Intro. [Recording date: March 26th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 26th, 2020, and my guest is journalist and author, Sarah Carr. She writes on education and is the Education Team Leader for the Boston Globe, and she's the author of Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle To Educate America's Children, which is our topic for today. I want to thank Plantronics for the Blackwire 5220 headset that Sarah is using for this interview. Sarah, welcome to EconTalk.
Sarah Carr: I'm really happy to be here with you.
Russ Roberts: In November of 2019, I interviewed Terry Moe about how Hurricane Katrina brought change to the New Orleans school system, creating a network of charter schools. Terry was very supportive of that change, thought it was very effective, although fell short of what it could be, but he's definitely a champion of that change. And more recently, I spoke to Robert Pondiscio for EconTalk, about his book called How Other Half Learns, which is the story of Eva Moskowitz and the Success Academy in New York City.
In a few weeks, I'll be interviewing Diane Ravitch about her new book, Slaying Goliath, and I hope that these episodes with yours, Sarah, and maybe some more down the road, will give listeners and myself a rich set of perspectives to consider when thinking about charter schools and educational reform.
Let's start with what you did to write your book, Hope Against Hope, which you wrote, by the way, I think around 2012 and began writing in 2010. So, it's been a while. It's a very, very fine book. It really lays out the different narratives about education in America, and shows that the reality on the ground is probably a lot more complicated. It's an entertaining book, not just educational. I cried a couple of times.
Let's start with what your plan was in writing this book. What did you do on the ground to get the insights that you write about?
Sarah Carr: Sure. Well, at the time, which was a decade ago now, I felt like there was a dearth of on-the-ground perspectives and takes on what was happening with school reform, and the growth of charter schools in New Orleans, in particular. And so, I decided to embed to the extent possible at three very different charter schools in the city, and to roughly spend a year or two following a student at one of the schools, a teacher at a second, and a principal at a third.
And I knew that I wanted one of the educators to be a veteran teacher, who had--veteran educator--who had been in the system long before Katrina, and I wanted one to be a relative newcomer. There was a big growth in Teach for America teachers in the city after the hurricane.
And, the student ended up being a high school freshman. One of the schools where the student was at was a KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] school, which a lot of people consider kind of emblematic of school reform. Nationally, it's a very college-prep-focused model, which grew quite a bit after schools reopened in New Orleans.
Another school was not a KIPP school, but shares a fair amount in common with KIPP, that one is called PSI Academy, and the third was quite different, and was called O. Perry Walker, and that was the one that was run by a veteran New Orleans educator, the principal, Mary Laurie. That school was much more like a traditional New Orleans school had been before the storm than the other two.
Now, those three schools all have something in common. I think this is a sub-theme that runs through your book and woven through the book in a very, I think, powerful and effective way, which is: the student population that the three schools draw on is very poor, and the students in those schools face incredible challenges at home and in their non-school life that the school struggles to cope with.
Sarah Carr: Yeah, no; and that ended up being a big theme of the book. I have written about education for years before I started work on t his book. But, it was still eye-opening to me just the impact that these out of school factors had--that the KIPP student that I followed for a good chunk of the year, her family couldn't afford New Orleans rents, and she was living in a pretty far out suburb where it could take her two hours to commute in by bus. That's going to impact her ability to focus on school, her ability to participate in activities after school, the family's exhaustion level. And that was just one example. These kinds of issues came up again and again and again, in some ways, in much more life and death ways.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, there's death in the book. There's issues of just violence generally on the streets . There's family challenges with work and putting food on the table that many of us listening don't have to deal with. So, the schools struggle to cope with that, even though in theory, they're in school. Those students, they're not dealing with that, but you can't separate it. You can't get away from it.
Sarah Carr: Yeah, no; that's very much true. I think that there's a false dichotomy that's emerged in the debate about school reform, that particularly, I feel like it's maybe lessened some in recent years; but in the time period that I was working on this book, there was just this false dichotomy between, sort of, 'schools can do it all and we just need to take kids out of these troubled, distracting environments, and focus 100% on preparing them for college and helping them pass standardized tests' versus the 'there's all of these outside-of-school factors; schools are never going to be able to make much of a dent' mentality. And I just felt like both of those were really simplistic, and to the extent that they shaped policies in some places had really harmful effects.
Russ Roberts: How would you describe the state of the New Orleans public school system before Katrina? You do that in a couple of places in the book. Give us your take on that.
Sarah Carr: First, just as a disclaimer, I did not move to New Orleans or report on the schools at all until after the hurricane, but certainly at the Times Picayune newspaper and in spending seven years there and many years working on the book, I interviewed and met numerous people who did have first hand experience in the schools.
They were really abysmal overall. They had horrible results. If you looked at the rate of students from that system who were going on to graduate college, it was in the single digits. It was not setting kids up for, on the ost part, for any kind of long term educational or life success and stability. There was even a perverse idea about it that it had been left the way it had been partly just for economic reasons, because the city needed this supply of low-paid service industry workers.
Honestly, spending time there, you could kind of understand that mentality more than I ever thought that I would.
And that's not to say--I mean, there were bright spots. Like in any big system. There were amazing, committed educators before Katrina. I met many of them who were working in the schools after Katrina. There were kids who did really well. You can't speak too generally, but on a whole, looking at the results, they were pretty devastating.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the tangible things we can measure. One of the things I love about your book is that you are sensitive to the fact that not everything that is a value can be measured. Which is a big challenge, I think, for the reform movement in general. The impulse to measure is not a bad one. It's a good starting place, but often I think it's the end. But let's at least start there, on the tangible things we can measure. In the aftermath of Katrina, there appears to have been dramatic improvement, although it still falls very short of what we would hope would be possible. Is that a good summary?
Sarah Carr: Yes and no. Um, I think that during the time period that I was reporting and writing about the schools, which went up through 2014 --I left the city and moved to New York City in 2014--there was growth in standardized test scores that was very encouraging and promising and important and a good first step.
I really think--and you're just starting to see some of the data in the interrogation of this question--that the school reforms there should be assessed in the long term. And many of these schools stated as their mission that they're going to get first generation college graduates. And I think they should be held to that, and we should be looking 10, 20, 25, 50 years out at whether that's really happening.
And I think some of them have struggled to come through on that. And there was a story that published a few months ago on PSI Academy and its first graduating class, and the fact that there were just a handful of students more than six years out who made it through college.
I think a lot of them, the schools are finding it harder than they had originally thought and hoped it would be.
Russ Roberts: So, going back to the tangible part, the numbers that Terry Moe reported were that, I think something around 25% of students in the New Orleans public school system; and remember, these--listeners, I want to remind listeners--charter schools are public schools. They're just run differently; but they're publicly funded.
The 25% before Katrina, 25% of students were, I think, satisfactory or passing state level tests. That number got up to at least 48% in the aftermath of Katrina. Then it plateaued. 48% is a terrible number, but it's twice 25, almost.
But, of course, what you're pointing out, which I think is the harder question--and there are many related harder questions to go with this--but what you're pointing out is that we don't really care about test scores. It's a good starting place, and if they're abysmal, as they were, it's alarming. But, if you're able to double them, but no other impact comes through on people's lives, such as the college goals that are the stated goal of so many of these schools, that's very troubling; and it suggests that we're putting too much of a burden on these schools, or that they're simply not focusing on what they ought to be focusing on.
Sarah Carr: Yeah; no. I don't want to sell short. I mean, test scores, they're not meaningless; but they're just one piece of the puzzle, and one piece of what a good school should be thinking about.
One of the issues that I saw when I was there--and I hope it's changing--is just that there were these two very divergent school profiles. There were schools that employed mostly young, white newcomers to the city, a lot of whom had ties to Teach for America, and schools that employed mostly black veteran educators who had worked in the schools before Katrina. And I don't think you saw enough merging of those two school profiles to draw on the strengths of both.
Very simplistically, the new schools tended to be much more strategic about prepping kids for the standardized tests, but I think that the "old"--and I'm putting this in quotes--schools just knew a lot more about the backgrounds and had a much more organic connection to the students' home lives and cultures, for obvious reasons.
