“In America, we’re actually educating our kids very well… but just the white kids.”
M. Night Shyamalan, formerly a successful director, later an unsuccessful director, who got bitten by the education reform bug, is the guy you may not know you know. But if you ever rolled your eyes at the ridiculous ending of a movie, then you've probably watched one of his efforts.
Shyamalan is ridiculously egotistical to the point of being completely delusional. So his book, "I Got Schooled", which claims to have the answers to fixing schools is being mocked for all the right and wrong reasons.
“In America, we’re actually educating our kids very well… but just the white kids,” Shyamalan said. “If you pull out schools in which 85 percent of students qualify for a free meal, which are predominantly African-American and Hispanic, the data show that the rest of the kids are being taught better in America than anywhere else in the world. Countries like Finland teach their white kids well, and we teach our white kids better.”
That's true, I suppose. But M. Night Shyamalan is the product of American schools, albeit high end private ones. Like so many American Desi, he's the product of wealthy and ambitious parents who made his dreams happen because they were willing to do everything for their little prince.
That's a big part of the answer. It's not so much the schools that fail. It's the parents.
Otherwise why can American schools educate Shyamalan; but not the 16-year-old gangbanger in Chicago? M. Night Shyamalan writes...
"If America's scores were limited to those from schools in districts in which the poverty rate was less than 10 percent — Finland's poverty rate is less than 4 percent — the United States would lead the world, and it wouldn't be close: 551 on the latest PISA test, compared to Finland's 536, or South Korea's 539. In fact, if all you did was exclude the American schools that have student bodies that are more than three-quarters poor, U.S. schools would still score 513, just behind Australia, but ahead of the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Iceland ... well, you get the picture.
"Unfortunately, nearly 20 percent of schools in the United States have student bodies that are more than 75 percent poor. That's a fifth — the bottom quintile — of all the 100,000 public schools in the country: 22 percent of America's elementary schools, and 11 percent of our secondary schools.
"It's mostly an urban problem: Only 29 percent of America's public school students attend schools in cities, but a whopping 58 percent of them are in high-poverty schools. Thirty-five percent of all public school students are in suburban schools, but only 23 percent of them are high-poverty schools. In towns, only 9 percent attend high-poverty schools, 11 percent in rural areas.
This was pretty depressing, even to an optimist like me. About the only good news I could extract from this research was that the problem was localized; that it seemed to happen everywhere you had a high percentage of low-income, urban families. That's what my Foundation researchers told me. And, since I don't live on Mars, and know that "low-income and urban" is code for "African-American and Latino," I then asked, "Is this a problem of poverty or racism?"
You already know the answer to this one.
The philosophical answer — a liberal commitment to social justice — isn't going to surprise anyone who knows what I do professionally. One thing everyone believes about Hollywood that turns out to be mostly true is that its politics are pretty progressive. This gives a lot of people permission to call us hypocrites for talking about climate change while flying around the globe — or, in this case, having an opinion about public education and sending our kids to private schools.
But the philosophical case for social justice is even better. It has a lot of intellectual forebears, but my favorite is a book that most people encounter in college and never pick up again. In simple terms, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice tells us that the most just society is one whose institutions are the ones its members would construct if they knew they were going to be born into the society but had no way ofpredicting whether they'd be part of the most- or least-favored segments.
If we had to build a society from behind Rawls's famous "veil of ignorance," where no one knows if he or she is going to be born smart, lucky, or wealthy — in a Mumbai slum or a Philadelphia suburb (or, more to the point, in a neighborhood where the public school is more than 90 percent poor or less than 10 percent) — what kind of education would everyone get?
Rawls was a Communitarian and his Theory of Justice and its Veil of Ignorance is glib nonsense that assumes that everyone is fixed in their lot in life and forced to cope with fixed structures that he cannot escape.
In reality, if you played the game, you would end up with a randomly mixed bag of areas that would sort itself out. With two generations, you would have the same exact setup as now, with achievers getting out and underachievers staying put, and the political and social structures emerging around that reality.
One reason that countries such as Finland and Singapore have such high international test scores, Mr. Shyamalan thinks, is that they are more racially homogenous. As he sees it, their citizens care more about overall school performance—unlike in the U.S., where uneven school quality affects some groups more than others. So Mr. Shyamalan took it upon himself to figure out where the education gap between races was coming from and what could be done about it.
"That was the click," says Mr. Shyamalan. It struck him that the reason the educational research was so inconsistent was that few school districts were trying to use the best, most proven reform ideas at once. He ultimately concluded that five reforms, done together, stand a good chance of dramatically improving American education. The agenda described in his book is: Eliminate the worst teachers, pivot the principal's job from operations to improving teaching and school culture, give teachers and principals feedback, build smaller schools, and keep children in class for more hours.
Some of this might improve things, but it's also glib and 'easier said than done'. Shyamalan doesn't really believe in performance bonuses or merit pay. He doesn't believe smaller class sizes work, but that smaller schools do. And like Bill Gates, he insists in thinking of a rigid bureaucracy as functioning like a creative place or tech firm that is always receptive to being transformed with new ideas.
As Shyamalan admits at the outset, American schools do a good job of teaching white kids. And apparently Indians. Which means they do work. It's not a schools problem. It's a culture problem.
Education isn't rocket science. We turned out a generation of inventors using prairie schoolhouses. Its goal is to transmit knowledge. Students have to come from a place where they see a purpose in learning it. That's the roadblock in American education.