Every episode of The Wire has a quote associated with it. The show’s creators begin each episode with a cold open, followed by the credits, which end with a quote card. Usually, the quote is from the episode. In season 5, there is an H. L. Mencken quote before episode 10, “-30-,” the series finale.

Episode 2 of season 1, “The Detail,” features a quote from Marla Daniels, wife of Lieutenant Cedrick Daniels who’s been tasked with heading up a special unit to bust West Side boss Avon Barksdale on drug charges.

Over a nice dinner in their well-appointed home, Marla tells Cedrick that, “You cannot lose if you do not play.”

Cedrick fears reprisal from his supervisors if he complains about the bad cops on his detail. He also fears reprisal if he pushes the case too hard and winds up with good cops who want to make a bigger case against Barksdale.

Marla (who has political aspirations of her own that we find out about later in the series – she needs him to seem like a good cop) urges caution and discretion. She urges Cedrick not to play at pursuing the case any further than his bosses want him to. If he plays to get better cops, he loses by exposing his bosses’ dance of the lemons. If he wins and gets better cops, he loses because those cops will want to pursue additional drug and homicide charges against Barksdale, which would mean a longer investigation. A longer investigation would mean that his bosses can’t reclaim the media cycle from news of a murdered state’s witness.

Regarding teaching, I have heard Marla’s warning before from people near and far, explicitly and implicitly. I have taken into account the consequences of asking for more or settling for less. I have maneuvered and compromised and given up. I have experienced Cedrick’s self-doubt and ambivalence. If I ask for more time to make a different case for teaching and learning, how does that impact my division’s test scores, AYP, and accreditation this year?

I don’t need to ask for better people – I trust my colleagues and value my students’ immensely. I treasure our learning. However, I sometimes ask for different resources and permissions than those I’m given.

Thankfully, my leaders are not like Cedrick’s. They support different kinds of work in the division.

So sometimes I play. Sometimes I lose.

But that’s okay.

I’m not like Marla. I don’t teach to win. I teach to learn.

Watching Cedrick try to make up his mind about the game over the course of five seasons is one of the profound joys of the show; trying to make up my own mind about it is probably the motivating discontent of my career.


“You can’t even call it a war.”

Posted: November 10, 2010 by Chad Sansing in Episode 1, Season 1, The Wire
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From the first episode of The Wire, it’s clear that what the characters do is who they are. The series does a peerless job of matching its characters with their motivations, actions, and words. The characters don’t get sacrificed for a cameo, joke, or moral, ever, across five seamless seasons that, in my mind, are like the cantos of divine television.

The Wire is bespoke to its creators, characters, and audience. Many people haven’t seen it, and those that have seem split into two camps: those who stopped watching after a few episodes because the series was too dark, and those who watched the entire run, sometimes repeatedly, and somehow found something beautiful in it. I could watch it forever, like how I used to watch Puff the Magic Dragon, Star Wars, and Superman at my granddad's house.

Like Trevor said when we brainstormed this blog, "It's going to be like a reunion of all my friends that I haven't seen in a long time."

I invite everyone invested in changing American public schools to join us – first-time viewers, series vets, Baltimore natives, educators, the show’s creators, cast, and crew, and, especially, those of you willing to give the show a second chance. This blog is meant to help us take another look at education as we take another look at The Wire and the way it uncannily and unerringly portrays the lives of people living, working, and dying in dysfunctional systems.

We plan to watch and write about one episode per week, and we begin this week with episode 1:1, “The Target.”

My reactions:

  1. People are invested in what they do. Teachers teach. Learners learn. However, students aren’t necessarily interested in what we teach, even though they’re learning all the time. Do we teachers ignore what we learn about change, design, and relationships when that information is given to us through student resistance and disengagement? Without sacrificing the potential of schooling to create really tightly knit, positive communities, how do we better structure public school so that it’s something our students want to do – intrinsically – without being coerced into doing it by immediate punishment and reward, which short-circuit the kind of internally framed and motivated thinking needed to make connections and discoveries? What in Wallace’s life can compete with handling the money in the pit, and why doesn’t school do so?
  2. Kima, Herc, and Carver joke around about typewriters, computers, and training that’s a year overdue. Forget about training – what common technologies, apps, and definitions of learning are a year (or more) overdue in schools? If technology makes us more efficient, and we want our students to be efficient learners in our compartmentalized, test-drive world, why do we structure school to make them inefficient? Why do we break up their day to prevent flow, change up the tools available to them by class, and forbid them from fact-finding and fact-checking on the Internet because it’s cheating when they do it (but not when we do)?
  3. “You can’t even call it a war. . . . Wars end.” So much of The Wire is about shifting tactics in the war on drugs. The cops and drug dealers adapt to one another’s behavior. Their successes and failures usually result in a shuffle of personnel. Sometimes the bad guys’ shuffles make more sense than to good guys’ do. Business goes on. Cops keep policing. Dealers keep dealing. There is no game-changer, despite the many changes in the game. How do we get past this stalemate in education? How do we change games and shift purposes and premises rather than people and programs? Creativity, divergent thinking, and entrepreneurship should be the foundation of our curriculum rather than the byproduct of standardized education driving its rebels into disruptive innovation. Our commitment to universal education – to helping everyone, including Snot Boogie, secure the blessings of liberty – should never end, but our back-and-forth on the best way to standardize education must. It’s customization – the promise that school can offer something meaningful to each student – that will most effectively bring back the disenfranchised and the disengaged. How do we make school less antagonistic? How do we deliver opportunities in school that compete with those that students have outside school? How do we make school into something that isn’t a war, but matters more? School should be an apprenticeship for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for individuals and communities; is it already?

I hope you’ll chime in, or even consider watching and writing with us next week.

Let me know if you’d like to participate, or just leave a comment to that effect below.

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.