Book Report: Hope Against Hope

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took over the City of New Orleans’ school district. Completely behind closed doors and without the input of the public, elected officials fired all of the unionized teachers and divided up the schools into two districts. One district would remain under city control, but would be operated entirely by independent Charter Management Organizations. The remaining schools comprised the Recovery School District, which would be controlled by the state. In the 10 years since the charter takeover, New Orleans has been hailed as a success by some and a catastrophe by others. But, as Sarah Carr shows in her book Hope Against Hope, there is much more to the story than can be captured in a simple diagnosis.

I have worked at a charter school for a few years, and I continuously feel confused about whether the work of my organization signals a win or a loss for public education. In the most immediate sense of my work, I’m coming in to a school every day and teaching a set of children–watching them learn, meeting specific goals, celebrating their achievements–how could this be bad? But, if you work at a charter school for a few years, you realize there is much more to the story than the children in your classroom.

Since the first staff orientation at my school, leaders have been telling us that we are “warriors” in a fight to change public education. I was told that the school system is failing, and teachers unions and a bloated bureaucracy are to blame. Our daily work impacts more than our students, our schools and our communities, because we are demonstrating a new school model, and our example will be used in the fight to expand this model. My work will be a small, but essential part of transforming America’s schools.

I care about the children in my school and love teaching them–but I didn’t sign up to change the public school system. I appreciate many of the benefits of the way my school is run, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s a panacea for public education, or that I want to be involved in propagating its expansion. I struggled to figure out where I stood in this “war.” Most distressing was that I didn’t know where to go get a better sense of these issues. As I started reading up on things, I came across two dominant definitions of the conflict, neither of which I could accept. In her book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, Sarah Carr captures my confusion perfectly:

“According to one narrative, wealthy hedge fund millionaires and foundation leaders had hijacked the schools in pursuit of their own interests and would stop at nothing short of destroying public education as we know it.”

You’ll hear this from many advocates of public education, most popularly Diane Ravitch. My school is funded by hedge-fund millionaires and foundation leaders. If you accept this narrative, I am a cog in a vicious machine. And then there’s the other story:

“According to the opposing narrative, teacher’s unions had hijacked the schools in pursuit of their own interests and would stop at nothing short of destroying public education as we know it.”

That’s the story that has been told to me by my school leaders for years. It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong this depiction is and how much more must be considered when we think about schools.

While conducting the research for her book on the schools of New Orleans, neither of these narratives held true for Sarah Carr. She concludes that “top down accounts of school change too often fail to capture the complex realities of children and educators.” And where does that leave us? What do we do if we want to better understand America’s education issues for all of their complexity? We need to start from carefully learning from the action on the ground. As Carr observed in her research, and as you will see in her book, simple definitions of the problems “shatter under the weight of true narratives.” She concludes that “Americans must take a more bottom-up approach to understanding education policy and assessing its impact.” She begins this project for us with the stories she tells in her detailed and carefully considered book.

Carr anchors her book by following three people over the course the 2010-2011 academic year: a student, a teacher and principal. Fourteen-year-old Geraldlynn goes through her first year of high school at the brand new Kipp Renaissance Academy. Aidan Kelly has just completed his 2-year TFA commitment, which kept him teaching GED classes at a particularly difficult remedial school. He is excited to start his third year at Science Academy, a charter school that has boasted high test scores for the past few years and, whose view of the work of education matches his own. Mary Laurie, has been appointed to lead O. Perry Walker High School, and her story provides the basis for the author’s investigation into how a more traditional school model is faring in the New Orleans of the charter takeover.

From her years of research, Carr concludes that the new charter model in New Orleans must change how it interacts with its community. As the city’s schools are replaced by charters, they must learn how to recognize the various needs of their communities, and learn about what makes the denizens unique. Charter schools like Science Academy and KIPP Renaissance impose a school culture narrowly focused on data, and are almost completely unaware of the home lives of their students. The schools are staffed by outsiders–majority young, white, and raised in the suburbs–who are instructed to concern themselves exclusively with students “college readiness,” and to actively ignore factors that are beyond their control.

