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What 'The Wire' Says About the Presidential Candidates' Education Proposals


Today, voters in Iowa will help decide who will be our next president, and today here in the Washington D.C. area, I'm about halfway through last year's season of the HBO show, "The Wire."

What does "The Wire" have to do with the Iowa caucuses, you ask? Well nothing, except the two got me thinking...

This gritty, in-your-face, no-apologies drama about how street life rules Baltimore turned its lens on the city's public schools in Season Four. And the result wasn't pretty. (I happen to be a Baltimore resident so this show is pretty much required viewing in my city.)

Season Four, which just came out on DVD, focused on a group of promising, but troubled "corner" kids who make their teachers' lives miserable because they are leading miserable lives of poverty, drugs, and crime. Although this is just a TV show, it's grounded in depressing reality. In fact, one of the actors—Felicia "Snoop" Pearson—is a real-life, 27-year-old Baltimore drop-out who at age 14 pleaded guilty to murder, but who turned her life around after getting out of prison. Watching "The Wire," I'm struck by this thought: Would any of the education ideas proposed by the presidential candidates save the futures of the kids portrayed in "The Wire?" Probably not.

Though there are success stories, schools in these troubled urban centers—be they in Baltimore, or Detroit, or Los Angeles—usually won't be fixed in any dramatic way by changing who teaches in them, how many social workers are employed, or what class sizes look like. Because when these kids go back to their corners, they'll still be surrounded by drugs, crime, and poverty. When you're literally dodging bullets, selling drugs as part of the family business, and scraping for money to buy food, where does school rank?

Fixing education has just as much to do with fixing neighborhoods and fixing families. And I'm as guilty as the next education reporter for looking only to the education platforms of the candidates for insight into how public schools can be improved, when really, we need to be looking at the bigger issues.

Some of the candidates nibble at the edges of these bigger issues. Hillary Clinton's plan to cut the minority drop-out rate in half, which includes grant money for community-based solutions for at-risk youth, is an acknowledgment that the answers to fixing schools don't just rest in the schools themselves. Barack Obama wants to double the amount of money for after-school care. Meanwhile, Republicans generally favor a broader solution—school choice.

But for the presidential candidates who say fixing schools starts with the parents, who are the best teachers, I ask: How would that help kids like "The Wire's" Namond Brice, who is pushed onto the street corners to sell drugs by his mother?

Nor is there an easy solution for helping a kid like Dukie, whose family can't provide him with the basics all students should have — a school lunch and some clean clothes.


Just as I started teaching in public schools, I heard Richard Price on Fresh Air (one of the co-writers of the Wire)as he and Terry Gross discussed Clockers. That was during the crack epidemic that hit my neighborhood. Price, like Ed Burns, did an amazing job of explaining our world.

My Marlow came from an old Jamaican gang family who had beaten him to the point of brain damage, which explains why he did the same to an alcoholic passed out near the railroad tracks. At first, he would fantasize about going out in a gun battle with dozens of rivals. He improved to the point where we went too far in keeping him in school. (As did the police who delayed charges on stealing a police car hoping to get him to inform.) Just before he got Life for a fire bomb murder, Marlow asked, “John, did that light socket just change shape, move across the room, and change back?” We agreed that that was an improvement over his previous thoughts.

My Prop Joe was the “Buffalo,” a huge country boy who was tied to eastern Oklahoma County. He loved to watch the back hoe when it dug trees from the nursery next door. I saw his rage though as he chased a Blood down the stairs. I stepped in and was knocked more than a dozen feet. Afterwards, he was apologetic and morose at the prospect of returning to prison. So, for our math lesson we measured my flight path and I asked “I weigh 240 pounds and I flew 12 feet, so how many foot pounds of force did the ‘Buf’ generate?” Our parting conversation took hours, mostly silence, but with the most intense soul searching. On his way out of town, away from gang connections, he visited an aunt and ended up shooting three Bloods.

