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Exhausting Every Possibility

Posted: December 14, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Uncategorized

In Episode Four of The Wire, Detectives McNulty and Griggs learn that in order to get approval for a much needed wire tap to help their case against Avon Barksdale, they have to prove that every traditional means of surveillance has been exhausted and that only the wire tap will move their case forward. In order to do this, they plan to follow a suspect for a day with the intention of losing him every chance they get.  In the counter-intuitive world of police work, this plan is a stroke of genius.

It begs the question though: Have we as educators exhausted every means of traditional teaching and learning before jumping to high-tech, new fangled modes of delivering instruction?  And how many students have we lost, intentionally or otherwise, trying to prove that the “old ways” no longer work?

All the teachers that I can recall having an impact on me as a student from grade school to grad school (shout out: Sister Mary Katherine, Ms. Tomlinson, Mr. Baumgartner, Mr. Nevil, Prof. Brown, Prof. Robinson, Mr. Timms) have two things in common.  One, they seemed to genuinely care about the quality of my thinking and, two, they put forth lots of tough questions and very few answers.  They were as traditional and “old school” as you can imagine.  There were no web sites, no self-paced-interactive-virtual-learning laboratories.  They simply engaged me as an emerging human being and challenged me to accomplish tasks.  They supported me, coaxed me, sometimes threatened me (“I’m calling your Mom”), and always encouraged me to do more.  Do we as modern 21st Century educators still employ those worn out old strategies of human interaction?  It’s harder than putting a bored and distracted kid in front of a computer, no doubt. But have we exhausted the possibilities of unplugged human interaction?

Later in the episode, Officer Herc, usually a bull in china closet, sits down for a short but heartfelt chat with the grandmother of a young suspect for whom he is searching. After apologizing for his rude intrusion into her house, he listens quietly to her story of how difficult it was trying to raise this boy whose life had been ruined by drugs and poverty before he was even born.  It’s a rare moment of kindness in the life of a narcotics cop.  When Herc returns to his patrol car outside of the house, his partner is curious. “What were you doing in there so long?”  Herc’s response – “Talking” – is met with a puzzled look from his partner.

The idea is so old fashioned it seems innovative.

Prescriptive Teaching = Heroin

Posted: December 1, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Uncategorized

by Trevor Przyuski

While teaching his young charges in the projects how to play chess, D’Angelo Barksdale asserts that in chess, like in life, “the King stay the King.”  The assertion is both ironic and poignant in that D’Angelo Barksdale, while clearly being the most thoughtful and self-possessed dealer in the low rises, is probably the least likely to succeed his ruthless uncle who heads the drug cartel.  It’s too easy to see how humanity and success in something as parasitic as the drug trade is mutually exclusive to draw some deep conclusion about the parallels to public education.  “The Superintendent stay the Superintendent” doesn’t have the same dark meaning.  In fact, for those whose business is “dealing” knowledge, humanity is everything.

What I found more compelling was the scene in which Stringer Bell, the cunning accountant of Barksdale’s drug business, explains to D’Angelo the strange reality of supply and demand in drug transactions.  If the product is good, he explains, the customers buy it. If it’s bad, they buy twice as much.  “The worse we do, the more money we make.” At which point he hands D’Angelo a huge cash bonus for selling so much of his admittedly inferior product.

Let’s talk now about the canned, prescriptive, self-paced, computer-based literacy products that our school divisions seem to be buying left and right. These products, to make a long analogy short, are heroin.  They’re produced by big education companies to be sold at a high price to schools in primarily poorer districts where lagging literacy rates are creating big problems for school administrators (and local politicians). Their stated purpose is to help children learn to read.  And while they make curriculum coordinators and school administrators feel good in the short term for doings “something…anything” to address the problem, what they mostly do is create a self-perpetuating need for more boxed programs just like it and lots of money for the CEOs of the companies who produce them.

By offering school divisions an alternative to costly human reading specialists who require a salary, expensive professional development, and resources, the corporations turning out products like i-Station and Read 180 are making actual human teachers more expendable.  What do we need teachers for when kids can simply switch on the computer, upload the program, and go through the paces of some video game simulation of actual engagement and learning experience? Besides, teachers are demanding. They’re always asking for stuff like new texts, smart boards, and pay raises.  This box of software asks for nothing but a licensing fee and maybe a contract renewal at the end of the agreed upon time. How can a besieged school administrator refuse? The saddest fact is that public trust in schoolteachers has eroded to such a point that we’re turning over our students with the highest need for human engagement to a computer program.  The unanswerable question is this: if an army of well-intended, highly trained, and compassionate human beings can’t win the war against illiteracy, what makes anyone think that a computerized reading program will have any greater impact?

