By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
About this Series
THE DAILY JOURNAL continues its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the third installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi.
Today’s stories explore two programs trying to bring top graduates from universities across the country into Mississippi classrooms and at another initiative that allows people from other professions to become teachers. The next three days will look at teacher evaluations, critical needs schools, high-performing educators and retention, among other topics.
To view the entire series, visit http://educationmatters.djournal.com/state-of-our-schools/ .
Today’s main story …
Elizabeth Towle’s passion to be an educator has roots in her past.
The eighth-grade reading teacher at Byhalia Middle School admits her local public schools in rural New Hampshire “were not of the highest quality,” but thanks to great teachers and supportive parents, she was able to be admitted to and later graduate from Harvard University.
Her experiences there led her to eventually join the Mississippi Teacher Corps program, which sent her to be a classroom leader in the rural Marshall County town.
“(Teaching) was something I thought I could be good at, and it was something I thought I needed to do,” she said. “Coming from the background I came from, I knew teaching was important, and I wanted to try.”
A former Fulbright Scholar, Towle, 25, is now in her second year as a teacher. She discovered the Mississippi Teacher Corps program from a friend at Harvard who received an e-mail about it and sent it to Towle.
“As a first-year teacher, she did what is almost never done, which is go into a critical needs school and not only control that classroom, but get almost 100 percent engagement or buy-in from the kids,” said Byhalia Principal Landon Pollard.
Towle is among hundreds of top-performing college graduates from universities across the country who have been attracted to become teachers in Mississippi by either MTC or the Teach For America program.
“Teacher Corps and Teach For America are enormously important to our state,” said Hank Bounds, former state superintendent of education and now head of Mississippi’s university system. “Without them, we do have a teacher shortage, and we don’t talk about that enough.”
As Mississippi tries to attract more of its best and brightest young citizens to become educators, those two programs can provide an important case study.
Both are highly selective, a process that makes acceptance into them more impressive and prestigious. They each require participants to make a two-year commitment to being classroom teachers.
PROMOTING THE IMPACT
Andy Mullins, who co-directs the Mississippi Teacher Corps program, said it appeals to recruits by selling them on the difference they can make.
“We play on their idealism,” said Mullins, who also works as the chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Mississippi, where the MTC program is housed. “We attract many because of that idealism. They want to make a difference in the world and they want to have a meaningful work experience.”
Ron Nurnberg, the executive director for TFA’s Mississippi Delta Region, had a similar message, noting the organization appeals to applicants with its mission that every child deserves access to an excellent education and that too many children in low-income communities do not have that.
“It is obviously a profession, but it is an even larger mindset,” Nurnberg said. “They see it as civil rights. They just think it is an injustice that all kids aren’t getting what they got. So they are actively working by trying to give other people an education, that equity.”
The vision and selectivity are important parts of the recruitment, said Billy Crews, vice president, strategic partnerships for TFA’s Mississippi Delta Region.
“It strikes me that the highly competitive recruitment process and the prestige associated with that has helped Teach For America attract this very competitive pool of achievers and folks who are willing to take on the challenge and persevere where others have not been successful,” Crews said. “So there is something in the formula that is attracting folks in our recruitment process that is not occurring in the traditional school of education.”
That same mindset can be used to market the field of education beyond the TFA and MTC programs, Nurnberg said.
“The future of democracy depends on having an educated populous,” he said. “The part they are paying forward on is that promise, something much bigger than themselves, much bigger than their students.”
Richard Blackbourn, dean of Mississippi State University’s College of Education, agreed the opportunity to make an impact is an appeal to today’s students.
“One of the things about this current generation of students is they seem to have a stronger sense of duty in the area of service and public service,” he said.
Towle, however, said the issue is more complex. A desire to serve does draw students to both programs, she said. But that alone is not enough to meet long-term needs for teachers.
“They are not attracting prestigious college graduates to teaching, they are attracting them to these programs and to this community service that most people parlay into something else,” she said. “We need to get people who want to be teachers and who want to stay in teaching for more than five years, who want to be administrators or superintendents and not jump over to consulting and policy work.”
Critics argue that the two-year commitment makes it easier for both programs to recruit individuals looking to serve or to bolster a résumé but not ready to commit to a demanding career as a teacher. Students entering schools of education are making a much larger commitment, they say.
Although a 2008 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that nationwide, more than 43 percent of Teach For America teachers stay at their schools for more than two years, the same study found that only about 15 percent stayed at the same school for more than four years.
