A Movie Maker Goes to Class

M. Night Shyamalan discusses standardized testing, charter schools and closing the achievement gap.

By SHARE
GR_130918_shyamalan.jpg

When famed filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan went to scout locations for a movie set, he was stunned by the disparity between two Philadelphia schools. In "I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America's Education Gap," Shyamalan, who says he was "completely ignorant" on the topic, takes readers on a personal five-year journey to figure out the best practices necessary to close the achievement gap. He recently spoke with U.S. News about his experience and the importance of a systematic and collective approach. Excerpts:

Why take on the issue of failing public schools?

In the book, I talk about location scouting for a movie. I went to two public high schools and one was exceptional – I wanted to be there, all the kids were so bright, and it was incredible. And then we got in the van and went to another high school with metal detectors and fire damage to the theater, and kids were walking around with their heads down. It's just poignant and unfair, and I wanted to understand what the difference was and why. Is there anything that can be done about it? So it wasn't about failing public schools, but seeing them in person. When you get hit, it becomes personal. It wasn't a crusade or anything like that.

You call the school system an educational apartheid. Why?

If you look at our higher-achieving schools, they're actually leading the world. But it's [lower-achieving schools, mostly in urban areas with] mainly African-American and Hispanic kids that are putting us where we are compared to the world. Why are we okay with that disparity? Finland is talked about in comparison with the United States, but it doesn't have the kind of class issues, the kind of racial issues, that this country was founded on. And these are still the scars that are healing here. [Minority] points of view are not given the same level of respect; [their] lives aren't given the same level of value. That's still in [America's] DNA. If this was happening mainly to white kids, I don't know if it'd be quite as slow of a fix as is happening.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

Can the achievement gap be closed?

That's what's been so beautifully proven and was so exciting over the years in researching the book – examples of unequivocally closing the achievement gap and actually creating a tiny one the opposite way. It's been proven over and over by teachers, and then by schools, and now by systems of schools where 3,000 or 6,000 kids are starting to close the gap.

Why do you focus on raising standardized test scores when they're so controversial?

They are criteria for measurement, and they're valid. That's the best we have to delineate value added, if we're moving in the right direction. You can have these kids at levels (and beyond) of their white counterparts in suburbia, [even] by using the flawed measuring tools that we have today.

You say that charter schools aren't the answer, but why are so many closing the achievement gap?

Those schools create the atmosphere so you can [make the changes necessary]. For example, every public school in the country does not have the ability autonomously to say, we have to extend the school day, we have to extend the school year, so they can't do one of the main things. They're pushing the boulder up, and then it slides back over the summer.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

What are other keys you identify to closing the gap?

You know, I don't want it to be trite. There's so much nuance. You have to understand why [the need for] small schools is on the list. If you were going to do nothing but small schools, that's going to do nothing. It has to be a part of the system of tenets, and understanding why they're together is really the big takeaway.

You emphasize that all the different steps need to be implemented together. Why?

My friend is a doctor who teaches residents at his hospital, telling them, you need to tell your patients to do things like sleep eight hours a day, have a balanced diet, exercise three times a week, not smoke – things that we know. But if you do those things together, they collectively lower your chances of getting all diseases by such an incredible amount, it's staggering. If you don't do one of them, like if you exercise like a madman, but you smoke, your chances of getting these diseases increase almost back to the norm again. It's a collective, because your body is a system. And that's when it clicked. Every single piece of information that's been gleaned over the years started to fit, and it made this big picture.