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 cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a CJR contributing editor.