The Problem with the Hedgehog

Carr examines one principle in particular that shapes the charter schools’ organizational philosophy: the Hedgehog Concept. The concept comes from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, an immensely popular book for improving small businesses that has been widely read amongst charter school leaders. The principal of Akili Academy, Sean Gallagher, requires all novice teachers to read this book cover to cover. The idea is that businesses should strive to “do one thing and do it well” rather than take on a number of different pursuits at once (a hedgehog wins a fight by doing one thing: rolling up into a ball). A corporation’s assessment of a given scenario, however complex the scenario may be, should be viewed exclusively through the lens of their singular goal. For Akili Academy, this goal is academic achievement. Charters, like Akili and Renaissance, “simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.” Following this advice, “it doesn’t matter how complex the world,” because an effective organization,

reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple–indeed almost simplistic–hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

Charter schools attempt to simplify the world of impoverished New Orleans, taking a myopic focus on academic achievement, and the willfully disregard anything that doesn’t immediately translate into academic achievement. But, holding this simplification as crucial to their effectiveness as an organization, they fail to see how it creates risks.

These school use specifically standardized test data and college-acceptance rates as the language of their myopic focus. Principal Sean Gallagher of Akili Academy, an elementary charter school, explicitly reminds new teachers of their “single-minded focus on academic achievement.” His school, he says, will never be like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which became famous for championing wrap-around services for their students and providing parenting classes for their student’s families. “If the school tried to do too much,” he believes, “it risked failure on its core mission.” As one teacher puts it, “Teaching is a series of things you do in response to the data you get.”

Focusing on college matriculation isn’t bad in and of itself. But the schools “have such an overtly academic focus, they tend to deprioritize any issue they perceive as extraneous to their mission of sending all their students to and through college.” All aspects of a child’s development are thus understood only in their relevance to college acceptance; behavior is good or bad only insofar as it denotes “college-readiness” or not. Undesired behavior is remonstrated for being “unprofessional” or unbecoming of a “scholar” or college-bound student. In one scene, a group of restless kindergarteners receives a lecture from their teacher, “I know all of you want to go to the first grade because all of you want to go to college. But you need to show discipline over your bodies to do that.” These charters use the goal of college acceptance to impose an ethical code, where behavior either leads to college acceptance or does not. A traditional approach would involve investing in social workers and school counselors, which we see in one charter that Carr profiles. But in the hedgehog model of business, an approach to psychological development that reaches beyond the narrow goal of the college-matriculation is unfortunately seen as an additional cost.

No Excuses Policies in Action

Consistent with charter schools’ myopia, the way that the schools handle student behavior is also simplified. Schools like Akili, Renaissance and Science Academy implement “no-excuses” policies in order to maintain order. There is no official definition or list of characteristics that make up a no-excuses policy. As it has been explained to me in my training as a teacher at a charter school, no-excuses implies a sense of absolute responsibility on the part of the student. Each individual is the sole agent of their decisions, and examining their behavior in the broader context of, say, poverty or mental health would merely be providing excuses. If we are allowing excuses, we risk perpetuating the “soft-bigotry of low expectations” that school reformers cast on the public schools. While it is unclear whether or not this is the true origin of the name, it certainly captures the stance of the practitioners. It may be better to examine the methods of these no-excuses schools to get a sense of their ethos.

