Image from bollywoodhungama.com.
Film director M. Night Shyamalan, famous for “The Sixth Sense” and the movies that followed, recently appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” to promote his new book focused on improving K-12 education. The book, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap, covers every area of education, and addresses America’s prominent achievement gap.
While scouting locations for his film “The Happening,” Shyamalan (at right) saw drastic differences—based on their socioeconomic levels—among Philadelphia public schools’ performance. He described one school that he visited as a model, while the other sounded more like a prison.
For those familiar with the achievement gap in K-12 education, it’s probably no surprise that the model school was in a more affluent, primarily white part of Philadelphia, while the school with the prison atmosphere was in an area with less money and a mostly minority student population.
After this experience, Shyamalan focused on what was behind the desperate situation of one school and the desirable situation of another. Thus began his five-year analytical journey to discover solutions. The data-driven study that followed serves as the book’s foundation.
That study took a total of two years, during which Shyamalan and his team researched every reform strategy out there in an attempt to make sense of it all. They tried to avoid cherry-picking particular issues, he said.
“The pile was really messy until I looked at it with a certain paradigm,” he added.
Shyamalan came from a family of doctors. That background led him to take some of the issues he saw in education and apply to them a standard of health. He found that the same five areas of health a person needs to live a better life are very similar to the things most students need to succeed. After all the “piles” were on the table, he came to the striking conclusion that the most important factor in students getting good grades is their academic health.
“In the health model, they literally can prove to you that if you do five things together, if you…sleep eight hours a night, eat a balanced diet, exercise three times a week, don’t smoke and pay attention to your mental health, [then] your chance of getting all diseases drops to an incredibly low level,” said Shyamalan.
Much in the same way, the research team very quickly saw five areas emerge from the school-reform data. They checked their data against schools that had successfully closed achievement gaps, and they found that the model worked.
For example, strong, instruction-focused leadership is essential. “A great principal spends about 80 percent of his or her time teaching teachers,” he explained, noting the research finding that passing down best practices is some of the most beneficial work a principal can do.
Shyamalan also advocates for smaller classes (and smaller schools), and greater importance placed on student feedback. For example, he believes assessment should occur 16 times within the academic year.
Shyamalan mentioned starting school earlier in life and a longer school day as additional school-improvement strategies. He also is confident that a longer school year or midsummer refresher would do wonders for lower-income students.
“If you pulled out just the low-income, urban schools and then looked at all of the rest of the public schools in the United States versus the world, we lead the world,” he added, highlighting that there’s no way to avoid concluding that the achievement gap is a residual effect of slavery.