'I Don’t Know Anything': Why M. Night Shyamalan Wrote a Book on Education

An interview with the film director who believes he has the five keys to closing America's achievement gap

Matt Slocum/AP Photo

In spring 2007, M. Night Shyamalan was visiting Philadelphia high schools, looking for a location for his movie The Happening. The first school was beautiful, bright, and energetic. Students and teachers wanted to be there, Shyamalan remembers. Then he and his team drove four minutes down the road and visited a second school.

“It was prison,” Shyamalan said. “It‘s basically prison in the form of a school. It had guards, everybody had guns. It was very scary. I mean it was like a cheesy movie. Every cliche was there.

“I met a student there. A student came up and he kind of recognized me, and then he was like ‘nah,’ and walked away. That for me really said a lot, because he did know me, but then he decided that’s not possible. And that feeling of ‘that’s not possible’ was sad,” he said.

The experience led Shyamalan to ask more and more questions about a subject that confounds teachers, politicians, researchers, and parents: the gap between America’s best and worst schools. Shyamalan claims he is not the “do-gooder guy.” He insists, “I’m not Sean Penn or someone like that. I’m not fighting for everybody’s rights and everything that’s good... In fact, I don’t like to be [the do gooder guy] because just because you spend your life learning a particular craft, doesn’t mean you are an expert in anything other than that craft.”

Yet almost six years after that location scout in Philadelphia, Shyamalan is sitting across from Chris Matthews at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., discussing the fruit of his four years of research, his new book I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap. Before the event, Shyamalan told me about how he came to education reform and why his five tenets for closing the education gap could be a tool for policy makers.

How did you wind up researching education for four years and writing a book?

I started asking questions to everybody. Luckily for me, I can call somebody up. I can call the Chancellor of Washington D.C. and say “Can I have dinner with you?” And they’re like, “Sure, great!” And I’m like, “I’d just like to ask questions.” And they come and have dinner and I ask questions: ”What do we know? What works? What doesn’t?” And they’ll say, well I’ve tried this, that, and you’ll hear the opinions and you’ll hear the things that they believe work. And then I go to somewhere else and I ask an expert in education and someone from another city and someone else that we know, and they’ll give me a different list. They would be so adamant that this was the way. It all felt very blurry, and I was like, “Let’s just get the information on the table.”

I kept saying, “Can you send me the data? Can you send me the data?” And nobody was sending anything. And I was like why? What’s going on? I would meet somebody and they would say, “Charter schools are absolutely the thing!” and I was like, “Fantastic!” They’d give their data off the top of their head. And was like “Fantastic!” I would say, “Can you send me the data that supports that? And then I’m your guy.” But that didn’t come, and over time I realized that’s what we should do. We should use the [M. Night Shyamalan Foundation’s] time, my time, everybody’s time to gather the data.

There are plenty of books out there written by policy makers and education experts who have spent their careers researching education. What makes you qualified to write about education? What makes your book different?

The point should be that I don’t know anything, that’s the point. I don’t know anything. So I’m going to bring no opinion to the table. Tell me what works. If you can’t tell me what works, I am going to gather everybody’s information so that the mom...who doesn’t have the access to call the Chancellor and spend four and a half years researching, has the information. None of it is mine. In fact, a lot of it was surprising and contradictory to what I thought.

Where do you think the achievement gap come from? How did American public schools get to where they are today?

That’s a really deep question. This is opinion, so now we are getting into opinion. It’s racism. It’s racism. Ultimately, and we all have it, a form of it in us, it’s there, it’s in the genetic code of the country ... If you took out the schools in the United States that have high poverty, if you took those inner-city schools out, and you just looked all the other public schools in the United States, we lead the world in education. We crush Finland. So we’re doing a good job for those kids. So what color are those kids? They are predominantly white. The inner-city kids are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. We are failing that group and we are doing great for this other group. … And so it’s that there is apathy. There’s a latent feeling like it probably can’t get figured out. So you’re approaching it like its not possible to figure it out.

Coming from a family of doctors, [I was] going, “It’s clinical.” There’s going to be an answer because Philadelphia is just as bad as Detroit, just as bad as Washington D.C. It’s all a system. It’s very consistent, so immediately I go, “It’s working by rules, so what are the rules? How do we figure that out?”

How do you think your book can change things?

The hope for the book is going, “Hey, I don’t want anybody to say that there isn’t an answer right now.” There is an answer and it’s being implemented by many, many, many schools and they’re closing the gap: the KIPPs, the Uncommon Schools, Green Light Schools in California. Wherever it is, now there are school systems without a doubt that are closing the gap.

Why do you think education is such a compelling topic for so many people?

You know, anything to do with kids brings that out all of that in us. It’s anything to do with children...and it comes from a natural place. We want to protect and we feel ownership over children. If a child is crying over there, you and I are going to get up and go, “Are you alright?” We are going to immediately want to take care.

I do believe it’s from a good place that the heated part of it comes. We just have to … check that emotion for just a second and make this a research-based field. A data-based field. There is enough data over the last years. We are lucky to be where we are. Ten years ago, I couldn’t counter [with data] because it wasn’t a research-based field. Everybody has been doing the good work. Now we can benefit from all the documentation. It should become more like the medical field...It’s best practices.

One of the policies you advocate for is “smaller schools.” Why are smaller schools key but smaller classrooms aren’t?

It’s a fascinating answer. The small classroom size thing, you could write a book just on that, how we got to this confusion about that. First of all, it’s an intuitive one. If there’s less students, it’s better because one-on-one tutoring is so good. The closer we can get to one-on-one tutoring, that must be the answer. It’s a thing we believe in. So no matter what the data shows, the public opinion is heavily in that camp.

Everybody, the great majority of references to classroom size evidence is from this one study,  which hasn’t been duplicated with that kind of effect, ever. [The Tennessee STAR study] appears to be been the best study because it had randomized control trials, all that stuff, but ultimately it’s never been duplicated in that capacity and there were so many things that they couldn’t account for.

[Smaller classrooms] are not part of the equation for closing the achievement gap. In fact, I don’t think any of the schools that are closing the achievement gap are using small classrooms as part of their criterion. It’s because it costs so much, it puts so much tax on the rest of all the other stuff that needs to be done. It doesn’t have the kind of impact that the [quality of the] teacher does and the other stuff does.

So why are smaller schools one of your “five keys”?

Small schools is a catalyzer, it’s like a turbocharger for all the other tenets. So let’s take one [tenet, school leadership,] for example: The research supports that a principal needs to be teaching teachers. This sounds so obvious: A coach needs to be coaching the players. … If that principal is in charge of 40 classrooms, 40 teachers, he can do [closely oversee the teachers]. But if he is in charge of 400, he can’t do that. There is just a limit to doing it. So that’s just one example.

What are your plans moving forward? What’s the next step for you and education reform?

[My book] is really just a list, so you know how to be healthy. That’s all. It’s like, “Are you aware that smoking is bad for you? Good, okay.” It’s for the parents. It’s for the teachers. It’s for the two sides, three sides, how many sides there are. It’s for the heads of the teachers union. It’s for legislators. ...

Everybody has the same information—smoking is bad for you—then do what you want to do. It takes a while after the information is out. How long did it take for all of us to know to work out? When we were younger, it was hard to find a gym. Now every apartment building has a gym, you know? That’s knowledge becoming part of practice. [The tenets] are very kind of mom and pop stuff, like the health things are—don’t smoke, exercise—but the clarity of it will give people strength to act on it, I hope.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.