The Wire, An HBO Series

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The Wire, an HBO series, is a highly acclaimed weekly dramatic series that concluded its fifth and final season in March, 2008. The sixty episodes take place in Baltimore, Maryland and highlight a different institutional/sociocultural setting each season. Beginning with the initial installment's hard-hitting, gritty depiction of inner-city neighborhoods, the illegal drug trade, and the inner workings of the Baltimore City Police Department, successive seasons focused on the port, the city's political scene, failing local schools, and finally, the Baltimore Sun newspaper and other media outlets. The focus of this paper is on the fourth season and one of the major plot threads involving a group of close knit group of West Baltimore's eighth graders and their math teacher. The aforementioned young men, referred to as corner boys or hoppers due to their connections (both real and perceived) to the local drug economy, battle poverty and the dangerous world of drugs and crime while their teacher navigates the current nature of schooling and the blunt realities associated with urban education.

Finally, we argue that Hollywood does little to aid in extinguishing the war on public education. In fact, feature films tend to characterize public schools, especially in urban spaces, as institutions of mediocrity, melee, desolation, and despair. However, David Simon, author, journalist, social activist, and creator of The Wire, goes against the grain of many school films and casts a brighter light on the deeper issues and concerns of urban public educators. David Simon's critically-acclaimed, popular culture cable television series, The Wire, is more of a social commentary than the urban school films that are products of Hollywood's typical "nonwhite students + urban institution = violent threat formula" (Chennault, 2006). Furthermore, The Wire serves as the context within which we examine and critique standardized testing, constructivist philosophy, and culturally relevant pedagogy.

About The Wire

The measure of the impact of The Wire is considerable. Adjudged to be critically the best program of all time on television by Salon's media critic Laura Miller, the urban tales it portrays with both linguistic and sociological fidelity suggest that The Wire rises to the level of a social and cultural study of the intersections of class, race, and gender in urban spaces.

In this regard, it may be said to exceed the artistic aims of its creator and chief author David Simon, who says, in response to a viewer on HBO's website in 2003, "We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show. The Wire is making an argument about what institutions - bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the culture of addiction, even raw capitalism - does to individuals. It is not designed purely as entertainment. It is, I'm afraid somewhat of an angry show." We have selected Simon's angry show as the antithesis of Hollywood's typical school film, critiquing urban education.

The Wire is set in present day Baltimore, the culmination of over a decade of work presenting criminal justice and urban issues by David Simon, a Baltimore-based author, journalist, and writer-producer of television programs. His Edgar-award winning account of the Baltimore Police Department was made into NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street. This was followed by The Corner, co-written with Edward Burns, produced as a six-hour miniseries on HBO, airing in 2000, winner of an Emmy for Best Miniseries.

The Wire, in its initial season in 2002, concentrated on a West Baltimore drug ring and their clashes with the Baltimore City Police Department, featuring wire taps, surveillance, and undercover operations. The following seasons focused on the ports, the political climate, the youth and schooling, and finally, the media.

Although there are several, more prevalent plotlines throughout the fourth season of The Wire, We focus on Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski. He is a first year mathematics teacher at a Baltimore middle school. Prez is a former police officer who earned a teaching certificate in an alternative teacher preparation program. On the show, school administrators lament that school is starting and they are still in need of math and science teachers. Furthermore, they are skeptical about their new arrival until they learn of his previous occupation.

Prez's eighth grade math class is full of African-American students. However, Prez is never the hero that saves the day. In fact, his naivety allows him to be critical of school policies and issues and to question the nature and order of the current school culture and climate. He struggles to reach his students and in the end does not reach as many as he would have liked. Pryzbylewski is not characterized as a teacher-hero; he is flawed and unsure. He also evolves. In an early scene, when a student questions a particular algorithm, Pryzbylewski's response is rooted in Platonism. Toward the end of the school year, he utilizes more relevant instruction and gravitates toward a constructivist approach to pedagogy and instruction.

The Wire utilizes Pryzbylewski's character in an excellent manner to critique urban public education. Also, it is evident that the teachers in urban spaces are seen as reflective and deliberate negotiators of policy and social issues as well. Urban educators are not represented as inept incompetents. Most importantly, the show depicts the development of an educator and not the exaltation of a teacher-hero.

