Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan

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The famed movie maker explains his detour from entertainment to tackle the difficult challenge of education reform in the U.S. with his text, I Got Schooled.

Known for making movies with supernatural plot twists, M. Night Shyamalan first gained international recognition when he wrote and directed the 1999 Oscar-nominated film, The Sixth Sense. Since then, he's continued to capture the attention of worldwide audiences. He was born in India, raised in an affluent Philadelphia suburb and knew early on that he wanted to make movies. Shyamalan has also worked to remove barriers created by poverty and inequality, and a film location scouting trip convinced him to become more involved in educating young people. In his book, I Got Schooled, he discloses the results of his research on improving the education system in the U.S.


Tavis: M. Night Shyamalan is best known for scaring movie audiences with supernatural storylines in films like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village.” But he’s now taken a detour from entertainment to tackle one of the most difficult challenges the country faces: How to reform education.

He spent five years researching this and he’s now put what he’s learned in a new tome called “I Got Schooled,” which not only identifies what’s causing our public schools to fail but offers a roadmap for positive change. Good to have you on this program.

M. Night Shyamalan: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: You and I were just whispering to each other before, as the credits were rolling and the theme music, about how if there is but one thing in our society we’re going to get right, this would be the thing you want to get right. Yet there’s so many ideas that people have offered in the past, and into the fray comes a filmmaker.

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Tavis: How do you think that’s going to be received, before we get into the text itself?

Shyamalan: I hope with great cynicism. (Laughter) Because it should start right there, of “What?” and rightfully so. I think, my hope was in the book that I wasn’t giving my opinion at all.

What I did was go around and research and meet with all the experts around the country, and spent my time and resources from our foundation to put on the table all the information.

All I wanted to do was put all the information in one place that the experts had proven to see if it made a picture, and to see the picture, and it did. It was the answer that I wanted five years ago.

What has been supported in research about what closes the achievement gap? Is there enough there in the research and the proven data from all the people around the world that have done this, and in our country especially, and it was there. It’s such a beautiful kind of mosaic of everyone’s expertise and their hard work.

Tavis: As I said a moment ago, we all know you as a filmmaker, of course.

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Tavis: This project, no surprise here, really becomes your burden; it becomes a matter of the heart –

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Tavis: – while you’re scouting for a film.

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Tavis: Tell the story of how you came to this moment.

Shyamalan: Well, I wouldn’t describe myself as a do-gooder. That’s really more my wife. I’m kind of just the obsessed guy who’s been writing and making movies since I was a little kid, just in a room and make it.

So it sometimes has to hit me in the face for it to actually become personal, and it did. We were location scouting for a movie called “The Happening,” and I needed a high school.

I went to – we got out of the van and the whole crew came with me, and we were checking out a location at this beautiful high school in Philadelphia, and walked in.

The kids were all rushing over when I came in, “Oh my gosh, you’re making a movie here, can I die, can I die in your movie?” It was just so fun. (Laughter) We had a great time.

The teachers were out and there was such buoyancy and excitement, and it was just a great spirit. The school was wonderful. We got in the van and drove, like, four minutes, really hardly a distance, in Philadelphia – I shoot in Philly.

We got to a school where there was metal detectors and there was a guard there that didn’t want to be there, you could tell. We were literally treated like criminals as we walked in.

The kids were walking through the hallways with their heads down, they were looking. One kid looked at me, and in Philly, like, a lot of people know me, and the kid looked at me and he was like, thought for a second there was some recognition, and then he shook his head and kept going. Like there’s no way I could be in his school, right?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Shyamalan: He kept on walking. In the other school, anything was possible. They immediately were like, “Oh, you’re making a movie? Can I be in your movie?” The classrooms in the second school were locked behind bars, and the janitor had to go get keys to open each and every door.

The top floor had been shut down because there was so much drug use. The theater had been burned down. It was that kind of situation. It was hopeless. I got upset being there, and I got upset for the kids.

I remember seeing that same kid who stopped and looked at me. As we were driving home I saw him in his neighborhood, and he was looking in the trunk of this car and he was looking around, and it was just a not-good vibe.

I was feeling personally responsible for those kids. They’re in Philly, which is my hometown, so it started like that. What’s the difference? Are they doing things differently? Is that about income? What’s the difference there?

Then when I started asking experts what do you think, what works and what doesn’t, they would give a list. I’d ask another expert; they would give a different list.

I said okay, I don’t really want opinion. What’s real? What’s real? I guess it comes from my background. My family’s all doctors, and medical field is an evidence-based field. You can’t just go, “I think this is the right way to work on heart surgery.”

No, no, no, (laughs) it’s all been proven. In that same manner, I wondered why we weren’t approaching it that way. So I kind of approached the research that way, to say have they proven anything, or is everything contradictory when you look at it?

Tavis: Right. You essentially break this out into five categories. There are five things that you argue really have to be done to get this education reform on the road.

Shyamalan: Right.

Tavis: Speaking of on the road, one of the five is that we’ve got to stop roadblocking teachers. No roadblocks for teachers. Tell me more.

Shyamalan: Well, can I go a little step back for a second?

Tavis: Absolutely – certainly you can. You’re a director. I’m just a host. (Laughter)

Shyamalan: This is your show.

Tavis: Yeah, no, yeah.

