More than 3000 miles separate English teacher Erin Gruwell at Wilson High School in Long Beach (CA) in the film “Freedom Writers” from middle school math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Mr. P.) in Baltimore (MD) in HBO’s “The Wire.” Based upon an actual novice white teacher, the celluloid Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, spurs her class to overcome poverty, gang banging, and utter pessimism about their future to write in their journals and eventually go to college. Mr. P, also a novice white teacher, played by Jim True-Frost, tries hard to get his 8th graders, to learn fractions, long division, and probability and stay out of selling drugs. Mr. P, however, is a fictitious character.
Yet what separates the two films about teaching urban youth under grim conditions is not that one teacher is real and the other fictitious or that one teaches high school English and the other middle school math. What separates the films from one another is the implicit view in “Freedom Writers” of the road to reform being paved by stellar teachers while in “The Wire” that same road is paved by overhauling the entire institution. Ironically, then, Mr. P, a fictitious teacher, captures the gritty conditions that urban school reformers face far better than the film about an actual teacher Erin Gruwell.
Hollywood over-sells heroic teachers—Think “Stand and Deliver” and “Dangerous Minds”–while underestimating the institutional complexity of working in schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice nearly as much as what students bring to school. HBO gets it right with Mr. P.
Why is Mr. P’s portrayal closer to the truth of most urban schools? “The Wire”—the title refers to a police unit recording drug dealers’ business transactions to gather evidence for their arrest—goes well beyond West Baltimore and those who sell drugs. The series explores families involved in the drug trade and families not yet hooked, corrupt police bureaucrats, City Hall politics, union leaders on-the-take at the Port of Baltimore, and schools. A newly elected ambitious white mayor of a predominately black city and bureaucracy, for example, has to find a new police commissioner, cut the budget, and do something about the school district whose students are under-performing academically.
Enter Mr. P. who lacks charisma and teaching experience. He makes common novice mistakes, has a hard time managing his 8th graders, and an even harder time getting them to focus on math. Unruly students erupt into fights at real or imagined slights. Many cannot follow the textbook. A few are super-bright and with a little prodding grasp the math concepts. Mr. P’s patience and decency slowly wins over a core of students but not all–he gets some students interested in learning probability through throwing dice. But at a faculty meeting, the assistant principal announces that because the school’s test scores are so low all classes will focus on reading and math skills for the upcoming state test. Good soldier that he is, Mr. P switches lessons and prepares his students for the state test at the same time that a few of the promising 8th graders enter the drug trade.
How macro-policy and the Street penetrate classrooms also surfaces in the French docudrama film “The Class.” Based upon a teacher’s experiences in a Parisian junior high school filled with racially and ethnically mixed working class immigrant youth, the author, who also plays the teacher in the film, has to cope with students’ home and street influences while working with the Ministry of Education’s policies of assimilating and integrating immigrants into French civic responsibilities. Institutional and classroom practices intersect in this French film as they do in Mr. P’s classroom.
Unlike “The Class,” the Hollywood genre of heroic teachers promises better schools. While such films are great advertising for Teach for America, this strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools where school bureaucrats, city officials, and the Street and affect classroom life. “The Wire” portrays schools as deeply flawed institutions more concerned about staying afloat than teaching or learning. Surely, the Mr. Ps in this world salvage individual youngsters but are tossed about like confetti on a windy day.
These film versions of school reform may have box-office appeal but offer little to today’s policymakers who peddle formulas for turning around urban schools: Federal and state-driven standards-based reform including testing, accountability, and closing schools; parental choice of charters, magnets, and small high schools; and mayoral takeover of the schools. “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary, captures this reform agenda well. These strategies, however, touch Erin Gruwell’s or Mr. P’s classrooms insufficiently to promise major changes in how and what their students learn. Until policymakers blend the optimism of recruiting and sustaining individual teachers with institutional overhaul of urban schools and agencies, little will remain after the popcorn and soda containers are swept into the trash.