When you look at PSI Academy, one of the schools that I followed that has had some pretty promising test score results some years but has struggled in those early years to help support students through college, I think that some staff who were much more connected to the kids those early years could have helped counsel them to make college decisions and choices that were maybe not as prestigious but better fits for them and more likely to be sustainable places where they could thrive and not feel alien.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's incredibly--very powerful parts of the book where you talk about one of the students, the one you followed, going off to college campuses. And, I mean, college is really different from high school; but, a college campus is particularly different for a kid coming from a very poor neighborhood in New Orleans. It's another world. I mean, as you say, it's an alien world. And, I felt the fear that I would have felt in her shoes and in my stomach, if I were trying to make that transition.
It's dramatized actually in the musical In the Heights, that challenge of being the different kid who is going to try to make it in a different world; and it's so many dreams riding on it from parents and neighbors and the kid themselves. And, they're not really prepared.
It's--I think it's way too easy to say, 'Oh, they need a mentor program,' or 'a counseling program while they're there.' Or, you know, 'some help with how to deal with college: note-taking and assignments.' And it's a bunch of broader set of challenges, it seems to me.
Sarah Carr: Yeah; no. And I think, also, I mean, it sounds touchy-feely, but I don't, I think it's vitally important that you can't underestimate the importance of trust and of buy-in.
And all sort of the best intentions in the world can't substitute if you don't have that fundamental trust between students and their educators.
And just as one example, there was one student who I met through reporting on the book who ultimately attended college for a semester and left, who said that they felt like the school that they had attended, the high school, was really just about the numbers and that that was what they cared about. And, they never really believed that the school cared about them as an individual.
It was kind of heartbreaking to hear that, but I think that that first step before you can really do anything is building trust with students.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There was a lovely quote from the book, you say,
Many of today's leading school reformers like McKinsey Consultants, believe the results of almost everything from a child's success to the impact of a given social policy, can be quantified and boiled down to a set of numbers in a PowerPoint presentation.
I think that's a great insight. I think it's true way beyond educational reform. It's, I think, a general issue that analytical people struggle with: You call it touchy-feely, but it's a huge part of life--trust, affection, love, respect. These are things that can't be quantified. And, student success on test scores, again, not irrelevant. But, if it's the only thing and if the students perceive it as the only thing, you get a very, very different set of results.
Russ Roberts: I want to read another quote from the book that I thought kind of summed up some of the challenges we've been talking about so far. You say--you're talking about a school called KIPP Renaissance, which is one of the schools you were spending time in.
In some respects, the education reform movement had asked KIPP Renaissance to accomplish the impossible: to educate teenagers traumatized both by Katrina and the daily realities of life in a city with decrepit physical infrastructure, bare-bones welfare services, inadequate health care, grossly oversubscribed mental health and drug treatment programs, one of the nation's highest violent crime rates and corrupt--at times, racist--law enforcement. Even after decades of neglect in these other areas, the most die-hard advocates of educational change believed schools should be able to compensate for all; that they could, acting in isolation, educate poor children into college, and mainstream, middle-class lives.
Expand on that, if you would. [More to come, 20:18]
Sarah Carr: Yeah; no. I think it goes back to what I was describing as this false dichotomy, that I felt like was impacting the debate to an unhealthy degree, and it was the 'schools must do all' versus the 'schools really can't touch these bigger issues.' I believe that the truth is in the middle, but that there were a lot of young educators who I met who had been kind of pumped up with this savior mentality: that there was no problem that they and the schools couldn't solve. I think that that was unhealthy for them and ultimately harmful for the students, as well. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: There was something incredibly poignant about it, the sense of responsibility that the teachers were encouraged to take and did, in fact, take at times. I sense this in Robert Pondiscio's book as well, that--and these are incredibly idealistic, devoted people. They're spending 80 and 90 hours a week. They're young, they've got a high energy level, it's great; but they're spending incredible amounts of time trying to save these drowning students, these people who are not just challenged in their classrooms, but outside their classrooms. To say it's a Herculean task is I think, to understate the challenge.