In effect, there are rules for almost every possible action a student could take at a no-excuses school. Uniform policies are extensive and strictly enforced. Students are taught to walk along tape in the hallways, silently in straight, single file lines, and they are not allowed to lean on the wall or take their hands out of their pockets. In class, students must always “track” the speaker, their hands must remain folded if they are not writing, and their feet must stay on the floor with the backs straight against their chairs. All students are taught specific methods of reacting to class discourse–hand signals, nodding or quiet snaps–and participation in this is required. Regulations are reified by operant conditioning techniques that reward the good behavior and punish the bad, and tracking systems of the number of “demerits” a student receives in a day. For example, a student may receive a demerit for looking away from their teacher during a lesson, or taking her hands out of her pockets in the hallway.

This may seem like a more complicated system in an institution that is supposed to prefer simplification. But, while behavior management policies like this are complex, they simplify the problems of human behavior in a way that is compatible with how these schools view their mission. These methods are based on the premise that the behavior of the student body can be wholly determined through explicit directions from an authority figure. Consistent rewards and punishments will encourage and discourage certain behavior, and thus the student body is predictable and manageable. They believe that following these policies will result in changing students’ behaviors entirely, a process sometimes referred to as “calibration” or “acculturation.” Working within this logic, they excise the need for social workers or school psychologists. They curb unpredictable and messy concerns around the qualities of the communities that the children inhabit–such as a lack of quality health care or social services. They attempt to simplify the challenges that come with establishing a school by using a schema that completely ignores the world beyond the school walls, except insofar as this schema accepts that the children must learn compliance to authority.

It is worth noting that, in many cases, the parents of the children in these communities are in favor of the strictness of the schools. When the principal of KIPP Renaissance meets with parents to discuss methods of behavior management, a number of parents call out encouragingly, with exhortations, like  “Let them know you ain’t playin’!” and “That’s right, zero tolerance, baby!” Strictness clearly has its merits, especially when attempting to organize groups of adolescents, and even more so when many of these adolescents live in a community where chaos is not uncommon. But the problem with no excuses policies is that they do not properly prepare the schools for dealing with the specific effects of the city beyond the school, and thus do not effectively affect the children while they are in school.

What Carr Learns from One Student

The disconnect between No-Excuses policies and the lives of students is captured best in Carr’s profile of a student named Brice. Brice is actually drawn to KIPP Renaissance because of its rigid behavior policies. At fourteen, he has already begun to feel the pull of his neighborhood’s crime scene, and seeks out KIPP Renaissance as an institution to set him on a straight and narrow path. Brice had already been expelled from one middle school and was often in trouble at the next one. He says of himself, “I know I’m bad. You got to be really big and really on top of your game to make me do what you want.” The depiction of KIPP’s strictness made Brice think that KIPP could provide the environment that could put him in line and forge the changes he desperately needed.

However, Renaissance fails to establish a culture of order. Only a month into school, fights break out often, teachers are cursed out, and students completely ignore rules regarding homework. Demerit systems, which teachers maintain fastidiously and record on their ipads, do nothing to impact the students’ behavior. Over the course of the year, the staff attempts to tweak systems, sometimes reverting to writing the names of miscreant students publicly on whiteboards in the front of the class, but even more desperate attempts fail to influence how students act.  Geraldlynn captures a dismal scene in this brief explanation of a teacher whom she likes, but who fails to maintain the strict rules she has been instructed to implement:

“If you actually go in her classroom to talk to her, she is really sweet.  But during class she makes us be silent all the time. And when we keep talking the only thing she know to do is say, ‘I’m not playing.’ We keep talking and the next thing we know she is in tears. We are like, ‘Oh my God. Soft. Weak.’”

With the failure of these “no-excuses practices,” soon enough, the administration uses even less honorable tactics to get the school under control. The administration begins to implement suspensions, expulsions and subtler methods of pushing out students they deem disruptive.

