Dec 11 11:00 AM

M. Night Shyamalan talks to Ali Velshi

M. Night Shyamalan, right, and Ali Velshi on the set of "Talk to Al Jazeera."
Al Jazeera America

The United States has an education apartheid, says M. Night Shyamalan, the author of the newly published “I Got Schooled.”  The famed director tells Ali Velshi the five things that could help close America’s education gap: no roadblock teachers, leadership, feedback, small schools and extended time.

Ali Velshi: When people hear that M. Night Shyamalan wrote a book, I bet you they think it's about how to make a great suspense film or how to be a director or your life as a director, and then they pick this up, and it's about public education. 

M. Night Shyamalan: It's a very contentious arena to even get into, education, and what we're actually talking about is the gap in education between lower-income, inner-city kids, who are almost always African-American and Hispanic, versus their white, suburban counterparts and why there's such a huge gap in learning. 

And when I used to talk to people about it, you know, they get so heated. Everyone gets so heated, and they all have opinions …

You gathered a bunch of people together who would know. In fact, you describe this dinner party where it was so obvious. Everybody knew that it was smaller class sizes, get rid of the unions, it is belligerent teachers.  They were all these obvious things, and I guess you were taking mental notes, thinking, "Maybe we've got solutions here." 

I said, "This is what my goal is. I want to make a list. All I want to do is make a list for me and for everyone else, a novice that comes in, so we know better." Because I come from the medical field, and you know certain things about everything — “This is good for you, this is bad for you” kind of thing.

What we're actually talking about is the gap in education between lower-income, inner-city kids, who are almost always African-American and Hispanic, versus their white, suburban counterparts.

M. Night Shyamalan

One of the most important conclusions that you came to is that, of the five things that you think work, many schools and departments in cities employed some of them. 

You're now pointing to the moment that it all changed, which was we had this table of information, and it didn't quite make sense, and we were stuck there. Maybe that was where it would have ended, but I think if I bring any advantage to this conversation, it's that I spent my whole life thinking about themes and thinking about how to structure movies, which are complex. Suddenly, you can see how to organize everything, you know, when you figure out your theme.

So we went to dinner with our friends, who are doctors. They are really brilliant people, and Kevin used to be the head at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, and he used to teach the residents there, the hotshot residents. So they're there, and they're hotshots. They think they know everything, and he says to them, on their first days, "I need you to understand this. If you tell your patients that if they do these five things: sleep eight hours a day, eat a balanced diet, exercise three times a week, do not smoke, and pay some attention to your mental health at work, in your life — you honor that, your mental health, you're not stressed out — if you do those five things, your chances of getting all diseases drop below every medicine, every pill ever invented because the human body is a system and it wants to be healthy. 

Now, they didn't believe him, and he goes, "It's evidence." And he goes, "Now here's the most important thing." To these guys, he said, "If your patients don't do one of these things, their chances of getting all diseases start going back to the norm. They start rising." 

You do all those other things, but you still smoke. 


You do all those other things, but you don't sleep properly.

It starts to rise. You get basically false negatives. And I went, "Oh, my gosh." 

This is how we need to look at a table of information. There are things, when done together, work. When you do them separately, you're going to get false negatives. Now let's go back at the data and see — when they did this with this, did it always work? Is that a pattern? Can you find that pattern in the data? And that's exactly what we found. 

You're taking on the fight about how we change things in these schools so that everybody is on a level playing field and the gap between inner-city schools, which you very clearly identified as mostly black and Hispanic, versus suburban, mostly white schools. The achievement gap is there.

M. Night Shyamalan.
Al Jazeera America


You know how everyone says America is behind in education, compared to all the countries? Technically, right now, we're a little bit behind Poland and a little bit ahead of Liechtenstein, right? So that's where we land in the list, right? So that's actually not the truth. The truth is actually bizarrely black and white, literally, which is, if you pulled out the inner-city schools —just pull out the inner-city, low-income schools, just pull that group out of the United States, put them to the side — and just took every other public school in the United States, we lead the world in public-school education by a lot. 

And what's interesting is, we always think about Finland, right? Well, Finland, obviously, is mainly white kids, right? They teach their white kids really well. But guess what, we teach our white kids even better. We beat everyone. Our white kids are getting taught the best public-school education on the planet. Those are the facts. 


Which means if you take the suburban, well-off white kids out of the picture and you now then just take the inner-city, mostly minority schools ... 

We're probably at the bare bottom, I imagine, because you can see the United States has education apartheid. 

You've come up with five fixes.  The first one is teachers

Now, the actual tenet, the actual thing that we're saying, is no roadblock teachers, and what I mean by that is that the research supports that the bottom percentage of teachers, the 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent, the very bottom, are pulling such a drag on the system that it's very hard for the other teachers to compensate for it. So, for example, a child that's had one of these teachers, the bottom, 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent, for one year, you can't make up that loss with four above-average teachers. So if they get four teachers in a row, which they're not going to, slightly above average, they can't make up for that one teacher. 

