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How M. Night Shyamalan got schooled in education reform

At an event last Friday in Delaware, the filmmaker said he has found the five keys to closing the education gap — and the results will surprise you.

M. Night Shyamalan, left, at Friday's event in Wilmington with middle school teacher Megan Szabo. (Photo by Holly Quinn)

How did a famous Hollywood director like M. Night Shyamalan come to write a book on closing America’s education gap? The short answer: While location-scouting Philadelphia schools for a movie several years ago, he came face-to-face with the immense disparity between low-income, inner-city schools and privileged suburban schools, and became determined to find a solution.
Shyamalan sat down with educators, parents and community leaders on Friday at Theatre N for An Evening with M. Night Shyamalan, presented by advocacy group DelaCORE Leaders. The filmmaker was joined by State Sen. Bryan Townsend and Postlethwait Middle School science teacher Megan Szabo.

We educate our white students better than anyone in the world. It's the way we educate the rest of our students that puts us in the middle.

The stark difference between two Philadelphia public schools, just four minutes apart, was a shock to the director of The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village. When he entered the prison-like inner city school, a student seemed to recognize him, but instead of approaching him with excitement like students at the more privileged school had, he looked at him as if his presence there simply wasn’t possible and walked away.
“It was like being elbowed in basketball,” Shyamalan said. “I’m a good basketball player. But if you elbow me, I’m a really good basketball player.”
The first step in finding out why such a gap exists in the United States was learning and accepting the realities of it: That the disparity is between low-income schools that are predominantly black and Latino and suburban schools that are predominantly white; that the disparity is based on a history of dehumanization that continues today.
“Seventeen percent of our schools are at the bottom of the achievement gap,” he said. “The U.S. ranks in the middle when it comes to education worldwide. If you remove that 17 percent, we’re at the top. We educate our white students better than anyone in the world. It’s the way we educate the rest of our students that puts us in the middle.”
Simply throwing money at the problem, as Shyamalan was in a position to do, didn’t solve anything. An inner-city scholarship program he set up forced him to see the stark reality.
“I went to meet the [scholarship recipients] thinking, ‘I’m about to meet the future, the next Dr. Kings,’” he said. “What I found were these scared kids who weren’t ready for college. I could see it in their eyes.”

A ‘House M.D.’ moment

When he began asking educators around the country what works in helping to close the education gap, everyone had a different list.
“That felt very wrong,” he said. “I thought, are these just opinions? We’re talking about children here. We need empirical evidence.”
A light went on when, after a couple of years of trying to find answers, a physician friend mentioned the five keys to a healthy body: exercise, good diet, no smoking, attention to mental health and eight hours of sleep a night. If just one of these things isn’t followed, health suffers.
“What if we took the data on what is ‘healthy’ for closing the education gap, and look at it in the same way?” Shyamalan thought. “What things work consistently, and what things can be removed without effect?”
The results are compiled in his book, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap.

Myths and facts

The five keys, and the myths about education Shyamalan busted on his two-year journey to find solutions based on facts, not opinion or emotion, are sometimes counter-intuitive, and require an acceptance that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution — that the 17 percent needs a certain kind of system that is not about what’s right for every kid.
Eighty-three precent of schools are doing very well. Closing the gap — which is a social crisis — is not an “all schools matter” situation.
Things that have little to no effect on closing the gap include increased school funding, teacher salary, school choice (as a Red Clay public school mom and a former A.I. Middle School mom, I’ve seen firsthand how Red Clay’s choice/charter/magnet system in fact plays a part in widening the gap by creating “public private schools” that shut out lower income kids who could benefit from them), and, most controversially, class size.
So, then, what are the Five Keys?

  1. Teachers. A no-brainer, really, but teacher placement is important. Some teachers, who can be effective in 83 percent of schools, can be “roadblocks” for students in the 17 percent.
  2. Data collection. It may seem like testing and data collection is a waste of time, but research shows it really is a vital part of closing the gap.
  3. Small schools. To effectively identify and implement best teaching practices, schools should have a student body of around 550 students or less.
  4. Extended school hours. Low income inner city students on average fall three months behind during the summer, while the average suburban student gains a month of learning, for a net loss of four months. That adds up.
  5. Strong school culture. When kids are told repeatedly by the outside world, including the media they consume every day, that they are incapable, unworthy, and less than human, schools need to create their own culture that says “we believe in you.”

On its face, it all seems pretty simple, though it requires some big changes to implement all five in the schools that would benefit most.
The challenge is really acknowledging that this is a crisis rooted in racism — one thing that, at least in Delaware, school districts, parents, and administrators often attempt to minimize.

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