my thoughts on education inspired by The Wire


Every time I walk into a high school I have a feeling that education … well … that it could be better. For everyone. Teachers & all kids (no matter their socioeconomic status or whether they live in an urban or rural environment).

Shit.  Not could … that it should be better. And I imagine the crazy thing about educating our youth is that everyone wants it to be better.  I cannot envision anyone in the education system seriously not having the best intentions or wanting every kid who walks through the door on day one to learn more and get an education.

I don’t know what happens in other countries but in America’s case we are more class/caste driven which has an impact on kids’ education from the earliest age.

Simplistically … the more affluent send their kids to well financed school systems (public or private) while lower income families traditionally get a worse education (for a variety of reasons) in lower financed systems. By the way … this is not an indictment of teachers because i believe great teachers exist in all school systems.

And even if a lower income kid fights their way through the system to get to college … well … the system is still against them. A Dept. of Education study states low income family students with high test scores are less likely to complete their studies (cross the finish line as it were) then high income family students with lower test scores. In other words, poor children are much less likely to make good then we often like to think. Oh. And the information shows that this fact is truer in America then in Canada and Europe.

The Australian Education system also conducted a similar study.

Let me be clear (and the rest of the post will focus on this point).

Kids are no more, or less, smart based on their associated socioeconomic background.  A brain is a brain.


Their socioeconomic background affects their ability to dedicate themselves to learning.

All that said … if you are interested in this topic you should watch season 4 of The Wire. It is the season which uses the high school education system as the main thread for the story line.

This season was so well done a number of universities actually use it to discuss the challenges within our existing education system.


Let me begin by saying … if you truly believe in your heart that each and every kid deserves a “chance” then be prepared … the season is simultaneously hopeful, yet hopeless and, ultimately, disturbing … all at the same time.

You can see the challenges and opportunities all at the same time.

And it is an additional maddening aspect in that everyone who tries to fix the system loses.

I admit. It’s disturbing & demoralizing to see good intentioned people (and kids) repeatedly getting crushed (even though it is just a TV show).

And you wonder why you see good intentions squandered until you hear one of the characters on the show say something that is so sadly true … “This game is rigged.”

Look.We all know the system is “broken.”

And good income people can beat the system.

And, frankly, it is those people who suggest “there are no excuses for not getting an education or having an opportunity.”

And, frankly, that’s a bunch of bullshit.

Go teach at an inner city school for a day.

Shit. Go teach at any public school for a day.

“No excuses” is a phrase of blatant ignorance when you see what stresses face many of the lives of the children you see which actually are not ‘excuses’ but in fact … realities. Realities they must face day-to-day.

As you will see, for example, on The Wire is the drug addiction, the crime connected to the drug trade, the business of the drug trade, the barely functioning families, and the poverty which are realities impacting a young student’s ability to be engaged or even be consistently involved (and that doesn’t even touch upon the emotional “hope” aspect).

In that Wire season there are four boys who try to engage with learning and with school, and are occasionally successful (which each student recognizes and are extremely engaged in those situations) but their life situations just do not permit ongoing consistent progress.

The Wire clearly shows us that many kids, many good smart kids, will fail in school through no fault of the schools or of their own.


On the other hand, on the ‘hopeful side’, the show showcases the amazing potential our youth exhibits – even in the face of the direst situations. I actually believe it showcases, almost better than I have ever seen, how young people grasp the ‘light’, even if it only appears for seconds, even within the darkest environments.

It is within those moments of viewing the season that you just want to pick up a phone and call someone and say “fix the education system” because it tears your heart into pieces to see what ’could be.’

I also loved how the show so definitively states that only an incredibly small number of students are so emotionally damaged by their circumstances that they are totally unable to respond to what school has to offer (and I happen to agree with them).

The show does this extremely well by taking a group of ‘project kids’ who are the most disruptive and troubled but showing how they are potentially capable of functioning in a learning environment.

The project is where they pull a small number of disruptive students out of regular classes and puts them in a special, smaller, class with a larger number of adults. The students in the project group are involved in the drug trade or are heading down that path. The project succeeds in two ways. It reduces disruption in the regular classes and it allows focused and appropriate attention, with a greater adult-to-student ratio, to the students in the project class.

