M. Night Shyamalan Got Schooled

By Del Stover

Why do some school boards and superintendents find it so difficult to close the achievement gap in their schools? Why is it that so many well-meaning reform initiatives fall short? And why is it so challenging to replicate the success of a high-performing school in other schools that are struggling?

These questions have plagued school leaders for years.

Now a thoughtful answer has been offered -- by someone whose name is associated more with Hollywood entertainment than the classroom: M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaker known for such movies as "The Sixth Sense," "Signs," and "After Earth."

Just as unusual is how Shyamalan stumbled across his answer to the challenges facing public education. In a manner that mirrored the often-surprising plot twists of his earlier films, he didn’t have his epiphany while visiting a school or reading the latest education research. He was dining with friends in an Italian restaurant.

“We were talking about nothing to do with education,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “But one [friend] teaches at a hospital, and he mentioned he advises his medical residents to tell patients that if they do some basic things -- eat a balanced diet, exercise, sleep eight hours a day, don’t smoke, and focus on their mental health -- if they do these five things, their chances of becoming seriously ill drop to an incredibly low level.”

But what was essential, his friend emphasized, was that this health benefit only takes hold if patients commit to practicing all five measures in combination. Patients cannot choose á la carte.

“He said that if patients don’t do just one of these things, their health risks start climbing right back to the norm. If they do everything he recommends except still smoke, their bodies … their systems … were going to be out of balance.”

Most school leaders immediately will recognize how this observation relates to troubled schools. Shyamalan certainly saw the connection. It made sense that a school can be successful only when all the right factors are in place -- and when those factors are mutually supportive. After all, professional development will only improve teacher quality if an effective principal makes it happen -- and follows up with coaching and regular evaluations. Meanwhile, even the most acclaimed curriculum can fail if it is implemented in isolation.

“That’s it, I thought,” Shyamalan says. “The human body is a complex system, and it must be approached like that. Well, a school is a complex system. A group of things must be on the table -- must be done together -- to close the achievement gap.”

It was an insight that ultimately led Shyamalan to write a thoughtful and well-argued book, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap. In it, he describes what motivated his quest to find answers to America’s educational challenges, what he discovered during his research, and how he came to identify what he believes are the five key strategies -- his five tenets -- to creating a highly effective school.

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