Shyamalan: You probably have director somewhere here. I don’t want to –

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Shyamalan: What happened was I was looking at all the data and all the research, and there was contradictory findings, and that’s where everyone gets stuck for a second.

I saw, like for example, I would see research about oh, this one said classroom size has a big effect. Over here, that one says classroom size doesn’t have a big effect. This one says this, this one says that.

I was like, oh my gosh, this is going to end up with me getting nowhere, and I’m going to end up feeling lost in the subject. The breakthrough happened when my friend, who’s a physician, was telling me what he teaches his residents at the University of Pennsylvania, and he teaches them something really simple, really basic.

He goes, “The body is a system, and if you teach your patients this simple truth, like mom and dad simple truth, that if they do these five simple things – have a balanced diet, work out three times a week, sleep eight hours a day, don’t smoke, have a relatively low-stress work/mental environment – your chances of getting all diseases, it’s been proven by the research, drops so dramatically, every disease. The body wants to be healthy.”

So it went “click.” I went, “Oh my gosh, this is what I need to be looking for in the research, is a group of things, when done together, collectively –

Tavis: Yeah, but that’s a key phrase, though – you make that clear in the book – when done together.

Shyamalan: Together, right. That’s why you drop dead on a treadmill if you’re still smoking.

You can’t do – when he told his residents this, but if they don’t do one of those health things, their chances to back to the norm and you’ll get a lot of false negatives.

So I started looking at it that way, the research that way. Can you categorize these things together, and this group of practices started to come together from the research, proven things done together.

Then I checked it against the schools in the country that were closing the achievement gap, and they were doing every single one of those.

Tavis: But the flipside of that no roadblock for teachers, and you know this, having researched this, is that there are a whole lot of folk in the country who blame the teacher’s unions.

Shyamalan: Correct, correct, yes.

Tavis: That it’s the teachers’ fault that we’re in this mess.

Shyamalan: Right. So let me tell you what the research supports. The research supports this: That we need to create a system that works for almost all the teachers to succeed. That’s a scalable system.

We can’t just say it’s just the Michael Jordan teachers that we need. Obviously that’s not scalable. So that’s the premise. From the research, it doesn’t say that the number one thing you need to do is get rid of the very, very bottom teachers.

You do need to get rid of those. That’s one of the five things that you need to do, which I call the roadblock teachers.

But that’s not – everyone’s focused in on that. That’s not – that’s one of the things. You have to do it together. But our primary thing is making sure that 97 percent of the teachers working can succeed in closing the gap.

So I’m not against the unions or anything. In fact, there’s no research that supports tenure after at – what’s the results of tenure after two or three years.

One of the cool things about the research, by the way, said you can’t fire a teacher for two to three years, because everyone hurts their class in their first years. Everyone. Even the great ones. Even the Michael Jordan teachers don’t do very much in their first years.

It’s after that three-year period that you can actually evaluate the teacher. So that was a fascinating thing.

Tavis: Since you raised classroom size, one of the points that you come to, which I think most of us with half a brain understands, a small classroom size does make a difference.

Shyamalan: Well actually, no.

Tavis: Yeah.

Shyamalan: It’s actually the reverse. That was exactly my feeling, was just yours right there. It has to, right? That’s intuitive.

Everyone. That’s why it’s such a strong thing for politicians to do, because the audience really believes it, the voters really believe it. This is what the research supports.

The research says that classroom size, when it’s modest, like when you reduce it 10 percent from 20 to 18, that kind of thing, has almost no impact. If you reduce it dramatically in the early years, it has some impact, but not actually enough to close the gap.

It costs so much money and puts so much burden that the research says actually, that’s not one of the things I would do to close the gap if you wanted to close the gap.

In fact, if you wanted to put it back in the health model, it’s like having a pet. A pet has been proven to have a – people with pets have a longer life, but that’s not one of the five tenets.

It’s a nice thing to do, but it’s not what’s going to close the achievement gap. That’s a different set of things. This is triage you need to do, and there’s these major things that have huge impact. It’s effect size that we’re talking about, right?

Making classrooms smaller, that’s just a small amount of effect size. It’s actually not part of the five tenets.

Tavis: Yeah. If you have too many kids in a classroom and the teacher can’t get around the help the kids in the classroom, how could that not impact the achievement gap?

Shyamalan: Correct. So then what I say, isn’t it fascinating that there’s zero support for what you just said. That’s actually – so this is what I want, like in an ideal way, if you looked at just the research, take emotion out of it – everybody gets so emotional because it’s about kids, I get it.

But you take the emotion out of it, a parent who has read this book should know this: That if there was a choice between a teacher with 30 kids in their class that’s great, a great teacher, versus an okay teacher or a mediocre teacher with 19 kids in their class, it’s a no-brainer – your kid is the thirty-first kid in that class.

Proven by the research supports that your kid will achieve much more gains by being with the better teacher than being in the smaller classroom. That’s the kind of thing that you need to know when you’re making decisions.

Tavis: All right. So I’m sure now your appetite has been sufficiently whetted (laughter) to want to get this and have your own debate with M. Night Shyamalan.

The book is called “I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie-Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap.” Good to have you on the program, and thanks for your film work and thanks for this as well.

Shyamalan: Thanks, man, thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you here.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 14, 2014 at 2:15 pm