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.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a CJR contributing editor.