Edward Burns: Bringing Education Reality to TV
Credit: Peter Hoey
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Book: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, coauthored by Edward Burns
In HBO's acclaimed series The Wire, much of last season's action took place in a fictional inner city West Baltimore middle school where character Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski struggles as a first-year math teacher. A former police detective, he's trying to connect with students, many of them "corner boys" schooled in drug dealing and gangbanging. When Prez catches kids rolling dice in his classroom, he starts to scold -- but, suddenly inspired, he switches gears to explain probability. The lesson clicks. "Trick 'em into thinking they aren't learning, and they do," Prez marvels. Later, he complains to a colleague that his prescribed curriculum doesn't engage students. "The first year isn't about the kids," the other teacher pointedly responds. "It's about you surviving."
The actors are channeling writer-producer Edward Burns, a twenty-year police veteran who left the Baltimore force to spend four years teaching at a middle school and three more at a magnet high school. He's distilled his gritty experiences -- on the street and in the classroom -- into a searing assessment of urban schools.
Episode after episode, The Wire catalogs the social conditions that undermine learning in urban schools: fragmented families, teachers required to teach to the test, crumbling neighborhoods with few legitimate jobs, daunted or indifferent leaders. Walking a blighted route home from school, Randy grouses that his foster mother keeps him "on a leash." "At least you got a leash," says pal Michael, whose drug-addicted mother barely acknowledges him or the little brother he diligently shepherds.
Critics have uniformly praised the series, especially this season. "The Wire," writes Salon.com critic James Hynes, delivers "a passionate and remarkably detailed and incisive critique of public education in the era of No Child Left Behind."
Unsurprisingly, the series also has its detractors. "It's just a distraction, as far as we're concerned," says Henry Duvall, communications director for the Council of Great City Schools. But Brian Morris, chairman of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, calls it "one of the best shows ever done on television." Morris, a 1988 graduate of Baltimore City College High School, praises the level of reality. "It's a very graphic depiction of what many of our children face before they come into our school doors," he says.
Burns went into teaching expecting a break from the harsh encounters of his previous job. "I thought it would be cool," he says. "As a cop, you see the kids at their rawest and ugliest. You think it could be different in the classroom."
Instead, Burns says he found "no educational process to speak of." Many students "were just marking time," he laments in a phone interview. Then he tempers his harsh assessment, recalling the top middle school students, "20 kids out of 240 who were sort of like our superstars, and they came from backgrounds that were very traditional -- two-parent households with high expectations."
Yet even those who hungered to learn faced obstacles, Burns recalls. "The magnet high school was filled with kids who had aspirations, dreams." But, he adds, they were "two to four years behind their counterparts in other jurisdictions. The educational system was so bad, they were nowhere near where they had to be." Baltimore schools remain profoundly troubled, a study by Education Week found last year, graduating just 39 percent of the city's seniors.
Series creator David Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, met Burns while covering a story in 1989 and has tapped into his perspective ever since -- for the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street and for their 1997 book The Corner, and the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries based on it. Simon approached Burns about leaving teaching for television in 2001 to draw on his experiences for The Wire. This last season was "really his season," Simon told Teacher Magazine. "What we're trying to say in the classroom, that's Ed."
The Wire shows an administrator cynically ordering a roundup of truants to pad a school census that determines funding allocations. At the same time, the series also recognizes some educators' dedication -- the extra hours, the supplies purchased out of pocket, the genuine concern and support for students. "There are many heroic teachers," Burns contends, "though in the middle school system, there are fewer of them, because it's such a grueling environment."
Burns' prescription for what ails urban education includes more early intervention, and a lot of outreach from social services agencies. "If you see that problems begin by kindergarten, you first of all provide that child with complete wraparound services. But then you go further," he adds, by giving kids small classes and experienced, committed teachers.
With The Wire, Burns says he's not so much trying to offer a lesson as illustrate "why these kids don't have a chance."
"No one is going to pick the life of a corner thug when there are other options," he says. Unless communities commit more support to youngsters, he predicts, "there will be an endless stream of kids who are not prepared" for productive lives."
"They are exclusively prepared for the world of the corner," Burns adds. "It's beyond tragic. It is criminal."
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