Just as complex as Pryzbylewski are the four eighth grade boys in his class who are also main characters in other story threads of The Wire's fourth season. There is Namond Brice, the son of a notorious drug dealer who failed to acquire his imprisoned father's criminal ingenuity. Another youngster is Michael Lee. Michael is very protective of his biological brother and his friends as well. He is tough, savvy, and being heavily recruited to participate in West Baltimore's illegal drug economy. Randy Wagstaff is a resourceful foster-child. Finally, there is Duquan Weems. Duquan is the son of an addict and is lucky if he has a clean set of clothes to wear to school each day. An interesting example of the interactions between Prez and the boys comes during a probability lesson. The boys become enamored with the concepts of odds and probability once they learn that they can apply the concepts to gambling games and dice. A tenuous, yet teachable moment ensues. With a room full of similar youths, Mr. Pryzbylewski's classroom can be a pretty dynamic and interesting locale for the observation of social and cultural interactions, the impact of testing, and instructional practices in an urban educational setting.

Standardized Tests

In examining the impact of testing it is important to examine the history of standardized testing. The usage of standardized tests started during World War I but was revamped during the Cold War as a result of the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Prior to Sputnik the United States was in a race for space with the Soviet Union to be the first to launch a man made rocket into space. Once the United States lost the race with the Soviet Union many educational reforms began to take place in education. The major emphases in education were science and mathematics. The US wanted to verify their instructional programs and identify learning problems among individual students. Standardized tests served as a method of accountability for schools to the children that they were responsible for educating and as way to examine the strength and weaknesses of the educational system.

The school reform movements have used standardized tests as their method of accountability. This has placed a greater emphasis on standardized norm reference tests over the last twenty years. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the California Achievement Test and the Metropolitan Achievement test are the most commonly used in elementary and secondary schools. The purpose behind the standardization of tests- which is composed of a standard set of instructions, testing conditions, time allowed, and questions asked- is to be able to compare various groups of students. These tests allow the test evaluator to compare the students to other groups of students on a local, state, or national level. This has also been linked to the level of success, not only for the student but also for the teacher, school, and school system. It is still the intention of the standardized tests but instead of being used as formative assessments they are mainly used as a summative assessment, meaning the end of the road for all those that are affected. For many of the students that take these tests the results are not used to help them learn the material that they have missed but to only highlight what they do not know.

On the state level there is concern over how the state compares with other states. As a result of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), there is a tie to the performance on the standardized tests and the amount of funding to be allotted by the federal government to the state. NCLB is based on the belief that establishing high standards and goals that are measureable can improve educational outcomes individually. The federal legislation behind this act requires states to administer standardized test over basic skills for all students in various grade level to receive federal funding. The basic skills or standards that are to be tested are designed by each state and are not national.

For this reason the states feel a lot of pressure to do well on standardized tests. Many of the reasons include not wanting to be ranked last. This would make the state not as marketable to parents trying to relocate for a better education for their students. Also this would make the state more responsible for the financial management of the school and lessen the amount of funding they may be eligible for at the federal level. Another concern would be the job market of the state and whether or not the schools in the state were producing citizens that would be able to flourish the job markets of the states. For this reason the national government is putting pressures on the states to perform well on the standardized tests. Of course each state is allowed to use its own designated standardized tests based on the standards that the state has adopted.

On the local level there is a lot of concern on how a school system will compete with others within the state. No school system wants to have a low ranking. They all want to feel like they are doing the very best they can to educate their students. Some of this concern is based on the fact that any school that does not meet annual yearly progress (AYP) for three consecutive years may be taken over by the state. No school system wants the shame of being taken over by the state. This would be thought of as a failure to educate the students.

The threat of not meeting AYP puts pressure on the schools within the school system. This is manifested in the form of meeting requirements of attendance, test scores and graduation rates to mention a few. This leads many teachers to teaching to the test and in some cases going further than that. This was the case with Prez and what his school was requiring him to do.

