“The Wire”: A Barbed Portrayal of Urban Public Schools

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 public education.

"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 positive outcome.

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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basic numbers skills and probability and statistics — a method far more effective than the bureaucratically provided out-of-date textbooks and unopened computers gathering dust in school storage rooms.

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.