We had Paul Tough on the program a while back, a few years ago, talking about Geoffrey Canada. His book was about--the book we interviewed him about was about grit, which I think is a lovely idea but not so implementable. But, that was what that book was about. In passing, he discusses the Harlem Children's Zone, Geoffrey Canada's approach, which is, instead of just saying, 'Well, we'll build a great school.' Geoffrey Canada's approach is that: That's not enough. It's got to be a full-court press. It's got to be about parenting, it's got to be about after school, it's got to be outside of school, it's got to be a very wholistic approach. I think you seem to come to a similar conclusion.
Sarah Carr: Yes. And I just think it can't be tackled through the schools alone. That was the one fundamentally big change that really happens in my eyes to affect the lives of poor families after Hurricane Katrina. But you had incredibly high gun violence rates, and you had parents with just incredible economic and housing stability. You just can't expect that, except in really rare cases that the schools are going to be able to inoculate kids from this broader society.
Even the student that I followed for that year, who was 14 and a high school freshman at the time, she had a very loving, supportive family. But, even she experienced gun violence right outside of the apartment building where she was living with her family. And had food insecurity, and housing insecurity, and all these other issues. She was just very average and typical of the experience there.
And so, I just think that school reformers and politicians and policymakers need to attack this issue at multiple dimensions. And, two, to Geoffrey Canada's efforts, which are just really laudable in so many ways, I just think there also needs to be an assessment of just doing it in ways that are not paternalistic, and where there is going to be that buy-in and trust from the community in the long term.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk a little bit about discipline, which is a big theme of the book. Whether that school that the ninth grader is in, you talked many, many times with her and her parents and trying to figure out, as the year goes on, it kind of spirals downward: discipline's falling apart, and they can't decide should it be tougher or looser? The kids start to get resentful.
And one of the challenges of this corner of the charter school movement, which is--the Success Academy in New York is certainly of this flavor, as this KIPP--they don't just have a certain pedagogical approach. They're going to--I think it was sort of a shock treatment. It's that: 'We're going to jar these kids. We'll shake them up. They're going to wear a uniform.'
It's not just a uniform--it's highly specified: 'We're going to make them walk in a certain way when they go down the hall.' Classrooms are going to have a certain cohesiveness through call and response, through various norms that are developed through the teacher's instruction, that make a lot of people very uncomfortable, both white and black; but particularly for black kids being taught by white teachers to conform in certain ways to what some would call white culture. It seems a bit oppressive. It certainly--of course, for teenagers, there are a lot of things in high school that are oppressive. But, talk about that challenge and how you saw that unfold over the year.
Sarah Carr: Yeah. I mean, it's a very--discipline in that context was an incredibly complicated, multi-faceted issue, because the KIPP-style discipline is not white culture. You don't see schools with 95% white kids where they're being asked to walk on straight lines down the hall and sit up straight and make eye contact. That's a phenomenon of predominantly black and brown schools. And, as a nuance in that, there were a lot of New Orleans families who liked structure, who wanted structure, who felt like the schools before Katrina had not been structured enough. And there were a lot of old school, veteran, New Orleans educators who still supported corporal punishment.
So, it's a very complicated issue, but adding to that is that you have these schools that are predominantly, if not exclusively, white-led, imposing these strict standards and rules around bodily comportment on predominantly black kids. And that takes on a different and potentially racist look and truth.
Given the complexity, it was really challenging to write about, but KIPP Renaissance was definitely one of these places where you saw that very rigid approach go awry, because you had a lot of families who supported it in theory, but when they saw how it played out, grew much more skeptical and there was the erosion of that trust.
Russ Roberts: It was one of the challenges and you write about it, [?] very even-handed way. It's a first year school. Right? It's run by a young, incredibly idealistic, incredibly hard-working principal with a bunch of teachers who haven't taught much--some, not much at all--who don't come from New Orleans, most of them; don't know anything about the culture; don't know anything about the lives their students are leading outside of school. And it'd be absurd to think that's going to go swimmingly the first year.
What I like about the charter school movement, a great deal, and what I would like about a different version of it, which would be one that would not even necessarily have government money in it, that would be a truly voluntary school system. But what I like about it is that, parents can vote with their feet. You're not stuck going to the school in your neighborhood if you don't like it. It's true, it might mean you're on an hour-long bus ride to get to it, but at least you have a little bit of choice.
