Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: Hope Against Hope by Sarah Carr

A couple of months ago, I tweeted an inquiry to find out who was doing thoughtful, critical research on the transformations in education taking place in New Orleans.  After reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and getting a better picture of the grander aims some people have for New Orleans as a "great experiment," I wanted to gain insights into the lived experiences of parents and children going through it.

As usual, Twitter was incredibly helpful: multiple sources directed me to the work of Adrienne Dixson and Sarah Carr.  After reading some of their work, I immediately invited them to participate in Ed Talks Wisconsin, and the Educational Policy Studies conference that followed it.

I then began carving out time each evening to work my way through Sarah's new book Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children.  After two nights, I found myself genuinely looking forward to reading more, rushing through my evening activities to get back to the book. This is a rare experience for me; I found Carr's writing at least as engrossing as Rebecca Skloot's and Jason DeParle's, and think that's high praise.

There are many distinctive features of Hope Against Hope and some of them are clearly attributable to Carr's experiences as a Spencer Foundation-supported fellow and part of the Hechinger Institute collective. Her writing on school choice is well-informed by academic research on all sides and she clearly sampled her cases of schools, teachers, and families to provide substantial opportunity for both proponents and opponents of school choice--and those caught in the middle--to share their stories.  Carr is also comfortable with conflict and tension; the arc of her narratives lead us to no easy conclusions and much uncertainty about placing any normative judgements on what's "right" or "wrong" about school choice.

That attribute proved most helpful to me.  After reading the book and listening to Carr speak about it on a panel moderated by Gloria Ladson-Billings, and having a rich discussion with my colleague Michael Fultz, I found myself rethinking the way in which Progressives, myself included, talk about the choices made by African-Americans in contexts like New Orleans. In a nutshell, until reading Carr, my arguments gave Black families very little agency and White public school proponents too little responsibility.  Essentially, knowing the ways in which market-based regimes were capitalizing on the inequities in the public school system to promote alternative, distinctly non-public, non-democratic solutions, solutions that I strongly suspect will worsen the conditions of Black schooling over time, I wanted everyone to flat out reject them.  Engaging in school choice was tantamount to endorsing the work of the neoliberal project, and thus should be avoided.

What the book makes clear is that this is a bit much to expect, and is even inappropriate because it manages to romanticize a public school system that is undeserving of such treatment. While I reject the idea that the public schools are "broken" or "failing" I also reject the idea that they are achieving their mission at this point, especially for marginalized families and students.  I've come to think that it's not only idealistic and naive but also arrogant for me, a wealthy, well-educated White woman, to demand that anyone persist in that system while we work to improve it.  We can wish they would, we can beg and plead, we can explain the long-term consequences of moving outside it in the near term, but we denigrate the decisions of Black and Latino families to seek school choice right now at our peril.  Not only will we perpetuate the worst parts of the public system, but we will lose valuable allies and voters.

Hope Against Hope helped me understand the depth of the rut in which we're stuck.  The school choice options provided by schools like KIPP are clearly stratified, intended for some peoples' children and not others.  It seems highly unlikely that the leaders of KIPP schools will send their own kids to them.  That's not to put down the hard work of the KIPP teachers-- boy are they impressive, and how angry was I to read about how exploited and overworked they are!  Why are we burning out these people, instead of building their capacity for long-term good.  But no matter how good they are, the way they run schools, teaching conformity and obedience, will never be the way that middle and upper-class children are schooled. It's thus no more equitable an option than our current system, and with its undemocratic managerial practices, ultimately a worse one.

On the other hand, the public schools, while full of amazing hard-working teachers and staff who give their everything to kids, are hard-pressed to bring their best practices to scale.  Carr's portrait of a public school principal is heart-breaking.  The only way in which she fails is in her efforts to garner more financial support. That's obviously not a personal failure but one facilitated by the Progressives, who haven't engaged in systematic developments of strategy and narratives in any way akin to what the Right has achieved. As Mike Apple reminds us, we simply must begin doing this. It's already practically too late.

In her writing, Carr strikes me as incredibly balanced. I honestly wasn't sure where she stood politically on school choice until I heard her speak at Madison.  There, she made some beautiful statements about the grey spaces in the debate that will stay with me for a long time. Corporations are occupying spaces meant for teachers and parents in education conversations, but teachers and parents must not only join but find clear things to demand.  She noted that the narrative of "ceaseless unending change" is allowing charter schools to try whatever they see fit with Black children.  Where is "change" in the public school narrative?

These are important questions, and I urge you to pick up this book and engage.  You can also check out Carr with Barbara Miner and Gloria Ladson-Billings in Ed Talks here: