Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Wire, Season 4 -- Insight into Education

Last year, my wife and I decided to give a chance to a show we’d heard good things about.

It’s called The Wire, and aired on HBO a few years ago.  For those who object to certain content, it is at times a graphic show, with the kinds of things you might expect to see and hear on a pay-cable channel (mostly lots of crude language and a fair amount of violence, as well as a small amount of mostly unnecessary sexual content). So there’s the content warning.

If you choose to watch it, you will find that season 4 contains within it some of the most honest, heartfelt, detailed, and thorough depictions of the issues facing our education system–especially in urban settings–that has ever been seen.

All the distractions, all the blame on teachers, all the kooky ideas like merit pay, charter schools, standards-mania, and testing asphyxiation that the reformers and the meddlers think will solve the “crisis” we supposedly face will fall to the wayside when you watch season 4 of this show.
  • Want to see what really causes some students to fail? 
  • Want to understand why some students drop out of school?
  • Want to experience the realities of life for kids who grow up in broken homes, with non-existent fathers and gangsters for role models?
  • Want to see why it’s the middle and early high school years that really determine whether a student will “make it?”
  • Want to see why the term “dropout factory” is truly deplorable, insulting, and basically an outright lie?
Then watch season 4 of the The Wire.

I’ve seen a lot of education movies. Everything from Dangerous Minds (eh) to Stand and Deliver (decent) to Waiting for Superman (misleading, to put it mildly), as well as the requisite prep-school movies like Dead Poets Society and The Emperor’s Club.

None of these come close to The Wire when it comes to truly exposing the realities of school in urban environments, particularly those within cities in economic decline such as Baltimore (where the show is set).

I teach in Seattle, and we don’t have a neighborhood here quite like the one in the show.  Yet in watching this season, I saw student behaviors, attitudes, language, and beliefs in the classroom that I have experienced throughout my career. It was very familiar to me.

The detail of the show is so exquisite that an entire book could probably be written on this subject, exploring how the school and the students it features relate to our real education system.

Why does any of this matter?

Because we face armies of people out there who think they know the problems facing education, and who also think they know the answers. But, if you don’t really grasp the problem, it is impossible to come up with an appropriate solution.

The writers of season 4 of The Wire do grasp the problem. It was refreshing on a very deep level to experience this over and over throughout the season. The truth is unpleasant. But it’s the truth.

If you were to watch this entire season with someone like, say, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, or Steven Brill, and after it was all over ask them the following question, the look on their faces would probably be worthy of a story on The Daily Show.

I would ask this:

How would holding the teachers accountable for student performance have made one iota of difference in the lives of Randy, Michael, Namond, and Duquan?  (These are the four middle school students featured in the show).

After stumping them with that, I’d ask this one:

What good are new standards and new testing going to do in the face of the situations these kids were facing outside the school?

Now, if you’ve seen this show, you can imagine the humor of seeing Ms. Rhee, Mr. Gates, and Mr. Brill sit there dumbfounded and speechless, turning on their cell phones to search for answers and mask their discomfort as they try to dodge the inescapable reality that their entire educational ideology offers exactly zero solutions to these kinds of problems.

Even more, besides offering no solutions, it distracts the education system from trying its best to help these kinds of kids. We have to waste so much time trying to live up to and document evidence for the artificial measures of progress forced upon us by state bureaucrats who think all students experience school the way they did.

This is important. This is why we continue to have clashes about education policy such as the recent one in Chicago Public Schools. It’s because there is a fundamental disconnect between the realities of teaching in high-needs areas and the beliefs of the educational elite–those who make their living telling people what to do, even though they’ve mostly never done it themselves.

Those are the people who more than anyone need to see shows like this. They need to get their hands dirty, and realize how filthy the playground really is. They need to come to their senses and finally discern the truth that their policy ideas and the needs of many kids are in different universes.

It’s like the geometry theorem about two parallel lines. Two lines that are parallel will never meet. Ever. Life for kids like Randy, Michael, Namond, and Duquan is one line. Policies like merit pay, charter schools, and teacher accountability are the other line. You can pave that second line with gold, encrust it with diamonds, and fill it with mesmerizing and hypnotic detail and efficiency. You can present it with acronyms and Powerpoints. But it still will never touch the first line.

Future Posts
It is my intention to write a future blog post on each of the four kids mentioned above. Season 4 begins with the four of them hanging out in the days before the school year starts. They are friends, more or less, in the sense that they can stand being around each other, and are willing to stick by each other if one of them needs help.

All of them come from terrible homes, but each of a very different sort. Throughout the season, the experiences of these four kids will send all of them in very different directions. And all the while, a couple very dedicated teachers try to help each of them, with equally variant results.

I was blown away.

In future posts, I’ll explore each kid’s story, and correlate it to the education system as it is presented in the show, as well as my own experiences and our broader system.

If you want to watch the season yourself, be my guest. Just be aware of the content warning I mentioned at the outset. Also, there is nothing in seasons 1-3 pertaining to the school system, for those who were wondering. There are several story threads that go through all five seasons of the show (at its heart, it’s about the Baltimore police department), and these are all ongoing throughout season 4. So if you start here, some of that won’t make sense.

But the story of the children and the school is self-contained within this season, so if that’s what you want to see, just watch this season. It has 13 episodes.

And if you know any meddlers, or politicians, or PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), or charter school advocates, or reformers, or people who might be curious and open-minded enough to enter a world they haven’t truly experienced, consider watching it with them, and talk about the school, the kids, and their experiences.

The show has a reputation for a very cynical outlook on human nature, on government systems, and on public organizations.  There’s a lot of greed, a lot of corruption, and a lot of evil. The drug culture is on full display. I just call it the nature of mankind–this is who we are, at the core.  Man is not by nature good.  How anyone can argue otherwise in the face of shows like this is beyond me.

But for those of you who like optimism and hope (like me), I will tell you the season doesn’t end with all bad news. There is some hope. I’m not spoiling anything, but you won’t be totally demoralized, I promise.

Finally, for those who dismiss things like this by saying, “It’s just a TV show,” I hope you realize that season 4 of this show has more truth, detail, and reality in it than just about the entire scope and sequence of both the Democratic and Republican conventions that just aired. Including Clint Eastwood.

So, look forward to my future posts on this, and vote against the charter school Initiative1240 this November (if you live in Washington). Why? Because it’s on the wrong line, and does not address the true problem.


Anonymous said...

Wish you would have had time to write the individual profiles of the four 8th grade characters.

Dan said...

Hi - Yes, me too. So much writing to do, and I ran out of momentum on this page.

I do intend to get back to it, but if you've seen that season, you know what I'm talking about to some degree.

Thanks for commenting.