And, most importantly, the schools that can't get it right, never get it right, fail, either because they lack trust of their--they can't generate the trust that helps, or they do a lousy job on that tension between discipline and freedom for 14- and 15- and 16-, 17-year-old adolescents. They have trouble attracting parents after a while. And so, schools that are horrific, close down.
In the current system in most American cities, horrific schools just keep going. Does that give you any--does that encourage your support of this flawed, but maybe better charter school system?
Sarah Carr: I would push back on some of that, because I think it's a view that makes a lot of sense in theory, but the way it plays out is messier.
I'm not defending schools that fail kids year in and year out staying open by any means. But, what the upshot of all of these policies and practices in New Orleans seem to be--the recruitment of young, idealistic educators not from the city; they close schools down if they don't succeed; hold them rigidly accountable to standardized test score benchmarks; the parental choice--seem to me to just be chronic instability. You just don't--I can count on one hand the number of people I know who were leading school buildings when I lived there who still are.
And that's a problem, because you need to worry about the results; but you also need to worry about building the relationships and building institutions that families have some understanding of. They can't exercise choice in the way that we want them to, unless they sort of know what these institutions are.
Russ Roberts: I think that's a great point. And I do think it's underestimated by economists like me who sometimes champion charter schools as some kind of magic bullet or school choice as a magic solution.
Having said that, it leaves us with a really unpleasant choice: the stability of a bad system, which is what we had before, versus a more chaotic and troubling system, but one that does lift more children out of despair.
Russ Roberts: Now, one of the lessons I think I take from your book is that: It's not so many. Even though your book isn't data rich--because it was early--you've alluded to it earlier in the conversation that, when we look down the road at whether kids with high test scores get into good colleges, stay in good colleges, graduate from good colleges, and enter adulthood in a responsible and productive and flourishing way--it's deeply discouraging.
Now, we've talked about how it's a multi-faceted problem. My simple take on this, and maybe it's too simple, is that this is better than what we had before; we need more of this, not less of it. I know that's a painful thing to say, given its relative in effectiveness, perhaps, and I don't want to be overly pessimistic about that. Maybe it's going to get better yet, but I vote for change.
Sarah Carr: I just--I think it's another false dichotomy between that static old system and this dynamic, always-changing new system.
I think there are ways in New Orleans from the outset that they could have worked towards something that would have been more stable, but that also would have been more accountable and dynamic. They could have looked more aggressively and done more to nurture local or at least Southern charter school leaders and networks. They could have not green-lit schools where 100% of the teachers were under the age of 25, and whites. They could have--there were a lot of things that they could have done, I think, that would have led to more accountability and more change and more dynamism in the system of schools without creating this chronic instability.
Russ Roberts: I think that's a great point, and I think, for me, that makes me even more optimistic about the value of a charter school approach. There's trial and error.
I want to add one other thing by the way, which I'm sure you would agree with, which is: It's really hard to run a school. It's so hard.
Russ Roberts: And it's really hard to be a high school teacher. My wife, I've mentioned it many times, my wife teaches high school math; and, it's a life for people who have a calling--the ones who do it well. It's a craft, it's an art, it's an act of devotion when done well.
And, what I hear you saying is that there's a lot to be learned. What I would argue in response is that this system can learn, this system can learn. There are people who might start off as teachers who fail, principals who fail, it may be chaotic and turbulent for a while; but the trial-and-error approach that the charter--or more private, voluntary--approach champions allows that to happen.
The old approach which is the top-down, more one-size-fits-all school-board-run system, yes, it's local; but it's so--oh, what's the word?--sclerotic. So, I take your point, that the charter school system has a lot of drawbacks in its early years of implementation, and maybe for a while, and maybe they made mistakes, but the people involved could learn from those. I don't see that happening in the public school system in the other major American cities that struggle with urban public schools.
Sarah Carr: To learn, though, you need some stability of people. There are folks that I've interviewed who are pro-reform and pro-charter school who say that you can build the really successful school where there's major teacher turnover every four years, as long as you have this pipeline of energetic, talented, hard-working folks coming in. I don't believe that. I don't believe that that's the way a successful school operates. You can't have this mass turnover in personnel at all levels and really learn and change from the lessons of the near or far past in the way that you need to.
