The Friedman-ism that “every crisis is an opportunity” has, in the eyes of many, found dramatic and fitting vindication in the city of New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the teachers union was washed away, while the city’s traditional public schools were almost entirely supplanted by a host of new charters, many of them answerable to a new state-level governing body. The value of these changes has been frequently quantified by test scores, college-attendance rates, and similar informative (yet reductive) data. Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope offers a rare view from the ground—one that humanizes education reform in the Bayou City. She profiles a trio of figures (a novice teacher, a veteran principal, and a high school student) as well as a handful of charter schools. The conflicts at the core of Carr’s book—between different measurements of and causes for student success (or failure) and between guarding community culture and finding pathways to the middle class—transcend the Big Easy. But do not look for conflict resolution here. Carr’s intent, instead, is to articulate vividly what’s at stake. Her vignettes, particularly her story of a popular and promising teen’s fateful night out (and subsequent incarceration), show how out-of-school factors can easily destroy students’ futures—simultaneously reminding readers that school quality is not the whole story and that intensive efforts to transform student culture (think the “no excuses” charter networks) may be exactly what’s needed. Carr’s portrait of New Orleans parents also complicates the debate: The moms and dads in Hope Against Hope are often suspicious of the new, disproportionately white, wave of reformers and educators, yet are pragmatic about the value of their schools—including the worth of the rigid structure of some NOLA charters. Readers willing to rethink their assumptions—and to have some preconceptions challenged—could do a lot worse than to sit down with this book.
SOURCE: Sarah Carr, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).