Having lived through 12 years of public school, I remain ever hopeful that someone will figure out a better way to educate the next generation. Don’t get me wrong. I had lots of talented, caring teachers (along with a few real clunkers, sadly), but even the best teachers have a difficult task trying to provide a quality education for all their students.
So, I was interested when I saw “I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap” by M. Night Shyamalan. He is perhaps best known as the writer/director of “The Sixth Sense,” although he has made a number of other movies.
First, let me note that his writing skills are pretty spiffy, so he manages to keep the ball rolling well and keeps the reader engaged with interesting personal notes and asides. I laughed out loud a few times while reading this one, which isn’t usually the case when reading books on education.
Second, some of the most interesting material in this book are the statistics (which is, again, something of a testament to Shyamalan’s writing). He points out early that the state of public education in the United States isn’t all that bad generally. He notes that if you don’t count the schools with a poverty rate of over 10%, we score better than Finland (a frequent example given of good education and where the poverty rate is below 4%). If you just don’t count schools with more than 25% of students in poverty, we would still beat Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Iceland, and a host of others.
The bad thing is that nearly 20% of our schools have more than 75% of their students living below the poverty line. As he puts it (with his way with words and statistics), “The top four-fifths of America’s public schools are Norway. The bottom 18% –14,000 elementary schools and more than 3,000 secondary schools—is Serbia.” After springing the information on that horrible gap in public education, he shares the sobering statistics about what happens (drop-out rates, unemployment, future incarceration, etc.) to the unfortunate students in those “Serbian” schools. One of the most telling statistics is that only 68% of twelfth graders (note that this is only those who haven’t already dropped out by that point) who attend schools with a 75% or greater poverty rate ever graduate, while 91% of all other twelfth graders graduate.
After discovering all this, Shyamalan decided to look at the few schools with high poverty levels that do manage to make a difference and find out what they had in common. He decided to pick five as the “magic” number based on a conversation he had with a doctor friend who trains medical students at the end of their clinical training. He mentioned that he always tells them that “if your patients eat a balanced diet, sleep eight hours a day, exercise three times a week, don’t smoke, and have a relatively stress-free work environment, their chance of becoming seriously ill drops dramatically” and that “50 percent of all mortality is directly related to behavior.” The light bulb moment happened when he added that if you don’t do all five of those things, your chance of getting sick is almost the same as if you didn’t do any of them. Ding! So, Shyamalan thought perhaps the same thing might be true of improving schools—not just one or two things in isolation, but a set of tenets that would synergistically work to create success.
So, he hired researchers and visited schools that were working and devised his list of five keys to bring failing schools up to acceptable (or better) levels. I’ll tell you the first one, and you can read the book and find out the others for yourself. The first key is “No Roadblock Teachers.” Amen to that! Now, the how of managing that is the subject of a large chunk of the book and will no doubt stir controversy, but the statistics he provides on the damage done by just one bad teacher during a student’s schooling was more than enough to make me sit up and take notice.
So, that’s the first key, there are four more. I won’t say I agree with everything he posits, but it is certainly food for thought, and there is little of greater importance than the education we give our nation’s children. I recommend this book to anyone concerned about the state of public education today.