M. Night Shyamalan seeks secret to closing achievement gap

M. Night Shyamalan seeks secret to closing achievement gap

How an ‘outsider’ looked at the big picture in education to see what others don’t
Director M. Night Shyamalan offers five keys to closing the achievement gap in his book, "I Got Schooled."

M. Night Shyamalan, best known for writing and directing such films as The Sixth Sense and The Village, recently took on the role of education researcher, trying to discover the “secret recipe” to successful education in the United States.

What started as an informal “think tank dinner on education” among friends soon became a multi-year project as Shyamalan and a team of academics culled through stacks of research to learn what worked and what didn’t and, more importantly, how one “ingredient” could help or hinder another. “I’m obsessive,” Shyamalan says. “My Ph.D. wife would say clinically so.”

The result of this work was I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap (2013, Simon & Schuster). Shyamalan spoke about the project and the deeper problems he realized during its completion.

This project grew out of a desire to improve education in your city of Philadelphia.

Right. At the time I had the bias that most people have, which is that Philadelphia educators just weren’t doing the obvious or were dysfunctional in some way. My first instinct was to find a school district in the United States that was working, copy what they were doing and bring it back to Philadelphia.

But we quickly learned that whatever flaws I thought were specific to Philadelphia are actually endemic to the whole system. That meant my initial feeling that it was a negligence issue was wrong, too.

Then we asked educational leaders what works. Everyone gave us a different list. There was no common set of knowledge. So, I decided to make that list.

Our research team went back as far as the ’80s, sometimes the ’70s, and looked at every legitimate study that passed our standard for effect size and control groups and amount of people involved, and so on. It quickly got confusing.

At that point you can pretty much cherry pick whatever you wanted, which is, I think, what helped get us to this point. If you favored small schools, you could find research to back it up. If you favored vouchers, you’d probably find a study that backed you.

This ultimately led to what you call your “House moment?”

Right. If you’ve seen Hugh Laurie’s House M.D. show, you know he’s often stuck on a problem until the last 10 minutes when he gets a flash of inspiration—that’s “the House moment.”

So, one night I was at dinner with Kevin Fosnocht, chief medical officer at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. I asked him how he taught the residents. He said, “I teach them something fundamental on their first day. If they tell their patients this simple advice—sleep eight hours a day, eat a balanced diet, exercise three times a week, don’t smoke and pay attention to your mental health both at work and at home—their chances of getting disease drops dramatically.”

The body is a system and it wants to be healthy, and it will be if you just give it the opportunity to be healthy. Then he added, “But I tell my residents, ‘If your patients don’t do one of those five things, their chances of getting all diseases starts returning back to the norm.’”

That was the House moment for me. I instinctively knew that was the answer. Education is a system that’s not being treated systematically.

How did you come up with the list of five keys to closing the achievement gap?

At that point, we had spent about four-and-a-half years deep in the data, but we dove back in to see whether there were groups of things that, when done together, always work and, when done collectively, have a supercharged effect. And, lo and behold, they were there.

Suddenly, we saw an overwhelming consistency in the research that wasn’t apparent when we looked at it the other way.

The next step was to check our answers in the real world. We visited schools in the U.S. that were successfully closing the gap—and we prayed that they had done these five things.

Remarkably, not only were they all doing them, they were doing all of them. And when we showed them our list, the leaders of these schools said, “This is it. This is what we do, but we had to learn it through trial and error.”

It was a wonderful moment. There was, in fact, a systematic answer and approach to this that these amazing people had figured out. If everyone started to move toward the data, we could implement this on a large scale.

You wrote that charter schools were not the answer, yet several examples in the book are charter schools.

Yes. On the surface that seems confusing, but this is not a pro-charter book. Charter schools simply allow the opportunity to be able to follow all five keys.

Traditional public school systems can’t do that right now. The charters’ lack of rules allows them to do these five things. But, that also means there’s an opportunity for horrible things to be enacted.

Some of the worst schools in the country are charter schools, because it’s lawless. It’s the wild, wild west. But just like in the wild west, some people found a way to make healthy towns.

You call for smaller schools, but you also say smaller classrooms do not equal success.

What’s the distinction? It’s funny because I’ve been in the research for so long that those two don’t even seem related in any way. We looked at hundreds of research papers on classroom size and hundreds on small schools. I know they seem like they’re cousins, but they have completely different effects on student achievement.

How so?

Let’s start with class size. The research on classroom size is inconclusive in terms of its positive effect on student achievement; sometimes it’s almost negligible.

In early school years there is some impact you can have on student achievement, but it requires a dramatic reduction of classroom size. But that reduction puts such a stressor on cost and teachers and everything else you need, that it has never been a part of the prescription to close the achievement gap. And in schools where they are closing the gap, small classrooms are not part of the equation.

Instead, it’s all about intensity—how much teachers are aware of the kids, how much feedback and support the teachers get, how much the teachers are trained and observed by the principals, how intensely the principals are involved in the teachers’ lives.

You can’t do that in a large school?

It gets diluted. The principal, for example, needs to spend 80 percent of his or her time teaching teachers.

It’s not possible to consistently deliver that intensity if you double the amount of classrooms and double the amount of teachers. The teachers fall back on their own again. They’re all islands again. And the principal is not having the needed impact.

What has been your biggest revelation from working on this project?

I realized that our national conversation has been incorrect. We’ve been talking about this the wrong way. We’ve been asking what’s wrong with our inner-city schools and the teachers and principals. The answer to that is “nothing.”

That’s where we place the blame, but the data says something else. The problem isn’t in the schools—it’s what happens to these inner-city kids the moment they walk out the door until they are back in school.

It’s about the message they are getting from this country. For these high-poverty, inner-city kids—98 percent African-American and Hispanic—the message is: “This is not your country. You are powerless. You are not meant to succeed.”

That’s their real life. That’s what they hear at home, from their friends, from the media—everything.

And the data backs it up. Take two kids, one from an inner city school and the other a white, suburban kid in a public school. They graduate second grade in June at exactly the same level of achievement.

But when they return in September, the inner-city kid is three months behind in learning. And the white, suburban kid is one month ahead. From those months that they were not in school, not the responsibility of the principal and the teacher, there is now a four-month gap between these two children.

So the teachers and principals have 60 to 80 days to get them caught up to where they were in June. Does that mean that the school sucks? Does that mean the teachers suck? No. That’s a different child that’s walking in, a different cohort of students that they need to deal with.

We have to train teachers to teach these particular kids in a different way because they come in with this incredible challenge to overcome. It isn’t what’s wrong with our schools or our teachers. It’s what’s wrong with our country.

Tim Goral is senior editor.


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