One of the big takeaways for me to one of your earlier points, I'm writing this, was, whether it's a charter or a non-charter school was the power of principals, and just that it's an incredibly hard job, and it takes a really unique, diverse skill set, and that we don't have enough of those people and the people that we do are often burning out far too quickly. And, I don't have a solution for that, but it clearly stood out to me as one of the big problems of urban school reform.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I think that's a great point. I think your earlier point about turnover, quote, "every four years" in the Success Academy in New York--it's more than every four years.
And, I think one of the challenges there, comes back to your earlier point. It's very powerful to think about the breadth of the problem. So, you have this idealistic 24-year-old, 25-year-old, 22-year-old who turns down the New York finance job, investment banker job, the high-paying consultant job to do something that speaks to the heart. They find that, just like working at McKinsey, it's 80 hours a week. But, your level of control is much smaller. Your successes are going to be smaller. And, not everybody can do it. They are going to burn out.
And so, we have this turnover that makes it much harder for these schools to acculturate a staff that grows and learns and helps these students flourish.
And I think the lesson for me, which I hadn't thought about sufficiently until I read your book, is: that 80-, 90-hour thing--I mean, my wife works much more when she's teaching a full load; would work many, many more than 40 hours a week--but there's some civilization in it at least. For these young teachers you're talking about, it's a brutal slog; and it's full of explosions around them, fires to put out. It's hard to improve even over the course of a year. Some do, but it seems to me that a lot of that is that desperate attempt to fix this one corner. So many other things are going awry in these young people's lives. And, the burden of overcoming all that is in the eight hours that they're in that building. And, on the 23-year-old who is trying to light a fire under them that is so hard to light for all kinds of reasons, including their own ineptness and inability to relate to the lives of their students picking the wrong books, to talking about them in the wrong ways. I mean, there's so many challenges. It just seems that an effective school has to do something that is more integrative.
I think about the--again, going back to Success Academy, the burden that it places on parents is very high. What I took away from Robert Pondiscio's book, to some extent, was the ability of the school to cherry pick, not students, but parents--to cherry pick families. And, unless you do that, and unless you find ways to help those parents help their kids, it's going to be really tough. And almost everything we try will fail, it seems like.
Sarah Carr: Yeah; no. I mean, a lot of the parents are just experiencing such incredible stress. And just, I mean, you know--up until this current crisis with the coronavirus, we had--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we're taping this in the middle of the coronavirus, for listeners who may hear this weeks, months, or years later. Go ahead, Sarah.
Sarah Carr: We had such low--record low--unemployment rates in places, but that doesn't mean people are getting living wages. And I just think that's an issue we just don't think about, is the strain of constant economic and housing and food insecurity on the families that are attending the types of schools that we're talking about.
Russ Roberts: And as you point out, I think that's a--by the way--listeners know, I think that's a really hard problem to solve. But, many people disagree with me. I think there's an easy way to pass a living wage law. But, I think that's going to, in my view, cause more harm than it's worth. But that's not the scope of our conversation today.
But, the general point: that you have a parent, if you're lucky, two parents, but often one parent; that one parent didn't finish high school or if they did, it wasn't a very good at high school. They have a child who is in a high school that might not be ready to fit them for success. And: really hard to break that cycle.
And some of the desperation and relentless cheerleading and bravado that these schools try to build around 'Going to college,' as a savior, is--I get it. It might be the only way that breaks many of these families into a different path. But, it is not an easy path to get on.
Sarah Carr: No; that's definitely true. And I think a lot of the, particularly the early charter school educators underestimated the complexity and what they would need to have in place to successfully get kids on that path.
Russ Roberts: When you wrote this book, as you say, it was about--the work began a decade ago. Did it change you? And have you kept in touch? When I say did it change you, you've talked some about the things you learned. But did it change you in other ways? Have you kept up with some of the people in the book?
I actually googled some of the names for fun and see what they've gone on to do. Some of the young people, of course, have moved on to different career paths or related career paths, but not the same ones they were on when you wrote your book. But, how did this book change your attitudes, and your soul?
