Feb/Mar 2013

Getting Schooled

Liza Featherstone


Hope Against Hope takes place in a New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, but even more prominent in journalist Sarah Carr’s story is a highly unnatural disaster: American poverty. The daily lives of many New Orleans schoolchildren, before and after Katrina, amount to an ongoing state of emergency, one that can make the stable, orderly enterprise of learning close to impossible. Kids must get up at 5AM so mothers can get to low-wage jobs. Teens get shot, or watch their friends die.

Carr’s book takes an intimate look at the real people—students, principals, teachers—affected by “school reform,” a slippery term that in the storm-ravaged polity of New Orleans means privatization, a weakening of teachers’ unions and elected school boards, and an increasing dependence on testing data. The phrase also tends to convey a “no excuses” approach to the performance of teachers and schools: If students don’t perform and make measurable progress, teachers get fired and schools close.

Amid the neoliberal-minded recovery efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans, this brand of school reform has gained greater traction than it has in any other American city. Carr uses her reporting to complicate two prevailing—and, in her view, inadequate—narratives characterizing school reform. In the first, it is the brainchild of hedge-fund billionaires acting in their own self-interest, who will destroy public education if they get their way. In the second—which has won wide assent from the leaders of both major political parties—these so-called reforms are a much-needed defense against teachers’ unions, which are acting in their own self-interest and will destroy public education if they get their way.

Hope Against Hope transcends these abstract, top-down narratives and polemics in favor of a more nuanced, concrete picture focused on individuals seeking to make the reform regime work for the children in their schools. The book is a tremendous achievement, and should be required reading on all sides of these debates.

It’s an article of faith among reformers that students fail or succeed because of teachers and teachers alone. Carr brings us into schools where this dogma is believed—and enforced—devoutly. Granted, defenders of public education should be as disturbed as anyone else to learn that some 20 percent of the teachers in the pre-Katrina New Orleans system failed a basic math and writing test. And yet Carr shows how this all-about-teachers philosophy eats its own young. Aidan, a promising Teach for America recruit and Harvard graduate, works more than seventy hours a week. When his students don’t make enough progress, he’s always told to try even harder. He feels like a failure. Unlike many charter teachers, he doesn’t quit, but he does switch to a nonteaching position in the school. Aidan is, in Carr’s words, a “true believer” in the teacher-centric reform cause—in fact, he buys so deeply into this idea that the real-life ups and downs of the job become unbearable.

Another true believer is Brian Dassler, principal at KIPP Renaissance, a school struggling with issues of discipline and sluggish academic performance. Dassler hired and trained the school’s corps of teachers—yet he, too, is so steeped in the ideology of teacher-centric reform that he largely blames his staff for the school’s failures. At one point, Dassler chides a teacher who contends that she feels less than 50 percent responsible for the outbreak of a fight in her classroom. “You can’t work here and believe that,” he fumes. “You have to believe that everything that happens in your classroom you created, that it’s all yours.”

This individualist worldview structures the whole New Orleans school system—and this is where Carr’s determination to dispense with ideology and abstraction hampers her analysis. She says little explicitly about what it means to privatize one of America’s most venerated social goods—though surely the thoroughgoing privatization of many of its operations is the most striking feature of education in New Orleans. Presuming policy makers’ good intentions, Carr asks only, “What is working?” In doing so, she neglects the bigger question of whether school reform is even intended to work for everyone, and whether it possibly could. Once you marketize a system, schools and kids—and teachers—who can’t compete will suffer more, and (ironically enough) they will see little incentive to improve.

Though Carr might find such questions too polemical to spell out, her reporting illuminates them with dazzling, disturbing clarity. Schools serving the very poorest seem set up to fail, no matter how dedicated their staff and administrators may be. The O. Perry Walker High School is a charter run by the caring Mary Laurie, a veteran of the pre-Katrina system who keeps the school open late to keep the kids off the streets. We also see Laurie spending hours helping children apply to college and even, heartbreakingly, driving all over town looking for a place to hold a funeral for a student who has been murdered. A school like Walker cannot possibly do more—unless, that is, it comes into significantly improved material support. Walker accepts everyone, and doesn’t push students out for behavioral or academic failure, while the other schools Carr portrays do so routinely. With so many needy students, Walker can’t compete on test scores or attendance figures. As Laurie says, “The system doesn’t measure all the work we call education.” In a data-driven system, Walker must fight just to stay open.

And this is the logic of privatization. When no public official ultimately oversees our schools, the public interest has no defenders. The social purpose of public school—to educate everyone—disappears, even as an ideal. Carr leaves it to the polemicists to point out that any type of school reform that fails to invest in Mary Laurie’s students is just another way to sort people into winners and losers. It’s hardly innovative; the laissez-faire market system has been doing this for hundreds of years.

Liza Featherstone writes about education for Al Jazeera, Dissent, The Nation, and the Brooklyn Rail.

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