Many teachers blame No Child Left Behind for the criminal acts that they feel forced to commit. If students do not do well on these standardized tests the teachers may lose their jobs and the school may be taken over by the state department of education. For this reason, administrators put a lot of pressure on the teachers to make sure that the students are successful on these tests. Sometimes the pressure is handled appropriately through programs such as special classes for students identified for being at risk of failure, after school and Saturday tutorials or school wide initiatives for success. Even with all of these safety nets in place some students are still not successful. Many of the students are not able to complete the tests, giving them a small chance of passing the tests. For this reason pres tried to make the material that he was teaching more applicable to what they students were doing in their everyday life.

Teachers feel pressured to try to get the students exposed to the material that is going to be on the tests although the students may not be able to master the material. In many cases teachers are forced to follow a pacing guide which dictates what students should be taught on a day to day basis. This does not take into account the individual strengths and weaknesses of students. This puts teachers in a lose-lose situation. Should teachers take the time to make sure that the students really understand and master the material, or should they make sure that the students have at least seen the material that is going to be on the test? Then the teacher has to make the personal decision on how to assess the students in the classroom. This, in some cases, may lead to a discrepancy between the teacher's grade and the standardized assessment. In the case of Prez he decided to make the material meaningful.

Curricular Issues

Across the country, it is apparent that most mathematics curriculums need to be majorly revamped (Lappan, 2005) if not altogether scrapped (Lockhart, 2002) for U.S. students to become proficient in mathematics. Since it seems to be popular belief that most students experience some difficulty in mathematics (Multimedia Technologies, 2009), our country need to produce and implement a mathematics curriculum that would address these mathematics issues as well as produce mathematical competent students. Like other academic and social problems that exist in our present school systems, there are different opinions on what is causing lower mathematics scores and students' distaste of the subject. Some researchers attribute these causes to lack of qualified Mathematics teachers (Boatright, 2008), Highly Qualified Mathematics teachers leaving the profession (Marvel et al. 2007) and the actual delivery method or pedagogy of mathematics concepts (Leonard, 2008). How then do we increase students' interest in mathematics so that they retain the concepts and exhibit true mathematics growth and achievement?

Although there is no cookie cutter solution to our current mathematics dilemma, by looking at current research on learning and teaching strategies, Educators can somewhat remedy mathematical deficiencies in their classrooms by implementing some of the suggestions noted in recent publications. In fact, recent research studies suggest that the implementation of various learning and teaching theories can positively attribute to student achievement in mathematics (Moursund, 2003). While the selections of current learning and teaching theories are many, I have chosen to look specifically at constructivism and the process curriculum in hopes to boost mathematical student achievement in my classroom. Thus, I will discuss Jean Piaget's Constructivism Theory and relate it to our current discussion.


The Theory of Cognitive development, first developed by Jean Piaget, proposes four distinct, increasingly sophisticated stages of mental representation that children pass through on their way to an adult level of intelligence. The four stages which roughly correspond with age are the sensorimotor period (0-2 years; during this stage the child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions), preoperational period (2-7 years; during this stage the child starts applying his new knowledge of language and begins using symbols to represent objects), concrete operational period (7-11 years; during this stage, accommodation increases, the child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgments about concrete or observable phenomena), and the formal operational period (12 years and up; this stage occurs during adolescence and is the last stage in Piaget's Theory; this terminal stage brings cognition to its final structure. The learner now uses deductive and inductive reasoning). Although there are numerous educators, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists who have added new perspectives to the constructivist learning theory and practices, major contributors are Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and David Ausubel.

In Sum, Piaget suggests that students learn by doing to experience meaningful learning. If Piaget's constructivism theory is implemented in the mathematics curriculums (via facilitation, collaboration, etc.) in this sitution, it can be assumed that students would retain information from mathematics longer, grasp the concept no matter the difficulty level and in turn, student achievement will be maximized. Among the numerous educators, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists who have added new perspectives to the constructivist learning theory and practices, major contributors are Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and David Ausubel.

Cultural Relevance

Are the needs of the minority population were being met with the teaching strategies being taught during pre-service training? The achievement gap would suggest that alternative teaching strategies should be investigated to reach some minority students. One teaching strategy that has been successful in various case studies is culturally relevant pedagogy.