Sarah Carr: It did. While I talk about the importance of trust from the educators in the city at that time, I was working really hard as a white outsider myself to build my own trust with each of the story subjects. That was hard and fraught. And I had written about education for more than a decade when I began work on this book, but never in this sustained way and never writing about individuals' lives in such intimacy and for so long.
And so, to the extent that it's changed me, it's sort of taught me the value of that. And I really feel like each of the main characters in this book has enriched me personally and enriched my thinking about these issues. So, I feel very fortunate as a journalist and a person to have had this experience. And, yes, I'm still in touch with many of them, which has been really wonderful.
Russ Roberts: Well, you recount many conversations in the homes of the people that you're writing about, certainly in the offices of the principal. It's not like you just went and interviewed a principal about their experience. It's--you used the word earlier--you were embedded. How many hours a week were you spending on this project, and how long did that last?
Sarah Carr: Um, I mean it's--the year that I was reporting the book, I had a fellowship at Columbia University, a Spencer Education Journalism fellowship to support me. And so, it was a crazy year because I had some commitments to be at Columbia. And in literally all of the time that I was not at Columbia, I was in one of these schools or with one of these characters. And so that was probably the most insane year of my life because I had some degree of flying back and forth between New Orleans and New York City and was myself working 90- to 100-hour weeks. But, I did find that the school observation time was really incredibly useful and vital.
And particularly, I think, in the PSI Academy reporting where I followed the young teacher that played a heavy role, but with the principal and the student, the interviews that I had outside of school hours were just as much, if not more crucial at times.
And I was particularly appreciative of the student and her mother's willingness to just digest together kind of what was going well and what wasn't at the school with my listening in that year.
Russ Roberts: And I'm just curious on a logistics basis: Were you recording those conversations? Did you just take notes? Because they're incredibly powerful. They're conversational. Not just what you remembered or what you summarized from those conversations or experiences: there's this incredible drama that plays out over the course of that year, as these--and it's one drama of hundreds, is what's so poignant about it. How did you get that material? And were they uncomfortable? Did you struggle to get someone to agree to that? And that's true across both the principal, teacher and the student.
Sarah Carr: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I recorded key conversations, but I was just in schools and doing interviews so much that I quickly realized that I would never get this book written if I was trying to go back through transcripts and listen to audio for all of them. So, I really relied on notes. And the strategy I relied on the most was taking written notes as fast as I could during the interviews and in schools and then working late in the evenings to type up my notes while my memory was fresh.
If I hadn't done that, it also would have prolonged the process, because it gave me a lot of ideas about what questions to go back, and it gave me a searchable document at the end instead of a bunch of separate notebooks with handwritten notes. So, it was a low tech process, but I think that the most important thing for me was just typing up my notes at the end of each day, whenever I could.
And, in terms of--there were things. There were things that different characters in the book had a lot of ambivalence about, whether they wanted them, and that we had to really talk through in some cases over a period of months, and I had to take the--these were not public figures. If they ultimately decided that they did not want something in the book, that was up to them. With the student, in particular Gerald Lin[?], I was very conscious of reminding her at regular intervals, if I see something or if you say something that you would not want to be in the book to tell me.
In that sense, I as a journalist lucked out a lot with her because she just had a very sophisticated take and understanding of that, in a way that I don't think a lot of 14-year-olds would have. I remember one time when I gave her that reminder, she said, 'I just don't tell you things I don't want in your book.'
Russ Roberts: Just like her parents, yeah. 'How was school today?' 'Fine.'
Russ Roberts: How have your views changed since you wrote the book? You became a--at some point you left New Orleans, you came to New York, you said--you'd been writing in education, we'll link to your articles at The Globe on education. Some are related to what we've been talking about, but some are not. The world has rolled forward, spun forward since the aftermath of Katrina. The education wars still continue to rage. Everything's on the back burner right this minute because of the virus. But, inevitably, these issues will be back front and center because parents care more about their children pretty much than anything else, and they don't take failure lightly.
So, how have your views changed, or what have you learned that you think that you'd add if you were to write a postscript?
