the state’s poorest area to tackle some of our longest standing problems. TFA itself has a long, controversial history in Delta schools, but this article looks at an issue that has stirred very mixed feelings here. Former TFAers are becoming power movers of sorts in the area of educational reform in the state.

Here’s the comment I posted on the article after I read it:

I have taught my entire career (25 years) in the Delta, including in Shelby where I was working when I was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year (2001) and when I earned my National Board Certification. I don’t begrudge the young TFA corps members who want to work off their student loans by doing some good in places like the Delta–which has had chronic teacher shortages for over 25 years. In fact, the state of Mississippi has offered its home-grown teacher education grads that same opportunity along with funds for housing and other perks, if they would teach in the Delta for 2 years, sadly, with few takers. However, as the article rightly notes, few of the TFA complete their time or stay once it’s over, so the ones in this article are exceptions.

While the work that these young people are doing is admirable and necessary, it is deeply ironic that they are able to get funding and support that native Deltans who have tried to do the same things have been denied for decades. It is hurtful when they are portrayed by some as saviors come to the Delta, while those who have been doing this work unheralded, unsupported, or outright opposed for years are misrepresented as uncaring or incompetent.

Is the wave of post-TFA community activism something to cheer or fear?

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  • JustinMinkel

    Why is $ allocated the way it is?


    Your post prompted the re-emergence of a question that often troubles me: Why does relatively little money in education go directly to practitioners?

    I have spent enough time in the “Halls of Power” to be amazed at how much money goes, for example, to consultants, to textbook companies, to education think tanks.

    Yet for the teachers I know who want to take sound innovations to scale, the path often involves scrabbling for very small pots of money through mini-grants or funding some of the work out of pocket. I’ve been working to scale up a home library project for the past few years for kids living in poverty, and it kept hitting me how much money had gone to interventions like software and new curriculum, often of it with a dubious record of helping at-risk readers, and how hard it was to find funding for teachers to provide their students with books of interest on their level to take home and keep.

    I’m curious about your thoughts on the origin of this phenomenon I keep seeing, in which outsiders have this aura of impressive expertise, while practitioners (teachers, principals) in the actual community are often seen through a lens that looks more closely at deficits than assets. Is it just that Wizard of Oz phenomenon that outsiders can portray themselves however they want, since they don’t have to show “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of their actual record on impacting student achievement? Or something more nefarious and agenda-driven?

    • ReneeMoore

      The Drip at the End of the Funnel

      You’ve hit on one of my biggest concerns in education. I too have talked with many legislators and policymakers who point to the national or state total figures for education and lament “how much money we are spending on education, but we don’t seem to be making progress.” I’ll set aside for a moment the fact that we do not spend nearly as much money on education as we would like to believe, nor as much as we allot for other, less important things, but…

      Here in Mississippi, as in several other states, school districts are suing the state for years of deliberate financial neglect.The Legislature itself developed a formula to determine the specific minimum funding each district would need to meet its basic responsibilities under state law. Then for years, has underfunded districts, even when revenues were adequate. There is also currently a move to make basic adequate funding a requirement under the state constitution. So we start from this broad belief that it is okay to underfund education in general. Then consider the maze of bureaucracy and administrative detours that money which is appropriated must snake through; with some of it being siphoned off at each step. What goes out under Title I and what ends up actually being spent in classrooms on students should be the source of public outcry. After all of these factors, we’re left to scramble for and make do with the scraps.

      As a classroom teacher, I wrote and helped others write grants to all sorts of organizations, businesses, and agencies trying to make up for what we did not have. That of course is in addition to all the money most teachers spend out of our family budgets on classroom needs. But the burning question for me was always: Why do I have to raise the money to do what my tax dollars are supposed to already be covering? Why were my districts willing to pay outside consultants tens of thousands of dollars for advice and products that we couldn’t even use with our students, but balked at giving its own top teachers either the time or the money to fine-tune curriculum or share practices that actually did work?  One district actually hired as a consultant a person who had washed out as a teacher (quit before Halloween), and put her in authority over teachers in the very school she had walked out of only the year before!

      The old myth which has been flamed up again for political reasons: that most teachers already in the classroom are incompetent or at best outdated, otherise our results would be so much better. Never mind that we have been working in underresourced settings all along, or that some of us veterans have had year after year of demonstrably great results with real students in spite of the lack of support. Veteran teachers are not only more expensive from an administrative point of view, but we also tend to be more outspoken and protective of our students in the face of schizophrenic ed reform policies.

      MS has one of the highest percentages of NBCTs of any state; many are home-grown, veteran teachers, yet we have only sporadically drawn on that great resource pool for the greater good.Recent initiatives, including one involving CTQ and NEA, signal that may be changing, but slowly.

  • JustinMinkel

    The big picture AND the small picture

    Renee, one of the things I most appreciate about you is your grasp of the both the larger national context and the realities “on the ground.” This is such a lucid (though troubling) description of the state of education funding.

    I’m mystified by that tendency to assume that anyone within the system must be incompetent, anyone outside it must be brilliant and worth big money. It reminds me in a way of international development, in which outsiders come into developing countries to start projects of their own design, rather than funneling time, money, and resources into the projects developed by people who actually live in and understand that country.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Part II of my question, of course, which you partly addressed, is how we fix the problem.