Oops. Here is where a flaw in our existing system rears its ugly head … the program is terminated when the city’s educational administration decides that a program that is not raising test scores and that smacks of “tracking” is too politically risky. Oh. ‘Tracking’ or ‘profiling’ … swear words in today’s environment (although … I admit it is a slippery slope).

In other words … a promising initiative is eliminated because of rigid bureaucratic goals.

A promising initiative eliminated … that worked. And worked despite the issues that undermine learning in urban schools (although I would argue that it isn’t just urban schools but everywhere) like fragmented families, no families, teachers required to teach to the test, declining neighborhoods with few legitimate jobs, overwhelmed or indifferent leaders.


And good initiatives get eliminated due to the fact that the education system is beholden to stats (or “jukin’ the stats” as the show reminds us).

Ah. The ‘stats’ (scores).

This season of The Wire discusses the statistics in that the school system needs to produce raised scores on standardized tests. As a result actual learning and teaching are deeply compromised. The Wire is particularly critical of the testing regime associated with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law in that just as the teachers (and the project class) are beginning to discover some viable strategies for teaching to the students they have to shift to prepping them to take the standardized tests. It is a vivid demonstration (albeit a theatrical one) of an empty gesture within the education system in which the students learn nothing of value and which derails their interest, and growing, if shaky academic engagement.

The system was set up with good intentions but the show displays the flaws.

The show also showcases another thing I encounter (nd this is my opinion) … that many of our schools seem to sanitize the troubling, often offensive, and challenging aspects of real life while the Life reality is that students are surrounded by a popular culture which deals bluntly, graphically, and harshly with real life reality. Ok. I admit I am not sure we want our schools to include all the inappropriateness that is commonplace in the popular culture because one would hope (or, let’s say I believe) our schools should show students what ‘could be’ (from a ‘taste of what is finer’ perspective). It is probably unrealistic on my part but ultimately my hope is that schools would teach the best of the best and give kids something to aim for (without ignoring what is real).

The balance is that the education system needs to exercise discretion but I believe we tend to underestimate what students can appreciate and understand.

I don’t know how schools and education can ignore perspective when teaching. The Wire reminds us that all education, whether you want to define school rules versus street rules or not, have to deal with any aspect of the following (I pulled this list from a formal sociology & education article):

–          intersections between representations of race, economy, and criminality

–          issues of masculinity

–          gender and sexuality in police and criminal cultures

–          the family, childhood, parenting, and criminality

–          re-imagining of the heroic beyond traditional narratives of America

–          roles for women in urban America (and roles for women in general)

–          the technology of crime

–          street speech and class-based communication

–          cultures of addiction and treatment

–          constructions of violence

–          stress and trauma narratives

–          education and class

–          interest groups and issues of governance

Some of these are big emotional issues and some may appear to be “not my kid’s type of issue” to some more affluent family readers …. but these are real issues … to all our kids (so don’t be fooled by what you think you see in your own life).


Four features of The Wire’s depiction are particularly worthy of note.

First, the “inner city” kids, like kids anywhere, are shown as bright and curious, and capable of learning. Second, the ability of the schools to educate these children is shown to be strongly compromised by the kids’ world outside of school—their absent or dysfunctional families, their distressed communities, and the lack of any visible accessibility of the world of legitimate work.

Third, despite these negative forces in the students’ lives, teachers and school personnel are capable of making small but significant contributions to children’s educational and personal growth.

Fourth, public schools are portrayed as natural and appropriate places for young people to be in the context of their developing lives (although the particular distressed school the boys attend is deficient in many ways).

In addition.

The Wire did a great job showing us how, in a broad perspective, we are failing our youth with regard to education.

Oh. And it reminds us that good things don’t always happen to good kids. And life can get in the way of even the best education.

But. The main thought?

The show wants to say that most of the kids in school, even in public schools, would be capable of making significant educational progress were their lives and communities not so chaotic and troubled. The Wire portrays the students as naturally curious and constantly learning.

In conclusion, one character on The Wire states the issue better than I could ever.

He predicts …  if we don’t solve it … “there will be an endless stream of kids who are not prepared for productive lives.”

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Written by Bruce