Something Not Quite Right in Tutwiler, Mississippi

Last night CBS News ran a heartwarming story about a doctor working in one of Mississippi's poorest  communities.  The poverty is overwhelming, with 70% of her patients unable to pay anything for her services.  She's worked there for 28 years, this community with the nation's highest obesity and infant mortality rates.  Yet well into her 70s, Sister Anne Brooks continues pouring her heart and soul into her work, doing what she can for those most down on their luck.

While watching the piece, I must admit I was struck by the contrast between medicine and education.  Here was this incredible woman, dedicating her life to helping those who need it most, foregoing an easier and more profitable practice in the suburbs somewhere.  Foregoing even the opportunity to relax in her senior years -- working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day instead of retiring to the beach.  Why?  Because no other doctor will come to that community; no other doctor will provide the care if she steps aside.  The CBS story presented her as a hero and she truly is one.

Being an educator, I had to look deeper into the community of Tutwiler, Mississippi.  There are about 1400 people in Tutwiler, mostly African-American women and children.  Tutwiler's households earn 60% of Mississippi's average and less than half of what the average American household earns.  Poverty and unemployment are pervasive.

Tutwiler's children attend the West Tallahatchie public schools about 5-10 miles away in the town of Webb.  In 2010, 9% of 3rd graders passed the Language Arts exam and only 4% passed the grade level math exam.  By 6th grade, 17% in Language Arts and 29% in Math were at grade level.  Those are not stellar numbers, but the growth is indeed remarkable.  Teachers in those schools raised student performance in Language Arts by 90% and raised math performance by 725% between 3rd and 6th grades.  Of course, most students still are not performing up to standards.  But the growth at Reardon Elementary is significant.  Kudos to some dedicated teachers in that school. 

The secondary school's test performance is similar, with 29% meeting standards in both subjects by 8th grade.  Graduation rates are low, but most seniors pass Mississippi's required subject area tests for graduation in Algebra I, English, Biology and US History.  And student feedback about their school is positive, with these two graduate comments found at

Posted November 24, 2008
...The teachers were very concerned about the students and their need to learn. They are very experienced and have a deep passion for education. I can remember every teacher and what they have contributed to my life today. I highly recommend this school if you are living in the area.

Posted November 12, 2006
...West Tallahatchie offer excellent academic programs that well prepare students who are getting ready to embark on their journey to college. As a graduate of West Tallahatchie High school I really appreciate all of the hard work, that my teachers gave me during my high school years... I am very proud to say that I graduated from such a wonderful school.

The teachers these students describe could find easier work in the suburbs too.  They could choose to teach kids who come to school with every advantage, students with well-educated parents and who expect to do well and go on to universities.  But they don't.  Sister Anne Brooks' reward is knowing her importance in the lives of those who need her most.  I hope these teachers feel some of the same.

But instead of a heart-warming CBS report on their contribution, their elementary school is now in "Improvement" under the federal No Child Left Behind law for failing to meet national standards -- 67% of students have to meet standards (i.e. pass the tests).  The school is threatened.  If it doesn't meet standards, it could be closed down and reopened as a charter school.

Fortunately for Sister Anne Brooks, the fact that her community remains unhealthy -- with obesity and infant mortality rates well beyond acceptable -- does not label her as a "failing doctor".  She's a hero and rightly so.  Those teachers?  That school?  They're failing.  Not heroes, they're subject to all the public shaming and unproductive pressures to raise test scores that so many schools today are plagued with.

Why do we have a "failing school system" but not a "failing medical system"?  Is this our best idea for attracting talented young people to teach in our neediest communities?  Today we learned that teacher morale nationwide is at an all-time low.  Well, of course it is.  Surely that's no surprise when the most self-sacrificing of our educators are the first to be beaten down and publicly humiliated.

See also:  Boring!