George Lucas Educational Foundation

Can "The Wire" Tell Us How to Reach the Unreachable?: Putting the Focus on At-Risk Kids

A former inner city teacher reflects on a devil's bargain.
By Lisa Morehouse
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Watching fourth-season episodes of the acclaimed HBO television series The Wire, I immediately recognized the students who were the show's focus -- the personality-filled teenagers who can derail a class with one outburst, who can make great strides for weeks, then backtrack in an instant, whose chaotic lives (the little we know about them) can make academic problems seem minuscule.

Can The Wire Tell Us How to Reach the Unreachable?Credit: HBO/Paul Schraldi

The Wire centers on West Baltimore's "corner kids." Defined by the show in contrast with "stoop kids," who grow up in the ghetto but are still under their families' watch, corner kids make up a small minority of young people, those abandoned by their families and committed to and wrecked by the laws of the street. They're either unable to function in schools as they exist in much of inner city America, or they're savvy enough to know that the system doesn't serve them. The Wire asks, "What do we do with these kids?"

And it answers that question with an experiment: In the show, the most disruptive corner kids are separated from the rest of the student body into their own classroom.

It's not as if this division is a stretch. The most troubled kids in schools are often isolated from others, by official mandate or not. Research documents the disturbing number of African American boys nationwide who are shuffled into special education classes despite the lack of evidence that they have learning disabilities. And many times, the most defiant students just get kicked out of class and school.

Even educators committed to the achievement of students living in poverty see the pull of a formal separation between students. Jeffrey Robinson, principal of Baltimore Talent Development High School, says, "I think most principals and most teachers would agree that if they could get rid of one to two kids in every class, they could increase achievement by a whole lot."

When Carla Finkelstein taught high school in West Baltimore, her teaching team had some scheduling autonomy. Each year, the team debated creating what they called a "knucklehead class" but couldn't philosophically agree on the purpose. Would it be, she asks, "to get at the root of what's really going on with those kids, or to ditto them to death," keeping them busy with worksheets while creating calm learning environments for their other students?

The Wire experiments with what Finklestein calls a public health response to corner kids. In the show, a small number of students are pulled from general classes and put together with multiple adults, including mental health professionals, who work at the causes of these students' disruptive behavior and their disengagement from school.

Finklestein, who now helps run a public charter school in Baltimore, says that by playing out this classroom experiment over a whole season, the show asks the questions "What would it look like if it were done well? and "What social consequences would it have?" without providing pat answers. "I think that was a smart piece for them to put in the show, because that's a tremendous tension," Finklestein says. A minority of kids come to school with such intractable issues, she adds, that "you can't solve the problem just by giving the kid a tutor or giving them access to a computer."

Whether teachers agree with The Wire's experiment or not, the story line is crushingly on point: After the adults reach some level of understanding of the corner kids' real values and fears, the program is terminated because of the pressures of standardized testing.

Lisa Morehouse, a former teacher, is now a public-radio journalist and education consultant.

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Bob T's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

NO Child Left Behind should have only one regulation: Schools are only 50% responsible for the contract of providing free education to students in this country, and the other 50% of the contract should fall on the shoulders of the student and their parents or guardians to meet the specific educational demands and behavioral expectations of a normal competent adult population and toss out all the excuses for bad behavior, unwillingness to be educated, politically correct garbage and high stakes testing mandates. Let's give students an education which will make them employable and of value in the future to society. If not, they need to be sent for professional help until they can demonstrate they're ability to function within the educational structure. ANYTHING LESS IS ALLOWING OPEN THEFT OF TAXPAYER'S DOLLARS AND THE EDUCATION OF THE CHILDREN WHO ARE IN SCHOOL TO LEARN.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first response when I saw the title of the article "No Child Left Behind, It's Here to Stay," was to ask myself, "Why, if it only tells lies about America's public schools?"

My rural high school just barely made annual yearly progress this year. That made no sense to me because I have such high achieving group of tenth graders. I went in search of the answer. That's when I discovered the big lie. In my state, only 10th graders in beginning algebra and geometry are counted for annual yearly progress. The only 10th graders in my high school that are taking algebra or geometry in tenth grade are those who are in the slow-track or identified with learning disabilities. Most of the tenth graders are taking intermediate algebra, trigonometry, or college algebra. Of approximately 200 students in the tenth grade class, only the bottom 90 were counted. Forty-three of those 90 were identified special education. Forty-seven percent of the 90 students passed the exam. The public was informed that only 47% of our students made annual yearly progress, when, in truth, 76% of our 10th graders have proven competency. The children who are being "left behind" in the numbers are our best students.

Bryan Wilkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You allude to the idea that the experiment is working then must be closed because of stanardized testing. Never seen a program that is working closed. Only those programs not working or serving a viable purpose are closed. There is more to the closing of the program than is presented. Do NOT blame everthing on standardized testing.

Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Caring for a child who needs help and cannot fend for herself is more important to me than keeping the majority of my taxpayer dollars.

I would rather a progressive (like many countries that are now overtaking our economy), and put the focus on education and helping those without voices. If we all collectively cared more for the population we would be fine with taxes in the 70-80% bracket that went entirely to servicing growth, learning, and well being, like renovating the education system and health fields.

Leon Darden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Coming from a similar background as those young men on the fourth season of "The Wire", it is my assertion that the excuse making and attempts to circumvent the educational plans that have been laid out, and serve to the detriment of those very students those programs are claiming to assist. For instance, what was the cure years ago for what is now called ADD and ADHD? It was a belt. If your mother or father were sitting in the classroom with a belt ready at a moments notice to discipline you, would your learning disablity act up? I don't think so. Young people have asperations and outside influences that we don't condone. Often times, and I can relate, these young people are products of their environemt. The problem is discipline which stems from the way these types of children are being raised. I am not a fan of No Child Left Behind, but all I can do as an educator and a parent is adapt, and so does my son. Excuses never work, and diagnosing and isolating children with behavior issues with learning disabilities is morally irreprehensible and irresposible.

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