Emily S. Whitten, M. Night Shyamalan & Closing the Education Gap
Hey cats and kittens! I’m ba-aaaaack! Apparently from the world of retro greetings. And from the world of convention organizing. For anyone who’s wondering what I’ve been up to during my l’il six-month hiatus from ComicMix (did you miss me? I missed yooooooou!!!), one of the fun things I did was act as the Program Coordinator for Awesome Con here in D.C. And man, was Awesome Con an awesome time! We had a ton of stuff to see and do for our over 30,000 attendees, and have heard tons of great feedback from attendees, guests, participants, exhibitors, etc. I expect next year to be even bigger and better than this year (which had over four times as many attendees as Awesome Con D.C.’s first year in 2013), so if you’re in the area or like to travel for cons, I’d recommend adding next year’s Awesome Con, May 29-31, to the calendar now! You won’t regret it!
And speaking of things that have been on my calendar lately, this past Wednesday I went to The National Press Club to hear screenwriter, director, and producer M. Night Shyamalan talk about his book on closing America’s education gap, I Got Schooled. A surprising topic for a movie-maker to be writing about, perhaps – but after listening to him discuss the topic, it’s clear that this book was a passion project for him, and it was fascinating to hear him talk. In his own words, “celebrity activists make my stomach cringe – you don’t automatically get the right to give advice about something because you are successful at something else. But you do have the spotlight on you sometimes. In my case, [this is] something I’m really sensitive about, so I’ve always said, graciously, ‘no,’ to being asked to promote this or that, charity-wise. So this situation [of being a charity advocate] is very unusual for me; and in fact came about really organically.”
Shyamalan then described an experience he had visiting two nearby schools in his home city of Philadelphia while scouting locations for The Happening. One he described as “this incredibly vibrant school,” in which “these kids came rushing over, saying ‘Oh my God, are you making a movie here? Can I be in it? Can I die in your movie?’ …and the possibility of a movie being made there was right on the tip of their tongues, and they were ready.” The other “was just the worst thing you could imagine. You know, [with] metal detectors, the lights really dim, and the kids just not in a good place. In showing me the classrooms, the janitor had to unlock the classroom doors. There were bars on every classroom; literal bars. The theater had been burnt down because someone had set fire to it. It was like animals; it was damage control. And in this other school, a kid walked up to me, looked at me, kind of recognized me, and decided, ‘That’s not possible’ and kept walking.” Shyamalan felt this experience was very symbolic of the differences in how these children were being educated. This inspired him to seek knowledge on what system would produce more effective inner-city education for low income kids.
For two years after that, Shyamalan said, he gathered information on “what works in education,” and eventually ended up with thousands of studies on the table, which turned out to be “a big blurry pile of information, half-knowledge, insinuations, and anecdotal movements. … You could cherry-pick anything you wanted,” he stated, “and whatever your confirmation bias was, you could find confirmation for that.” At that point, Shyamalan wasn’t sure what move to make next; but then a doctor friend noted that there is a system of best practices in health care in which if patients do five things – sleep eight hours a day, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, pay attention to mental health, and don’t smoke – the chances of getting all diseases drop to an incredibly low level. If a patient doesn’t do one of these things, however, those chances buoy back to the norm. Shyamalan hypothesized that this might be analogous to best practices for education, and set out to see if the data supported this. “Is there a group of things,” he asked, “that when done together, always work to close the education gap – the gap that exists in every state between inner city, low income children and their white suburban counterparts?”
It turned out that according to his studies, there is. After two more years of analyzing the data, the pile of “blurry information” the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation had gathered became organized into five consistent groups. The Foundation then checked its hypothesis by going to every school that was closing the education gap, and “lo and behold, they were all doing these five things.” The five keys to closing the gap, Shyamalan says, are used by all the schools that achieve, and are: leadership by principals and staff and a consistent empowering message; teacher training that specifically focuses on how to approach inner-city schools and students; data on best practices in curriculum and how to teach that are then implemented; more time spent teaching the children; and smaller schools.
Shyamalan discussed each of these key points further, and stated the conclusion he finally reached in answer to his initial inquiry into solutions for closing the education gap. Shyamalan said, “If the home environment does not change, can we close the achievement gap? The answer to that is categorically yes.”
An encouraging message, considering that according to Shyamalan, inner city low income schools represent 18% of the country’s schools; and one that I hope is true. I’m a big believer in the importance of education, and it’s clear that this country needs to do some serious work to raise the standards of education for that 18%. Whether Shyamalan’s five keys turn out to be the answer, and whether they will be implemented to good effect, is still on the table; but Shyamalan has stated that the book has helped to spur active efforts towards improvement in Philadelphia and elsewhere; so here’s hoping that out of that original blurry pile of data have come some focused answers, and real methods that can be used to improve kids’ lives.