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.
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.