The injuries to urban society from government intervention, bureaucracy,
political gamesmanship and corruption are painstakingly documented in the
current season of the celebrated HBO series "The Wire." In addition to the
cops-versus-bad-guys themes of the show’s previous three years, however, "The
Wire" has now expanded its scope to indict government’s negative effect on
"The Wire’s" fourth season is inspired by writer and producer Ed Burns’
20-year and seven-year stints, respectively, as a Baltimore city police
detective and a public school social studies teacher. Burns’ experiences are
reflected in the story arc involving Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, an incompetent street cop from previous seasons who reassesses his career and decides to become a middle-school math teacher. Prez soon finds that life as an educator also involves "juking the stats" — police slang for
manipulating the numbers to create a positive impression even when there is no
One such manipulation occurs when Prez and the
school’s other dedicated, yet resigned teachers must focus on standardized test
results — a narrow measurement of academic learning. Prior to being forced to
"teach to the test," Prez had been making significant headway with his class by
using craps games to teach his students basic numbers skills and probability and statistics — a method far more effective than the bureaucratically provided
out-of-date textbooks and unopened computers gathering dust in school storage
Prez’s experiences are no more heartbreaking than
those of another former cop, Howard "Bunny" Colvin. During the show’s third
season, Police Major Colvin reduced crime in his district by setting aside three
minimally populated areas (called "Amsterdam") where drugs were essentially
legalized — dealers caught selling drugs outside of those areas received stiff
penalties. Later, however, a city councilman looking to further his political
ambitions exposed Amsterdam to the press, thereby ending the experiment.
Colvin, subsequently relieved of his command, is
now asked to participate in a program to assist at-risk students in the public
school system. Working with educators and sociologists, he helps break through
the street-hardened armor of the school’s most incorrigible ne’er-do-wells.
Sadly, he watches his aims be thwarted as his compatriots are forced to teach to
the test and as the Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor play blame-game
politics over a $50 million school operating deficit.
This season’s episodes continue the previous three years’ gritty dialogue,
brilliant acting, complex plot lines, realistic depictions of flawed heroes and
sleazy villains, and enough dead bodies to keep a "No Vacancy" sign flashing at
the metropolitan morgue. This won’t suit everybody — much like other HBO series, the program is violent and features obscene language, dissolute lifestyles and disturbing behavior
But "The Wire" makes clear that our cultural zeitgeist admits that our public school system is broken and that government attempts to provide solutions only exacerbate the problems. While some may claim that "The Wire" takes dramatic license to make its points, this excellent show actually pulls its punches. "If anything," Burns stated on the show’s Web site, "our depiction of an inner-city school system, its problems and its unwillingness to fully address those problems, is a very generous one."
Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public
Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the
author and the Center are properly cited.