One of the students they decide to suspend is Brice. The accusations of his suspension are suspiciously thin. According to the administration, he provoked a student into fighting another classmate, but it’s unclear if a fight ever occurred. It’s likely that the suspension is actually the result of a long string of offenses, like defying teachers’ instructions or cursing them out.. But this alone doesn’t explain the intensity of his suspension, which lasts 45 days. As Carr explains it, Brice has become something of a big personality on campus, someone who, by one teacher’s account, “could turn a class” for better or for worse. Carr describes Brice often working with teachers in ways that help them. He checks a group of students who creully harrass a classmate, referring to a lecture on conscience that a KIPP teacher gave (in which he used a Native American myth to demonstrate psychomachia).  In one scene Brice helps out a classmate who embarrasses himself at a school dance, kindly encouraging the boy back into the social atmosphere. In another scene, a frustrated teacher can’t quiet his classroom, and calls out Brice specifically, telling the boy to think how he would feel if he were in the teacher’s position. Brice asks the teacher to speak with him in the hallway, and then informs the teacher that the class is worked up because there has just been a fight. The teacher reflects on the exchange later with Carr, saying, “He was trying to help me. If you win with Brice you’ve done so much. He’s either going to be a loud protester or a vocal defender of the status quo.”

What would a school that could change an adolescent like Brice for the better look like? How could we run a school that tapped into his strengths and curbed his negative behavior? Carr doesn’t say, and I certainly am not about to try. But Carr makes a substantial case that schools like Renaissance–staffed by inexperienced teachers instructed to carry out a complicated taxonomy of tactics with uncompromising authority, and who are taught to actively ignore the external causes for problematic behavior and the complex psychology of its students–are not the answer. If schools do not reckon with the causes made in the home lives of the students they are setting themselves up for failure–and their failure can be tragic.

And such is the case with Brice. During his 45-day suspension, he becomes closer with those members of his community whom he had hoped Renaissance would help him avoid. In the Spring, one of these men asks Brice to accompany him for a ride. Unbeknownst to Brice, the man was using the boy for his legal status as a juvenile–because Brice is underage, he can help him with the crime that he picks him up to commit. They come to a stop in the car, and another man in the backseat fires a gun into an another car. The police pursue the car, which crashes, and catch Brice, and the boy gets caught up in the dysfunctional justice system for over a year, and, to say the least of his future, his academic career seems impossible now. 

The adolescents entering Renaissance come from a world that their teachers know almost nothing about. As Carr explains:

Brice moved between a world where teenagers routinely risked their lives to supply their families with cash and one where he had to snap his approbation, always remember the good wolf and silently track the speaker. One world taught authority backed by guns and money, the other compliance with comparatively meaningless penalties.

Obviously, reducing Brice’s world to the goal of college matriculation does not provide an environment where complex problems are given real solutions.

KIPP Renaissance does not bounce back from its chaos. The principal steps down at the end of the year, and they end up cycling through __ principals in the __ years. Sean Gallagher’s Akili Academy also reaps a similar result in their implementation of no excuses policies. Gallagher abided by the hedgehog concept at first, but over the course of the year came to recognize the variety of issues that affect children’s ability to learn. In an initial screening of the students, a team from Tulane University “flagged” almost half of them with “a serious behavioral, social or emotional need.” A number of students would resort to disruptive and violent behavior when frustrated, and would have to be removed from the classroom by a Dean. As Carr notes,

Many new orleans students arrive at school with intense, often unmet, needs. Students have witnessed murders, lived through Katrina’s chaos, passed in and out alternative schools, lost close relatives to shootings, spent time in jail, and attended more schools than they can remember.

Many more factors could be added to Carr’s list. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most successful charter in the book, Science Academy, is the one that does the most to address its student’s needs. The wife of Sci’s principal is a school psychologist. The school attends to its students’ mental health needs by keeping a full-time school psychologist, a full time social worker and a second part-time social worker on staff. Investing in faculty who are trained and experience in mental health work appears to be a way to adapt to the unique needs of children in poor communities. Unfortunately, that investment does not directly translate to improvements in standardized test data.

Hope Against Hope is required reading for anyone interested in school politics today. I’d also recommend Sarah Carr’s many other articles, which can be found on her website


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