Sarah Carr: Um, you know, I don't think my views about school reform, which are kind of fundamentally middle ground, I would say, have changed that much. I mean, obviously, charters and accountability and some of the issues that were sort of front and center in the debate during the Obama Administration have receded a bit. Um, I mean, in a much bigger sense, having sort of lived more myself and having watched sort of how some of the people who I have followed over time, how their lives have played out, I mean, I'm just left with kind of a deepened understanding of what's at stake for individual's lives. And also just the fragility of it all. Like, that a lot of the work that's being done by policymakers and in schools is really life-and-death work in a lot of ways.
Russ Roberts: If you could impart wisdom to those people doing that life-and-death work--you know, I think one of the challenges--I'm going to ask you what it would be--but I think one of the challenges of this whole area is the assumption that there's a switch, we can switch on or off. A lever we can activate, a dial we could turn to the right setting. And then all of our children will be, like in Lake Wobegon, above average.
And I think--one of the lessons I take from your book is that, it's more complicated. I think that's the value of what you call the middle ground approach. But, are there things that you think have been underappreciated or that you wish could be remembered more strongly in this discussion, and in this, in executing in a school environment?
Sarah Carr: There are lots of little things. I don't have the grand solution. But I think not under-estimating the importance of teacher diversity and just believing: People who are doing this work, they have to believe one fundamental thing, that it's not a choice between quality[?] and diversity: That we can have really competent, robust, talented staff and have diversity. And I really think there's a lot of people who don't fundamentally believe that, and that that's a problem.
I mean, I think at all kinds of levels, there just, as I said, needs to be a bigger discussion about principles and building and sustaining a stronger core of principles. And, yeah: I think--there was definitely in New Orleans, a lot of lip service to this idea of rigor in relationships. But, I think there needs to be much more interrogation of sort of what we mean by both--both rigor and relationships.
And finally--and I don't, since I'm not there anymore, I don't know the extent to which this might have changed--but I was troubled when I was reporting in these schools, at least some of them, by this kind of deliberately color-blind approach. I think people, and particularly white people need to get much more comfortable talking about race and racism and the role of that, in everything.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's part of the relationship issue, obviously. And there are a number of examples in the book, which I enjoyed reading about, of that lip service part rather than the reality often, is it's inevitably going to be the case.
I think the challenge for young teachers, and all teachers is similar to the challenge of parenting. We all want to be, as Adam Smith pointed out, loved and lovely. We want the approval and respect of our fellow teachers. But, we also sometimes want out of our children. And our students.
I think as a parent, one of the great challenges is the temptation to make sure our children like us. Which can conflict with our job as a parent. And I think teachers have that same challenge. So, I think navigating that relationship that you're talking about, it certainly is there in the classroom. It's certainly there if it extends outside the classroom. How do you maintain--what's the right persona? What's the right level of intimacy, friendship, support?
I've often remarked on, here, and I've felt it deeply as a teacher myself, that there is a temptation to see yourself as a tough teacher. You know, 'Students have to earn my respect.' And if you do that too much, and you see grades as a way of being the stick and carrot by which students come to like you, the students will feel that you're not on their side. You're there to judge them. And that doesn't work well. Students, often--certain students, it works great with certain students, but with other students, that's not what they need at all. And in fact, they need something very different.
If you'd go too far in that direction, saying, 'I'm on your side; I'm going to give you a good grade even when you don't perform,' you're at the other end of the spectrum.
And I think, for young teachers especially, and I'd love to hear any of you out there who are listening or are dealing with this, I think that's an incredibly subtle and nuanced challenge. And, a great principal can help their teachers navigate that, but it's very, very hard.
Sarah Carr: Mm-hmm. Yeah; no. It definitely is. You mentioned earlier that just what hard jobs these are. Believe me, I felt a sense of privilege being able to write about and be invested and engaged in New Orleans education. But, at the end of the day not have a classroom or a school building that I was responsible for. Because it was just--it was work that would test the most hardworking and talented of people.
And that question about discipline, it's--I think in a lot of cases that I witnessed in those years, the schools were, I felt, pretty undeniably too heavy handed. But, there were a lot that were really close calls.
And when you had kids that were really disrupting the learning of a lot of their classmates, it's very hard to figure out the best approach.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Sarah Carr. Her book is Hope Against Hope. Sarah, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Sarah Carr: Yeah, thanks so much for having me on. I really enjoyed the conversation.