Hard lessons

Finding hope in the effort to reform America's public schools

The desperate condition of many of America’s urban schools is captured by an anecdote Ron Berler relates near the end of Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools. In the story, a novice teacher tours a “forbidding” inner-city school in Bridgeport, CT, with its principal. “Listen to me carefully,” the principal says. “I’m offering you a job. I’m advising you not to take it.”

The school, and district, on which Berler concentrates his reporting—Brookside Elementary, in Norwalk, CT—is distinctly less dreadful than Bridgeport. But the challenges faced by this Hispanic-majority institution—squeezed between federal and state mandates on the one hand and fierce local budget-cutting on the other—are almost as great. Here a well-meaning principal and his dedicated staff wage daily, unsung battles to keep students disadvantaged by poverty, ethnicity, and family dysfunction from falling ineradicably behind their more fortunate peers.

Similar issues confront the characters in Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children. Carr, a veteran education reporter, bases herself in post-Katrina New Orleans, where almost every taxpayer-funded school is now a privately run charter. By both default and design, the ravaged city has become a cauldron of educational experimentation—one plagued by a uniquely traumatized student population and grave financial shortfalls.

Carr spotlights three high schools, represented by a popular African-American principal with a tragic personal story, a Harvard-educated rookie teacher recruited by Teach For America, and an African-American student who wants a better education than she’s getting. Carr pulls back intermittently from these narratives to comment on the larger issues roiling the city’s schools, and public education in general. At stake, she writes, is “how the push for racial equality should proceed, at a time when the end goal remains as elusive as ever.”

Carr’s ambitious model is the Pulitzer-winning Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985), in which author J. Anthony Lukas used contrasting families—Yankee, Irish, and black—as a lens through which to examine Boston’s desegregation and busing crisis. Unlike Carr, Berler sticks largely to a single fifth-grade class. His focus is suggestive of Tracy Kidder’s 1989 classic Among Schoolchildren, which followed a racially mixed fifth-grade classroom in Holyoke, MA, for an academic year.

There are tradeoffs in these two approaches: Carr gives us a somewhat broader view of reform alternatives; Berler offers a more sustained look at his characters. If neither book quite equals its illustrious model, both are nonetheless meticulously reported, competently written, and (using mostly real names) sometimes surprisingly intimate. Writing sympathetically about the players and critically about the settings in which they operate, the authors provide provocative snapshots of the current moment in American education.

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Berler initially entered Brookside as a volunteer in the school’s student-mentoring program. He raised his hand at the suggestion of his wife, Carol, Brookside’s speech pathologist since 2001. Even while researching the book, Berler didn’t just sit silently in the classroom, a great big fly on the wall. Instead, he tells us in the acknowledgements, he agreed to “serve as an unpaid teacher’s aide. . .in return for the daily unfettered access I would need to research this book”—hardly a conventional journalistic arrangement.

But what Berler offers us, in lieu of coolheaded, clear-eyed journalistic remove, may in this case be better: an intimacy enabled by his subjects’ trust. He is notably frank in his portraits of two friends, Hydea and Marbella, in the estimable Mr. Morey’s fifth-grade class. Both girls, from middle-class families, struggle in different ways. Hydea lacks self-confidence but wants to improve. Marbella, by contrast, is socially adept but a lackadaisical student, seemingly unworried by her lack of progress. “She just went through the motions,” Mrs. Schaefer, Brookside’s literacy specialist, says of Marbella. “Even when she seemed to get it, it seemed like it didn’t really matter to her.”

Yet both Marbella and Hydea are paragons compared to some of the boys in the class. (Berler admits to changing the names of four students and one teacher, though we’re never told which.) Fernando, Chandler, Carlos—all are, to varying degrees, troublemakers. Berler follows Mr. Morey as he strategizes about turning the charismatic Chandler into a force for good. “You’ve got to step up,” he tells the boy, and eventually Chandler does—suggesting that the right nudge at the right time can indeed be transformative.