Culturally relevant pedagogy was chosen as a teaching framework because it addresses some of the concerns with respect to minority students, the achievement gap, and their alienation with regards to mathematics. Based on the clip in the "Wire", the teacher demonstrated differentiating instruction to address the needs of the minority students. The hope is that the faculty would understand that incorporating the culturally relevant teaching strategy within their classroom environment would help the students to recognize their culture is both important and relevant. Another desire is with increase self-esteem and self-awareness, the level of student comprehension and achievement would increase.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is a teaching theory that focuses on reflective teaching strategies that encompasses the students' cultural knowledge and prior experiences (Howard, 2001). Culturally relevant teaching focuses on the student's strengths and tries to incorporate these strengths into the classroom. Culturally responsive teaching practices have the following considerations or characteristics: acknowledges diverse cultural heritage of students to learning and tries to incorporate it into formal curriculum, bridges the home and school environments, uses different instructional strategies to reflect different learning styles, praises the diversity in differential cultural backgrounds, and incorporates resources and materials that reflect different cultures for use in content curriculum (Howard, 2001).

The main goal of culturally relevant pedagogy is to increase student achievement and improve student performance (Love & Kruger, 2005). The aim is to decrease the achievement gap amongst students from culturally and linguistically diverse and low-income backgrounds. The changes in the ethnic make-up of the classroom are making the concept of teaching inclusive of cultural background a more relevant consideration. The classroom make-up is becoming more heterogeneous, where minority represented races numbers are increasing.

There are many scholars that argue the importance of culturally relevant pedagogy. The major proponent of this teaching theory is Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings. Other scholars include K. Au, A.W. Boykin, J. King, M. Foster, G. Gay, and M.B. Miles.

With mathematics, as with other subjects, certain topics are easier to pull examples from everyday life to enhance the classroom experience. Using situations that are relatable to daily life allows teaching to continue outside the traditional classroom. The culturally relevant pedagogy teaching strategy can be applied to any subject area. The key to its application is remembering the diversity of the students in the classroom. According to Love and Kruger (2005) the combination of positive attitudes and higher expectations from the teachers enhances the interpersonal involvements between the students and the teacher. The improved interactions should result in increased student efforts which hopefully translate to improved student achievement.

Au and Jordan conducted a case study investigating the linguistic differences in the Hawaiian culture at the Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP) (Howard, 2001). The study examined methods that were used to teach native Hawaiian children how to read while incorporating the traditions of the Hawaiian culture, the "talk story." The methods utilized applied less emphasis on the sound-symbol relationships and relied more heavily on the linguistic patterns observed in the Hawaiian language. The results of implementing these culturally relevant teaching strategies were successful. The merging of the home and school environment allowed the students to maintain academic success while embracing their individual culture.

"Ladson-Billings (1994) has argued that one of the central principles of culturally relevant pedagogy is an authentic belief that students from culturally diverse and low-income backgrounds are capable learners" (Howard, 2003, p. 197). Many studies and surveys revealed that non-Caucasian students desire for the teachers to illustrate a level of care and concern for their well-being. This care translates to the idea that the teacher cares about the student's academic achievement. The basis of culturally relevant pedagogy satisfies the third hierarchy level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs love and belonging with the hope that student achievement will follow.

It is important to remember that all students have different learning styles. The challenge of teaching the students with various learning styles and experiences is that they are all being taught in the same classroom by typically one teacher. However, by trying to get to know the students in the classroom and creating lessons that relate to their culture while maintain the rigor dictated by the grade level standards, the students have more buy-in to the concepts and apply more effort.

In conclusion, the culturally relevant pedagogy can enhance the learning environment of a very diverse classroom as demonstrated by the cop/teacher in the The Wire. The individual experiences and individuality of students themselves are accentuation in these theories. The students are encouraged to think outside the traditional boundaries of the classroom and apply daily examples to learning. Because of the push for task based and project based learning, discovery learning is being incorporated into the classrooms more. Teachers are being encouraged to ask the students to be more creative thinkers.