Review - Shyamalan sees well-read people

22nd November 2013 at 00:00
Film director's ideas for reform prove surprisingly insightful

A Hollywood director most famous for a film about a boy who can communicate with the deceased produces a book revealing the "five keys" to unlocking educational equality for all.

You'll forgive me for fearing that this was going to be a car crash. M Night Shyamalan is not even a very good director: although his aforementioned 1999 film The Sixth Sense was a smash hit, he is also the man who gave us The Last Airbender.

The seemingly unlikely author was inspired to write the book when he glimpsed the US education gap for real in 2007, while scouting Philadelphia high schools for his film The Happening. The experience, he says, left him "invested in the struggles of education". And so, taking time out from his movie career, the self-styled "eternal optimist on steroids" sat down to write this really rather good book.

After all, as he notes in its acknowledgements, he had to do something to show his wife Bhavna that he is as clever now as he was when they met at college.

In a clunking twist worthy of one of Shyamalan's own films, I Got Schooled turns out to be one of the best crossover books on education I have read.

The first reason it works so well is that Shyamalan cares about research. In practice, this means that he paid an expert, James Richardson, now of the Education Endowment Foundation in England, to do a proper meta-analysis.

The book starts with a list of things that Shyamalan was broadly supportive of before looking at the data, but which he now accepts probably aren't the answer: for instance, reducing class sizes, and introducing voucher schemes and master's degrees for teachers. In each case, there is a proper discussion of the major research rather than a simple dismissal.

His "five keys" are pretty sensible, too. The first two seem indisputable: the importance of feedback for both students and staff, and strong instruction-focused leadership.

His other three are a little more contentious. Shyamalan advocates using teacher evaluation to remove poor performers, on the grounds that losing the odd good teacher by mistake is preferable to thousands of poor performers receiving "tenure" (permanent posts).

He also argues for longer school days, pointing out that most of the studies that proved inconclusive on the issue did not specify that the extra time should be spent on instruction.

The last "key" - smaller schools - is probably his least convincing. You feel him straining to find the research to justify his intuitive preference for these.

The second reason why the book works is that the author makes a conscious effort to stand outside the deeply unhelpful reformers-versus-establishment paradigm that is even more embedded in the US debate than it is in the UK.

The director's discussion of the US's charter schools is beautifully nuanced: he acknowledges that, on average, charters don't perform any better than public schools, but he also notes that the most effective schools tend to be charters.

This doesn't really suit either side of the debate. Likewise, although Shyamalan supports the fairly aggressive use of teacher evaluations, he also argues against performance-related pay. The tone of the book throughout is of a slightly bewildered outsider wondering why everyone can't just stop throwing abuse and gather round for a calm discussion of the evidence.

Of course, it isn't flawless. The book focuses too closely on US research at the expense of international studies; and on the work of particular researchers, especially Eric Hanushek of Stanford University and Roland Fryer of Harvard, who are respected but not uncontroversial.

And, ultimately, Shyamalan is too much of a screenwriter to allow for the true messiness and complexity of education research. The "five keys" might be sensible but in his attempt to present a neat package of solutions he ignores plenty of other interventions with a strong evidence base. Nor does he have an answer for the biggest question of all: even if we know what works, how do we get everyone to do it?

Shyamalan praises US public charter chains such as the Knowledge is Power Program (Kipp) and Achievement First, which seem to be able to scale success across a small group of schools. But he offers no real suggestions for how to replicate this at a whole-system level. And, without that key, the door to educational equity will remain firmly locked.

Sam Freedman is director of research, evaluation and impact at Teach First in the UK and is a former policy adviser to education secretary Michael Gove. 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 is published by Simon amp; Schuster

The first reason this book works so well is that Shyamalan cares about research.

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