“It is not like once they do this, they are in it for a career, so it is an easier choice for them,” Blackbourn said.
The programs also are criticized for creating high teacher turnover and low stability in schools. Blackbourn noted that when he was a principal, his most successful years were the ones in which he had the least turnover in faculty. However, he said, Teach For America and MTC provide an important service to the state by sending teachers into critical-needs schools.
“They are filling a need,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”
Others say that even if the teachers are only in those schools for two years, the schools and students benefit.
“As a principal my focus was always getting the best and brightest for that year,” Bounds said.
Recently, Mississippi Teacher Corps has averaged 30 participants a year, but it increased to 35 this year. About 35 to 40 percent of them generally remain at their school for a third year, Mullins said
About two-thirds of the TFA’s 33,000 nationwide alumni through its 23 year history are still working in the field of education, Nurnberg said. That number includes not only classroom teachers, but those in other positions within the field, including support roles for TFA.
Only 10 percent of students entering TFA say they plan to remain in education, Nurnberg said. The organization also tries to expose future leaders in other sectors to the needs of public education, he said.
Pollard, also an alum of Mississippi Teacher Corps, said many of his best teachers at Byhalia Middle come from both programs, which he said bring some of the most intelligent, creative and dedicated teachers into classrooms. However, he said, managing the high turnover rate is also very difficult.
Both programs place members in high-needs school districts, filling a hole by staffing the schools that have the greatest difficulty in attracting educators. That also presents a special challenge to participants.
“We were not the greatest teachers in the world and not what the kids deserve, but what they have,” Towle said. “The kids deserve 20-year veterans who know how to teach, but they get kids just out of college.
“We teach at the hardest schools to teach in in Mississippi and some of the hardest to teach in in the country. It is not the easiest place to learn how to teach. And our kids deserve the best of the best. But we do our best for them.”
Cortez Moss, a first-year teacher at Greenwood High School, is a member of the Teach For America program. The University of Mississippi graduate and Calhoun City native said he quickly had to alter his plans for teaching the class.
“When I gave my first test, I went home that night and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m cut out for this,” he said. “I don’t know if I can grow these children. I had a dream we would all do different texts, but I had to first get them on basic skills.”
He persevered and has seen his students make significant gains throughout the year. He was even named Greenwood High School’s Teacher of the Year in his first year as an educator.
“That moment when students actually get it is one of the most rewarding moments,” he said.
Mississippi Teacher Corps was created in 1989 after a conversation between Amy Gutman, then a Harvard journalism student interning at the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper, and Mullins, who was then working in the Mississippi Department of Education. Discussing the struggle in placing high-quality teachers in the Mississippi Delta, Gutman suggested some sort of Peace Corps-type program.
Today, participants teach one of the four core subjects in seventh- to 12th-grade. They also attend classes at the University of Mississippi during the summer and on weekends and receive a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at the completion of their two years. Their preparation to teach also includes running a summer school program in Holly Springs.
Through its history, it has attracted more than 500 teachers from 130 different universities.
“They bring energy, creativity, enthusiasm,” Mullins said. “They bring a fresh spirit to some of the school districts.”
MTC is trying to find ways to keep even more of its teachers in Mississippi, Mullins said, even exploring whether the opportunity to earn a specialist or doctoral degree would sway participants to commit longer.
“These good teachers, once they have demonstrated that they are very capable and competent teachers, in order to keep them in the teaching profession beyond two years, you have to pay them more money,” he said.
Teach for America, meanwhile, is a national program that began with an idea proposed by Wendy Kopp in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis in 1989. It came to Mississippi in 1993 and has an office in Oxford to oversee the Delta Region, which currently includes both Mississippi and Arkansas. Next year, those will become two separate regions.
The organization expects to have about 360 first- and second-year teachers in Mississippi next year and an alumni base in the state of about 130 to 150 educators.
The Delta Region with the two states combined is the second largest TFA region in the country, behind New York City. Even after the two states split, Mississippi will still be among the organization’s largest regions, Crews said.
After an extensive application process that includes a 500-word essay, completion of a two-part online activity and multiple interviews, those accepted into the program are prepared to enter the classroom with an intensive summer training institute. They’re also given volumes of material to read and receive support from an extensive network of TFA alumni.
“Teach for America in itself is not a silver bullet,” Nurnberg said. “It is a part of a greater solution.”