The Wire did a great job in showing the evolution of Michael, but it hit too close for my wife and me. Our Michael, named Tymaine, was a 14 year old neighbor who is now doing thirty years, meaning that he may have been lucky before his shots at police and others (including me) turned fatal. I think he just burned himself out caring for his younger siblings. I don’t know how many times I saw him protecting his family from his drunken father. He just gave out, being an old man in his early adolescence.

My version of Bunny’s outing with the three alternative students was a trip to NASA in Houston and outings to the Mall. I just wish that Bunny’s wife had gotten Namond to remove his headgear, so I could have seen his increased vulnerability due to no hat, but The Wire approached it later with the braiding scene.

The Wire is so effective in showing the sensitivity of teens to adults’ emotions as well as the effects of isolation. Our students used to sense that our principal, an older Black woman from the country, always was uneasy with the Black Heritage assembly, which is one reason why they usually degenerated into gang fights. In the wake of Tupac’s death, the riot included shouts of “East Side” and “West Side.” I gave up, grabbed my seniors and started to teach class, assisted by the class comedian who said, “‘East Side!’ If those clowns tried to drive to New York, they take a wrong turn and end up in ‘Butt F__ Georgia!’”

A former Heritage Foundation scholar once visited my class and to his credit recognized that he had been equally isolated from “the hood.” He heard himself continue to explain that Crime Sweeps were not racial profiling because they happened irregularly and unpredictably, and the students kept saying, “Yeah, every Tuesday and Thursday!” Finally, he shut up and listened.

Michelle, you are right that society can’t expect schools alone to solve the problem. By now I can take students from where they are (usually 4th or 5th grade in reading) and get them to the point where they have a fighting chance to make it in college. But each year I see less progress.

The Wire makes a distinction between “Corner kids” and “Stoop kids.” We can make progress with Stoop kids as long as we have alternative schools for Corner kids. Education still operates under the Sixties model that Alternative Education is like prison. Build em and we’ll fill em. We need a new paradigm that says our political correctness is rationing care. We’re like the L.A. hospitals that dump patients on the street.

I have only shown political and school scenes of The Wire to my students, and I have mostly shown them to seniors. So far they haven’t produced a sustained public discussion. Mostly, its like a Quaker service. A student will offer a personal statement, and then there will be silence. Another observation will be followed by more silence. This will evolve into small group dialogue and individuals will come up to tell me their stories in relative privacy.

I think the Harlem Children Zone (I think that is what it is called, I am from Milwaukee, WI) is a good idea in taking a wholistic approach to the entire life of the children and the community. I think though what is missing is real sustainable wages from good jobs to supply the economic energy needed to fuel the community and an idea of a children zone. I was encouraged when I heard that Obama was interested in implementing elements from the Harlem Children Zone on a national scale or at least expansion to other "urban" areas.

Also I would like to thank you for writing this entry as I just got done watching season 4 and I think the solution for a Namond Brice is articulated quite well by the last episodes of the Wire. It made me get real emotional and inspired when I saw it, to say the least.


I have two responses--one, when there is something of a critical mass that assumes that within every home in neighborhood children are ill-cared-for, not only do responsible parents have to swim upstream against the street life, but also against the expectations of schools that only so much is possible.

Two--and this comes from many years experience as a social working doing commmunity work, the kind of improvements that are called for will require a substantial change in the culture of schools. Of all organizations that I have worked with, I would say that schools are the least accessible in terms of connecting agencies within a neighborhood. They are generally fortresses with a staff from somewhere else who comes and goes but doesn't mingle. This is not to say that there are not some very nice, hard-working people within those buildings. But it would never occur to most of them that the work that they do has anything to do with the work being done outside their doors by people working to improve housing or health care, let alone such obvious overlaps as libraries and recreation centers. The idea of talking a walk through the neighborhood where their children live--or visiting a parent at their home--is treated as something dangerous. Parents are held at arm's length.

Anyone from an "outside agency" who might appear in their building is regarded as an interloper, even if they are there to provide tutoring, after-school care or health or mental health services that support their mission of education. Anyone who doubts might want to study what goes on in their building after 3 PM, or all summer long.

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