What constant testing contributes to educational transformation is less clear. The frame of Raising the Curve is Brookside’s preparation for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), described as “the annual, state-mandated standardized test on reading, writing, and math skills for all third, fourth, and fifth graders that served as Connecticut’s exam for No Child Left Behind (NCLB).”

For schools, the consequences of poor performance on this test can be dire, from lost federal funds to mass firings and state takeover. The really diabolical feature of No Child Left Behind, in Berler’s telling, is that it is meant to be taken literally: Even as schools gradually improve, the targets they must reach—the percentage of students attaining “proficiency” in each subject—grow ever higher, topping out at an impossible 100 percent. Is it any wonder that Brookside should abandon the normal curriculum for weeks before the CMT in favor of nonstop test prep?

Most of Brookside’s teachers work hard against tough odds; Mr. Morey starts the year comparing his class to “an out-of-shape hoops team that hadn’t practiced in months.” But the task embraced by Mrs. Schaefer seems particularly Sisyphean. Pulling a few children out of class for small-group reading instruction, she gets results. But when, in quest of greater efficiency, she shifts her focus to teacher training, she has to stop most individual instruction, and her former students falter and regress. After Mrs. Schaefer retires, Brookside loses funding for a full-time literacy instructor, and comes perilously close to losing its library as well. The battles continue; the war, it seems, cannot be won.

* * *

Carr begins Hope against Hope at a community meeting dominated by two groups with clashing visions for New Orleans’ majority-black district: technocratic reformers who want experts to run the schools and civil-rights activists who care more about tradition and community control. The technocrats are more accepting of the capitalistic status quo, and their vision “prioritizes collaboration with whites, and finding solutions that are acceptable to both races.” By contrast, the activists, wanting blacks to set their own agenda, prioritize “political over economic capital.”

These disputes play out in the rest of the book, but, Carr says, in less polarized ways. “In the schools,” she writes, “the war over education no longer seems so stark or clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.”

Aidan Kelly, a young, idealistic Harvard grad recruited by Teach For America, teaches at Sci Academy, a data-obsessed, “aggressively routinized,” open-enrollment school that touts its relatively high test scores. Fourteen-year-old Geraldlynn Stewart attends KIPP Renaissance High School, a place she associates with “preppy uniforms, crazy rules, and nights and weekends full of schoolwork.” Both charter schools emphasize long hours, regimentation, and college prep. But at both, the gap between the ideal and the actual is yawning, and classroom discipline seems forever to be breaking down.

By contrast, the grandmotherly Mary Laurie runs a different sort of charter. As principal of O. Perry Walker High School, Laurie pursues a more holistic, community-based approach. Thanks in large part to her efforts, the school has a health clinic, counselors and social workers, and numerous afterschool programs. (The school’s marching band has appeared on the HBO series Treme.) But even Laurie’s deep commitment, which Carr seems to admire more than the rule-bound charters, can’t heal the wounds left by shattered homes and families—can’t even prevent violence, it turns out, or keep students safe.

Overall, Carr, like Berler, paints a discouraging picture, often with considerable eloquence. In New Orleans high schools (as at Brookside), the relentless prepping for standardized exams—in this case, the ACT and various AP tests—distorts the curriculum. And the increasing federal stake in education, including President Obama’s “Race to the Top” pro-charter school reforms, is hardly a panacea. New Orleans, like other cities with too many poor people, is a place where even teachers who want to teach and students who want to learn can’t necessarily overcome the chaos, deprivation, and despair.

And yet, even now, there are victories; there is, as Carr’s title avers, hope—in individuals if not in the faltering system.

Disdaining the lure of higher paying professions, Aidan Kelly works 80 or more hours a week, answering students’ homework questions by phone well into the evenings.

“Don’t be like me. Be a little better,” Raquel, who cleans hotel rooms, tells her daughter Geraldlynn, who aspires to college and will probably make it.

And the inspiring Mary Laurie surely will keep fighting for her kids—until the last beleaguered administrator turns off the last light.

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Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.