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Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children Hardcover – February 26, 2013
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I am very happy to say that "Hope Against Hope" reverses the prevailing dynamic and focuses on the personal narratives and perceptions of those who must engage with school reform on a day-to-day basis. The trifurcated focus on three different actors within the New Orleans school system (a principal with deep roots in the local community, a Harvard TFA alum who now teaches in a new charter school, and a family with experience in both the older public new system and the new charter regime) can hardly be describes as "innovative" yet provides a desperately needed counterweight to the abstract and politically charged accounts of educational elites.
Carr's emphasis on the thoughts and actions of her primary characters (bolstered by a host of supporting players) allows her to pull off a subtle but important trick; she is able to humanize her characters to the point where the reader can absorb Carr's criticisms of prevailing attitudes while still appreciating the good intentions of different interest groups. This is not an accident; Carr opens her book with a declared intention to frame the conflict over education reform as one born of personal experiences rather than partisan politics. Her criticisms of American education, which acknowledge the failures of past educational regimes but are more concretely directed at the current "magic bullet" ideology of charter schools, carry more weight than other criticisms because they are carefully framed by events at New Orleans schools and the perceptions of the people served by them. It's a welcome change of pace from the more sweeping and dramatic rhetoric employed elsewhere.
But perhaps the greatest revelation in this book is Geraldlynn, the young girl who we first encounter as a freshman at a new KIPP high school. At one point Carr refers to Geraldlynn as a "Greek chorus of one" for the events at her school. And indeed, Geraldlynn proves to be remarkably attuned to the promise and problems associated with her school. The experiences of Geraldlynn's family provide some desperately needed insight into the aspirations and burdens of the populations school reform is supposed to benefit. Geraldlynn herself is neither a dramatic charter student success story nor an obvious failure, which together with her observational skills lends her commentary a unique form of credibility. Of all the education writers I've encountered, only Jonathan Kozol has given ordinary students such a large platform to express their thoughts and feelings - yet Carr provides a more thorough treatment of Geraldlynn's evolving perceptions and places then within the context of broader changes within New Orleans and across the country.
This book is a laudable effort to fill a massive narrative gap in our national discussion about the future of education. While I don't completely buy into Carr's assertion that New Orleans is truly representative of other places throughout the country, the same times of problems, motivations, and forces are certainly at work in other districts. Some aspects of school reform (such as the campaign against teacher unions) cannot be covered effectively in a book like this, but Carr has written an excellent and engaging book that works equally well as a supplement to more abstract and politicized narratives or as a thoughtful introduction for the general reader.
Ms. Carr looks at a principal, a teacher and a family but in so doing, gives us real insight into three very different schools as well as a glimpse into the operation of others. While all are located in New Orleans, a city that has undergone immense challenges, they could almost as easily have been located in any major urban area. There are no easy answers presented, no obvious conclusions. To me, that was a welcome positive; I grow weary of outsiders to the profession who provide absolute answers before even undertanding the questions.
I came away from this book with renewed enthusiasm for the education profession and many who serve in it. I admire particularly the principal and hope that there remains a place for her style of leadership in the schools of tomorrow. The family followed by Ms. Carr certainly challenges the stereotype of urban single parent households and suggests there is indeed hope where some think otherwise. The teacher was also interesting and admirable; my reservation in his respect stems from the obvious fact that he is so different from the average beginnign teacher.
There is a real need for study of data, for analysis of all of the factors involved in the schools of today and tomorrow and for careful experimenting with methodology. But we should not forget that schools have "soul." In comparing and contrasting approaches and alternatives, Ms. Carr has not lost track of that essential fact.
Discussion of education in an urban setting by necessity must involve a discussion of race and socio-economic status. This book guides the reader to a deeper understanding of these issues through story-telling. For example, consider the recipient of a full tuition scholarship who can't afford to pay the initial deposit or to buy the textbooks. It's great that a scholarship exists that is targeted to racially-diverse, needy students ... but it ends up not helping because it doesn't cover enough. This book is full of such examples of where intentions fall short and children pay the price.