CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new paper from a University of Illinois expert in education law examines the fictional portrayal of popular educational policy reforms favored by academics and policymakers in the fourth season of “The Wire,” the critically acclaimed TV show on HBO from 2002-08, and reviews what the show got right and wrong in its depiction of how a large, urban public school functions in a community.
With the characters and the narrative of “The Wire” as a backdrop, the paper explores how policies such as school uniforms, the importance of role models, curricular innovations, tracking and standardized testing affected the lives of students, teachers and school administrators at a fictionalized public school in East Baltimore, said Margareth Etienne, a professor of law at Illinois.
“I used ‘The Wire’ as a reference point to focus on what we know and what we think we know about public education,” she said. “I examine the school as an institution in urban communities. The 10th anniversary of the completion of ‘The Wire’ provides an accessible opportunity to look at what we’ve learned since then and discern what works and what doesn’t, both on the show and in real life.”
According to the paper, season four of “The Wire” illustrates many of the benefits of public schools, including the “formidable role” they play in the academic and social development of the characters, with the positives outweighing the negatives.
“The biggest misconception is that public schools in places like East Baltimore are unsafe,” said Etienne, also the Nancy Snowden Research Scholar in Law and the associate dean for graduate and international programs at the College of Law. “In real life and on the show, schools provide more safety for students than most other places or institutions in their lives. Even when a life of crime seems practically inevitable, regular school attendance can delay criminality and forestall contact with the criminal justice system rather than facilitate it. Schools also provide mentors and role models, which have been shown to enhance student success.”
Instead of places where violence is omnipresent and “bad apple” kids roam the halls, schools serve as a “neutral space” for children who are in troubled situations, Etienne said.
“Are our schools perfect? No. But when it comes to safety, the question is: safe as compared to what?” she said. “In most fictional narratives, public schools are depicted in very uncharitable ways. In ‘The Wire,’ public schools are portrayed as a positive intervention to criminal behavior. In reality, we need to start thinking about schools as safe havens for at-risk youth. For a lot of them, it’s the only place they get a square meal. It’s a place where they know they’re not going to be approached by adults who are involved in criminal activity. For kids who have really tough situations at home, they know they’re not going to be abused during those hours.”
That doesn’t mean real-life schools are perfect or that abuse and violence doesn’t happen – those are merely the outliers that become headlines and media clickbait, Etienne said.
“If you take out the mass shootings – and admittedly, those are tragic and scary events – violence in schools is on the decline,” she said. “That phenomenon is relatively new. It’s not that people aren’t getting hurt in schools, but issues related to mass killings in schools are very different than what people associate with urban violence and impoverished public schools. Urban schools are not typically where those types of shootings are happening.
“When violence happens in the urban setting, it does not get nearly as much attention as mass killings in more suburban areas. These violent episodes are different kinds of problems with different causes and solutions.”
The “school-to-prison pipeline” theory justifiably critiques the negative ways in which the public education system can facilitate contact with the criminal justice system for poor and disadvantaged students. But “schools continue to do far more good than harm in the lives of the most vulnerable students,” Etienne said.
“Under the school-to-prison pipeline theory, schools are basically just a place that funnels kids through to the criminal justice system,” she said. “There are school policies and practices that encourage a pipeline between educational and correctional institutions, including zero-tolerance policies and the imposition of punitive measures such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. But there also are a lot of things that schools do to enhance the lives of vulnerable children.”
A number of law schools have courses that examine issues depicted in “The Wire” because “it’s such a readily accessible narrative that is so rich,” Etienne said. However, one of the show’s shortcomings is its marginalization of girls and the issues they face in school.
“An obsession with mass killings and gun violence allows schools to downplay issues that may impact girls more than boys or that may be more gender-neutral,” she said. “Since ‘The Wire,’ schools have mirrored society’s growing concerns over issues like addiction, bullying, sexual assault and harassment, depression and mental health.”
Although the show downplayed the challenges faced by girls, “both boys and girls in large urban public schools are at-risk at school in ways that we haven’t thought about enough,” Etienne said.
“These problems are not caused by schools, but schools can and do play a large role in helping to solve them,” she said.
The paper was published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum.