Children Left Behind (I Riff on Season Four of The Wire)

1. I’ve been rewatching David Simon’s Baltimore epic The Wire, generally regarded as one of the best if not the best, TV series ever. I’ve been watching with my wife, who’s never seen the show before. I’m going to riff on a few of the themes of season four of The Wire here, and there will be spoilers.

If you’ve never seen The Wire and you think that some day you want to see it (it’s as good as everyone says it is, so you should want to see it) you shouldn’t read this post because of the spoilers.

2. Season four of The Wire takes education as its central subject. Specifically, it examines the different ways in which personal circumstance and chance (and maybe fate) intersect with institutions. The simplest example of one of these institutions might be Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, but there are other institutions too—the city’s political core, including the Mayor and his advisers, the police and their various detention centers, and even the criminal organizations that foster their own trainees.

3. Season four gives us four eighth graders to care about. The first episode of the season, “The Boys of Summer,” establishes these characters as they prepare to head from childhood into a more complex—and violent—world:

Childish joy and youthful agitation mixes with real territorial violence here; everything that follows in the season shades this scene with a bleak irony.

4. Season four presents a series of possible mentor relationships, wherein various principal characters contend to steward, foster, educate, or otherwise help these four kids turn into four men.

Roland Pryzbylewski, one-time detective-cum-fuck-up, becomes the teacher Mr. Presbo. He idealistically tries to help the four kids, who all take his class together. Parallel to Pryzbylewski’s efforts in the classroom are Dennis “Cutty” Wise’s efforts in the boxing gym; he hopes to take these kids off the corners as well. Initially, Presbo fosters Randy and Dukie while Cutty tries to make headway with Namond and Michael.

As the season develops, different mentors present themselves for each of the kids. Almost all fail.

Cutty loses whatever inroads he had on mentoring Michael, who comes under the tutelage of the dark assassin Chris. Tellingly, Michael enlists Chris in killing off his brother Bug’s father; the assassination is Oedipal.

Mr. Presbo helps Dukie in real and meaningful ways, making sure that the indigent child has clean clothes and a place to shower, but also showing him a kind of loving respect wholly absent in his relationship with “his people,” hopeless, horrible drug addicts. However, after Dukie is promoted to high school early, Mr. Presbo realizes that he will have to limit his involvement with the boy. He sees that there will always be another Dukie to come along, and that he can’t “keep” the boy—only steward him for a year or two.

After a series of institutional bungles, Carver tries to protect Randy, but loses him to a group home. The last time we see Randy he receives a savage beating at the hands of his roommates.

5. (I should now bring up Sherrod, a dim bulb of maybe 15 who seems to have dropped out of school years ago. Homeless, he’s “schooled” by Bubbles, who first tries to make him return to Tilghman, and then, seeing the boy won’t go, tries to teach him some basic survival skills. Sherrod ends up dead though, and Bubbles, feeling that the death is his fault (which it is in part), attempts suicide. Another failed mentor.

We can also bring up Bodie, whom McNulty attempts to help, albeit the relationship here is hardly on the mentor/avuncular (which is to say, displaced father/son) axis that the other five boys experience. Still, McNulty tries to steer Bodie to a path that would help absolve the young man’s conscience. The path leads to the young man’s murder).

6. And Namond?

Namond is perhaps the most fascinating figure in season four, at least for me. He’s a spoiled brat, hood rich, the son of infamous Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey Brice who is doing life for multiple murders. Namond is petulant and mean and immature. He bullies Dukie, yet he doesn’t have the “heart” (in the series’s parlance) to manage selling drugs on his corner, a weakness that comes to harsh light when a child of no more than eight steals his package of drugs. Namond is a mama’s boy, but bullied by an overbearing mother, a woman who encourages him to drop out of school to sell drugs for her own material comfort. He is not made of the same stuff as his father.

Namond is also creative, funny, charismatic, individualistic, and intelligent. Bunny Colvin sees these qualities and sees an opportunity to help—to really help—one person. And here is the moment of consolation in season four. It’s a consolation for Colvin, who has experimented twice now with programs that bucked the institutional path (Hamsterdam in season three; the corner kids project in season four), and perhaps it’s a consolation for Cutty, who is instrumental in connecting Colvin with Wee-Bey. But it’s also a consolation for the audience, who perhaps will concede that one out of four ain’t bad. (Although clearly, three out of four children are left behind).

7. The Wire’s emphasis on Baltimore locations, specific regional dialects, and its use of local, semi-professional actors afforded the show a strong sense of realism. Straightforward shots and short scenes added to this realism. What I perhaps like most about The Wire’s realism is its near-complete lack of musical cues: other than the opening song and closing credits soundtrack, the only music that appears in any scene in The Wire is internal to the scene, i.e., we only hear music if the characters are hearing it (in their cars, on their stereos, etc. — a la rule two of Dogme 95).