Sadly, the recipe for success for these companies isn’t in ending illiteracy but cashing in on the endless parade of under-motivated, under-educated kids who enter our classrooms every year.  By dealing with reading deficiencies on a kid-by-kid basis and removing the x-factor of a compassionate human teacher who might actually have a larger impact upon a community of learners, the plug-and-play education folks pave a long road of profits at the expense of the very people they claim to help.  And by perpetuating the system in which the poor stay illiterate and the corporate chiefs make profits, they ensure the truth of D’Angelo Barksdale’s assertion that the King truly do stay the King.

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.

by Trevor Przyuski

On first hearing the idea of drawing parallels between the world of teaching and the world of Baltimore’s drug trade as portrayed by HBO’s now famous TV series, The Wire, I imagined it would be, at best, an exercise in stretching one’s metaphoric muscles.  Analogical push-ups, perhaps – trying to create links between dead junkies and RIFed teachers, dishonest cops and department chairs, street corner surveillance and cafeteria duty.  The more I thought of it, however, the more it seemed to make sense.

The Wire is, among other things, an examination of how systems, both legitimate and illegal, are created, protected, sustained, corrupted and, in the end, their own worst enemies.  It also points out – and this is it’s unique genius, that those systems, however corrupt, are filled with human beings whose intentions are alternately noble and insipid, whose convictions are strong and/or misguided, and whose families need to be loved, clothed and fed.  In short, it examines how the worst systems are often made up of the best people and vice versa. In that realization I found the motivation to take on the challenge of watching one episode of The Wire each week and commenting here on the similarities, the differences, and the sheer brilliance of a TV show that I watched religiously and a profession that sometimes causes me to lose my religion.

In the very first episode, the show’s creators, Ed Burns and David Simon, carefully set up the parallel hierarchies of the Baltimore City Police Department and the city’s Westside heroin cartels.  It becomes quickly evident that in both worlds, young and unproven apprentices risk their lives and reputations in order to impress their superiors with the hope of rising to the same prominence as the people who currently make their lives more or less unbearable.  The police captain teaches the young cop how to properly search a car for weapons while on the same block an experienced drug dealer explains to a young runner how to prevent being caught with cash and drugs at the same time.  In both worlds the higher ups depend on the young grunts to do their jobs well, but resent the aspirations of those same subordinates who seek to unseat them from their positions of power. This, the show seems to suggest, is the way of the world – or at least of our society.  While the comparison is apt, one similarity seemed to jump out and it’s there that I was reminded of something I see in our schools.

In the cops-and-dealers world of The Wire, the meritocracy is more authentic on the side of the dealers.  Where Dee, the young drug dealer who messes up business by shooting someone he shouldn’t have shot, gets demoted immediately by the gang boss, Young Detective McNulty is threatened with demotion for actually going beyond the call of duty and creating more work for his superior officers.  Where one is actually punished for inefficiency and bad judgment, the other is punished for being too efficient, for, as Detective Bunk puts it, “giving a f— when it’s not your turn to give a f—.”  And here is where the comparison likely strikes at the nerve of hard-working teachers everywhere.

In the real world of the private sector, hard work is often (not always, but often) rewarded with advancement, a bonus or a raise in compensation.  The guy in the mailroom becomes a junior sales associate, the store manager gets a region to oversee, the Vice President becomes President.  In public education, the hardest working, the most innovative, the most deeply committed teacher has the potential to become…a veteran teacher.  Merit raises don’t exist.  Promotions don’t really exist, unless one considers taking on the added responsibilities of a Department Chair for an extra thousand bucks a year to be a promotion.  There is no functioning meritocracy.  There are lots of theories and reasons for this, but that’s for another time.

The uninitiated will argue that the best teachers can become Principals, where pay is higher and advancement is more attainable.  The assumption of course is that a successful teacher would be a natural leader of a school or a division.  But even the most skillful administrator will admit that the skill set required to be a successful building leader is far different that the skill set for teaching kids.  In fact, most administrators I know are called to becoming principals because of a recognition that their talents suit them more for organizational structure and policy development than helping Suzie understand quadratic equations or motivation Johnny to study for a test.  So this leaves the teacher with nowhere to go but sideways.  Advancement in education requires the teacher to actually leave the profession that they are called to in the first place.  So if the goal of a school system is to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, something is going to have to change.  I mean, why would Detective McNulty, or any other cop, keep being a cop if there was no hope for anything beyond busting bad guys?

Imagine if you will an education system where young teachers (or old ones for that matter) who prove ineffective or inefficient are, like young Dee, moved from their posts and placed under the watchful eye of a veteran teacher until they prove that they’re ready to move back into their own classroom.  And imagine that the veteran teacher given the charge of mentoring the young buck is given a considerable raise for taking on the responsibility of whipping the kid into shape.  Imagine too a system where teachers are advanced to Master Teacher positions as a result of their innovative practices, their engaging modes of instruction, their measured ability to help kids learn.  Imagine if schools ran as efficiently as the drug gangs in the West Side Towers of Baltimore’s ghetto.

What a world it would be.