Lt. Daniels and The Politics of Mediocrity (because Chad stole my quote).

Posted: November 17, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Uncategorized

by Trevor Przyuski

In episode two of The Wire’s first season, Lieutenant Daniels organizes his special task force to investigate West Baltimore’s leading drug lord, Avon Barksdale.  It’s evident from the first glimpse of this rag-tag group of cops that the higher-ups who appointed them to the detail aren’t all that willing to expend the resources necessary.  You see, in the politically charged world of big-city politics, success is measured in the number of arrests made.  The more cops working on long and intricate investigations, the fewer are available to fill arrest quotas that the politicians can prop their campaigns upon.  And in politics, progress that can’t be quantified numerically doesn’t seem to exist.

In our public schools, there are tens of thousands of Lieutenant Daniels’.  They are passionately committed teachers who want to find new and better ways to help children learn, to develop new curriculum and new approaches, and to fix whatever seems to be wrong with the machine we’ve built for educating our kids.  I work with many of them and I’m continually impressed by their ingenuity and, more importantly, their compassion.  And over the course of the last few years, I’ve seen their best work devalued and disregarded because of the constant pressure to improve standardized test scores.  Education is politics, after all, and the only progress that exists is that which we can quantify.

It’s not that administrators and central office brass don’t want kids to be more successful.  No one with a heart would willfully obstruct a student’s potential.  But we have yet to find ways to quantify those elements of cognitive growth that point to academic success.  There is no multiple-choice test for critical thinking, no rubric for self-possession, no data matrix for open-mindedness or cultural sensitivity.  True progress in these areas doesn’t exist in the concrete world of political expedience.  Furthermore, the administrator who found him or herself in a school building full of teachers who were occupied with experimentation, reflection, and concept-based teaching and learning would likely be at risk for diminished results on end-of-year test scores.  They’d be admonished and possibly fired for misallocating their human resources.  What is an administrator to do when their very job security rests on arbitrary data from an inauthentic assessment that no one outside of the state legislature truly believes in?

Near the end of the episode, Lt. Daniel’s wife reiterates for us what Daniels already knows.  He’s set up to fail.  “If you push too hard, they’ll hang you for it,” she tells him over dinner. “If you don’t push enough and make no arrests, they’ll blame you for it.”  She goes on to offer some sage advice.  “You can’t lose if you don’t play.” She suggests that for his own self-preservation he do nothing at all, that he accept the status quo and play the game according to whatever rules are given him.  He understands this yet we can see in his expression that this would truly be the greatest loss.  Teachers understand this all too well.

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