The Wire breaks from these formal realistic conventions at the end of each season, using a montage—a device it almost always avoids—overlaid with a song. Here’s the montage from the end of season four:

8. I include the montage as a means to return to point 6, Namond. The images unfold, giving a sense of where our characters (those who survive season four) will go next (the universe of The Wire is never static; our characters are always in motion). The montage settles (about 4:40 in the video above) to rest on Namond, working on his homework, clearly more comfortable if not at ease in his new life with the Colvins. A family embraces on the porch of the house behind the Colvin house, signaling that Namond has finally arrived in an institution that can protect and foster and nourish him—a loving family. A reminder of his old life as a corner boy enters  the scene as the young car thief Donut pulls up, smiling; there’s an implicit offer to return to the corner life here. Then Donut blazes through a stop sign, almost causing a wreck. Namond’s troubled face signals that he’s learned something, but it also twists into a small grin. The shot lingers on the crossroads: open possibility, but also the burden of choice.

9. (Parenthetical personal anecdote that illustrates why season four is, for me, easily the most emotionally affecting entry in The Wire:

For seven years I taught at an inner city high school that was plagued by low test scores, low student interest, and violence. The school’s population was about 95% black, with most students receiving free or reduced lunch. I was still working at this school when I first saw The Wire’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, and although the depiction was hyperbolic in places, the general tone of chaos and apathy was not at all unfamiliar to me. There were fights at my school. Brawls. Gang violence. Murders even—student-on-student murders that still haunt me today (these didn’t happen on campus, but they were still our students). I recall one day leaving early—I had fourth period planning and my principal allowed me to leave once a week to attend a graduate school course—and being stunned to see two swat trucks pull up around the school and unload teams of militarized police.

Most of our students were good people trying to get a good education despite very difficult circumstances that were beyond their own control—poverty, unstable family environments, severe deficits in basic skills like reading and math. And most of our teachers were good people trying to help these students as best as they knew how in spite of a draconian, top-heavy management structure that emphasized the  Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) as the end-all be-all of education.

I’m tempted here to rant about tests like the FCAT and legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, rant about how they drain schools of resources, rob children of a true education, and limit teachers’ and schools’ ability to differentiate instruction—but that’s not the point of this riff.

Probably more productive to let The Wire illustrate. I’ve sat in meetings like this one (I imagine many educators have):

The primary goal of the institution is always to maintain the institution, no matter what the mission statement might be.

What I’m trying to say here is that The Wire’s  Edward J. Tilghman Middle School strikes me as very, very real).

10. I’ll conclude by returning to Namond and Colvin and suggest that this is the closest thing to a happy ending that The Wire could possibly produce. The Wire perhaps boils down to the evils of institutionalism (of any kind); Colvin (and, to be fair, Cutty and Wee-Bey to a certain extent) must take an individualistic response to bypass institutional evils. (In season five, McNulty will carry out an individualistic response to institutional apathy—which is to say practical evil—on a whole new level).

The Wire plainly shows us that life costs, that all decisions cost, and that decisions cost in ways that we cannot calculate or measure or foresee. Namond’s future comes at the cost, perhaps, of Michael, Dukie, and Randy, the children who are left behind. And here is the real evil of a mantra like “no child left behind”—its sheer meaningless as a philosophy inheres in its essentially paradoxical nature, whereby if no single child can be left behind then all children can be left behind—the institution simply redefines or “jukes” what “behind” means. Colvin’s solution, on one hand, is to pragmatically assess the costs and payoffs of managing his interest in education, in being “a teacher of sorts” (as he calls it). (This pragmatic side echoes his Hamsterdam experiment in season three). Colvin’s pragmatism is successful though not only because he realizes his limitations—he cannot help just any child, and certainly not every child—it is also successful because it is tempered in love.

Abolish No Child Left Behind

I teach at an inner-city school, and I’ve witnessed first hand just how awful NCLB has been: it basically aims to make zombies out of kids. Here’s a personal anecdote that best sums up how NCLB’s rigid testing processes work to attack the fostering of free thought: I was administering an FCAT practice test, and a young lady of about 15 years or so raised her hand for my assistance. Her problem was that the answer box for a short response question was far too small to accommodate her answer (her handwriting was also large). We are teaching kids to literally “think inside the box”; we are also mandating that there is always only “one right” answer to problems, which is plainly false.

Please take a few seconds to sign the online petition to abolish this heinous crime against our young people.

More information–far more salient than my anecdotal ranting–from Stan Karp’s excellent critique of NCLB (via the ANCLB Facebook Group):

Claim: Annual standardized testing is the key to bringing school improvement and accountability to all schools. “For too long,” says the Department of Education, “America’s education system has not been accountable for results, and too many children have been locked in underachieving schools and left behind. … Testing will raise expectations for all students and ensure that no child slips through the cracks.”