The United States has education apartheid.

M. Night Shyamalan

You talk about leadership in the schools, largely about principals. 

Right. Well, look in the schools that have closed the gap and are closing the gap. It's a very consistent architecture to what the leadership looks like, and by leadership, I mean leadership. So, there's a principal, and then there's another group that takes care of kind of paperwork and fundraising and facilities and all of that stuff. They bifurcate that responsibility, and they have principals. 

So the principal is the chief academic, almost. 

Yes, and they are the coach, so they're spending 80 percent of their time teaching teachers, which seems intuitive. If you're the coach, you can't be in the office while the players are all running around hitting each other. The coach has got to be down there with the players … And they're constantly giving them feedback. 

Which is, by the way, your third point. Feedback.

One of the things that the leader does that's absolutely critical is create a culture that's consistent and specific and loud in their schools. Every school that's closing the gap is screaming a culture. It doesn't even have to be the same culture. It's just a positive, empowering culture. Now, how does a principal do this? They do this with consistency. They do this with feedback. OK, so feedback is the third one, and I use that term in the research to describe a few things. That includes best practices, right? That's the principal's job. They feed back best practices to everybody. 

Let's talk about class size.  There's a general feeling out there that smaller classes are better for kids. You've seen research that says that's not necessarily true. But small schools are good for kids. Tell me why.

This is why classroom size is so confusing to everybody. It's called effect heuristics, which is we go by our gut, right? Your gut says that the smaller the class size, the better the teacher's going to be and the better the kids are going to be off, so that must be one of the things that you do to close the gap.  OK. That's so strong in everybody that politicians can get elected just from saying they're going to reduce class size, which is exactly what happened. In fact, the study that sent the whole country that way was in 1984. It's called the Tennessee STAR study, and it said it had such great results — if you lower the classroom size, everybody wins, and it's huge, huge, huge results. That's never been duplicated, that study, ever, and that study was not done with the rigor that we would say is acceptable. So here's what the end result is when we look at hundreds and hundreds of studies on classroom size. It has some positive effect. It has it mainly in earlier years. 

Every school that's closing the gap is screaming a culture. It doesn't even have to be the same culture. It's just a positive, empowering culture.

M. Night Shyamalan

It's not negative, let's put it that way. Having a smaller class size isn't bad. 

But here's where it's negative. To close the achievement gap, it actually has so many ramifications that are negative that you can't do any of the others. So that's why it's confusing. So it would be like if I said, "Ali, the only way you could be healthy is if you swim in an Olympic-size pool," right? Now, you don't have access to it if you're an inner-city kid, right? You don't have access to it, so it's an unrealistic — so by the time he gets in a thing and tries to get transportation and this and that, he can't do studying and he can't do homework, it's an impractical part of anything. In fact, none of the schools that are closing the gap use small classroom size. So, it puts such a burden on everything else that you can't do it. It's not one of the triage things that you do. 

But one of the things you did find is that — and I think this relates back to the whole leadership and feedback idea — if so much goes on to the administration to provide feedback and leadership and go and visit these classes and make sure everybody's doing the right job, a principal can't do that in a school that's too big with too many classes. 

Correct. So the small schools actually turned out to be one of the tenets, and this has been a blurry one for people. Having a small school turbocharges everything else and makes everything else possible. If I need the principal to go in and out of every classroom to know intently every teacher and what they're doing on a daily basis, if I double the amount of classrooms, that's not physically possible, and it's not possible for that principal to give the data on that many kids and do what we need to do. 

Let me get to your final point, because this one really was very interesting, and that is instructional time, the amount of time a kid spends in a school year. 

Now, if you said to me, with a gun to my head, that you'd never do, because you have to do them all together, but if you said, "Only do one," it would be this one, which is extended time, any way you can do it. The challenge that the inner-city, low-income schools have is very different than the ones the white, suburban schools have. This isn't about the kids can't learn, and it isn't about — this is the big surprise — it isn't about the teachers are bad — it really isn't — and the schools are bad. The challenge that they're facing is crushing them, right? So they need a how-to. It isn't about motivation, right? The interesting thing is that you keep the kids in the school longer, no matter how you do it. 

Early childhood, extend the day, and in the summer, in fact, you should do all. They actually close the gap. Now here's the interesting thing. Everyone talks about the summer slide. Summer slide is two kids, and let's imagine there's an African-American, inner-city kid in a low-income school — low-income kid — and his white suburban counterpart and they graduate in June from second grade and they're at the same level. When they return in September, the low-income African-American kid is three months behind where he was in June, and the white suburban kid is one month ahead. So they are four months apart. That summer slide accounts for two-thirds of the entire gap. So you can imagine how important it is.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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