Reality: A huge increase in federally mandated testing will not provide the services and strategies our schools and students need to improve. Most states and local districts have dramatically increased the use of standardized tests over the past two decades, but this did not solve the problems of poor schools. Some estimate that the new federal law will require states to give more than 200 additional tests at a cost of more than $7 billion.
Many studies show that standardized testing does not lead to lasting increases in student achievement and may in fact reduce it. Researchers at Arizona State University recently completed the largest study ever done on the issue. They concluded that “rigorous testing that decides whether students graduate, teachers win bonuses and schools are shuttered, an approach already in place in more than half the nation, does little to improve achievement and may actually worsen academic performance and dropout rates.” (New York Times, 12/28/02)

Continue reading “Abolish No Child Left Behind”

Michael Jordan, Quantifiable Data, The Pursuit of Excellence, and Public Education in America

I came of age (as the hackneyed phrase goes) in the nineties, a magical time when the Chicago Bulls ruled the world and Michael Jordan was the king of the universe. As a young kid, I didn’t really care about sports: I wasn’t very good at them and I didn’t really grow up in America, so my exposure and interest were limited on two fronts. But by 1991, my family had moved back to the States and I was suddenly aware of something very, very cool: there were these guys, the Bulls, who played like the best orchestra in the world. They were all awesome individually–Michael Jordan was basically God in Nikes, and there was this guy Scottie Pippen who was a star in his own right–but they also played as a real team. By the time the Bulls were going for their “threepeat” in the ’92 NBA season I–and just about every other kid in America–loved the Bulls. I didn’t really even care about basketball, to be honest–I liked it all right I guess, but what I really loved was to watch Jordan play. By the time I was headed to college, the Bulls were finishing up their second “threepeat,” and I knew for certain that I didn’t really care about basketball at all–just the Bulls and Jordan. I also knew that this was somehow lame or shameful, and it was also kind of sad. I only cared about seeing something really, really good. But who could blame me–especially after Jordan decided to come back after giving minor league baseball a shot, especially after game five of the ’97 championship, when Jordan, running a fever of over one hundred degrees, scored 38 points including a game-deciding three-pointer in the last minute. That’s pure magic; that’s divine spirit channeled. But why am I going on about this? You were probably there too, and if you weren’t, you know the mythology.

The point is that we love winners in America. We love to see someone excel at something, to do something better than anyone else, and do it harder, faster, longer, more, more, more. We don’t just want excellence, we want spectacular excellence (and conversely, devastating, soul-crushing failure). And we want excellence we can measure: points made, times beaten, wins racked up, championship victories accrued. We want to know for sure who won: we don’t like ties (soccer will never really take off in America). We want objective evidence to point to, so we can say plainly what is good and what is great and what is excellent and what is not: see, the numbers are right there.

This need for winners is, of course, not confined to the world of sports. Americans now seem to want to know who the winners in education are: they want test scores and school grades that objectively determine what a student knows or does not know. But the ability to think critically, rationally, logically, and creatively cannot truly be determined objectively. Education isn’t a basketball game, with points, and winners, and losers. When a basketball team is good, we know that they’re good because there is a system of rules that make the game a game (without the rules, there is no game). However, education is not a game, and treating it as such is unfair to young people in schools.

I am not making an argument that all kinds of testing be done away with, or that objective testing can’t provide a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of students and schools. The right kind of tests help assess deficiencies that can then be remedied. However, America is doing little right now to educate their children. Our educational model in this country goes back to the Industrial Revolution; we are behind the rest of the world in science education; we have abandoned the idea of teaching civic responsibility and bought in to the myth that to be American is to be a cannibal capitalist. There is clearly a gap between public expectations of public education and public support of public education. I don’t think that the average American comprehends the genuine literacy crisis that this country is faced with right now, but it’s real, it’s happening, and the results will be objectively measurable in the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country.

I’m on a rant now; sorry. I’ll try to be clearer: standardized tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) are a big waste of taxpayer money. They prove nothing and divert resources–money and educators’ time and energy–away from meaningful instruction and real learning. I’m not arguing that the test is too difficult–it’s not, and you certainly should be able to master such material in order to graduate high school–but the amount of stock the state has put into this test is ridiculous. It delimits creative and complex thought, limiting students to bubbling answers without recourse to explanation or rationale. Even the written response sections don’ t allow for real analytical assessment–students must literally think inside a tiny little box, and if their answer goes outside of the box, it will not be considered for grading. We need to abandon these types of tests and replace them with a meaningful, real-world based curriculum. We need to teach kids word processing, website design, standard office programs. Institute new hands-on science programs. Bring back shop, home ec, etc. But that’s not what’s happening: instead of curricula based on real-world needs, Florida continues to ask for objective data in place of real thinking, test scores instead of laboratories and practicums.

We all knew that Michael Jordan was great; we didn’t need the scoreboard to tell us. We didn’t need the MVP awards and National Championships and thousands of points he made to tell us. You could see it in his jump, in his tongue, in his eyes. It came out of the TV and you could feel it. MJ’s excellence was truly excellent because it transcended objective data: even a nerd like me could recognize it and honor it and hope to reach something close to it in some unknown way. We loved MJ because he represented an unquantifiable, nearly ineffable excellence; I believe that this excellence has a potential analog in the mind of any student in this country. But when we get hung up on things like points, scores, and grades, we not only send the wrong message, we also squander and misspend that potential.