Why do some school boards and superintendents find it so difficult to close the achievement gap in their schools? Why is it that so many well-meaning reform initiatives fall short? And why is it so challenging to replicate the success of a high-performing school in other schools that are struggling?

These questions have plagued school leaders for years.

Now a thoughtful answer has been offered – by someone whose name is associated more with Hollywood entertainment than the classroom: M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaker known for such movies as “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” and “After Earth.” Just as unusual is how Shyamalan stumbled across his answer to the challenges facing public education. In a manner that mirrored the often-surprising plot twists of his earlier films, he didn’t have his epiphany while visiting a school or reading the latest education research.

He was dining with friends in an Italian restaurant. “We were talking about nothing to do with education,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “But one [friend] teaches at a hospital, and he mentioned he advises his medical residents to tell patients that if they do some basic things – eat a balanced diet, exercise, sleep eight hours a day, don’t smoke, and focus on their mental health – if they do these five things, their chances of becoming seriously ill drop to an incredibly low level.”

But what was essential, his friend emphasized, was that this health benefit only takes hold if patients commit to practicing all five measures in combination.

Patients cannot choose á la carte. “He said that if patients don’t do just one of these things, their health risks start climbing right back to the norm. If they do everything he recommends except still smoke, their bodies … their systems … were going to be out of balance.”

Most school leaders immediately will recognize how this observation relates to troubled schools. Shyamalan certainly saw the connection. It made sense that a school can be successful only when all the right factors are in place – and when those factors are mutually supportive. After all, professional development will only improve teacher quality if an effective principal makes it happen – and follows up with coaching and regular evaluations. Meanwhile, even the most acclaimed curriculum can fail if it is implemented in isolation.

“That’s it, I thought,” Shyamalan says. “The human body is a complex system, and it must be approached like that. Well, a school is a complex system. A group of things must be on the table – must be done together – to close the achievement gap.”

It was an insight that ultimately led Shyamalan to write a thoughtful and well-argued book, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap.

In it, he describes what motivated his quest to find answers to America’s educational challenges, what he discovered during his research, and how he came to identify what he believes are the five key strategies – his five tenets – to creating a highly effective school.

‘It gets my attention’

So how did a successful filmmaker get drawn into the arena of school reform? By happenstance, as it turns out. In the spring of 2007, he set out to visit several Philadelphia high schools in search of a location for his next film, “The Happening,” an end-of-the-world story that would star Mark Wahlberg as a mild-mannered teacher.

As he describes it in his book, his first visit was to a “flatout beautiful building and beautiful school” with friendly, engaged students and a vibrant educational atmosphere, he recalls. Excited students circled about, asking about his film. “Are you making a movie here?” “Are people going to die here?” “Can I die?”

His next stop, though, was a shock – this school couldn’t have been more different, he says. It was a towering, imposing campus of metal detectors, barred windows, and locked classrooms. The lighting was dismal. The students were sullen, disinterested, and few even looked up at him. It was easy to sense, he recalls, that the students were disillusioned with their school and themselves.

The striking disparity between these two schools – both in the attitudes of students and in their apparent educational opportunities – hit him hard. Standing in the hallway of the second building, he writes, “Something happened to me. My arms became tight. My jaw set. It’s exactly what happens when someone elbows me in a basketball game. It gets my attention.”

It did more than that. It inspired a six-year search for answers about why some schools successfully educate students – and others fall short. Over the course of his quest, he says, he would visit schools, study the research, and engage in conversations with a host of educators and policymakers across the nation.

Yet, answers weren’t forthcoming at first, he admits. As he delved into the issues surrounding school reform, he found himself immersed in a debate filled with rhetoric, personal opinions based on anecdotes and ideology, and seemingly contradictory research on what works and what doesn’t in the classroom.

“As we brought more information to the table, it looked really messy, very confusing,” he says. “We didn’t have any kind of framework for it. I was in a similar situation to those people who have spent their life trying to fight for school reform.

In a sense, none of it made sense…but it had to make sense. We were just not looking at it in the right way.”

In the end, of course, Shyamalan’s dinner with friends provided the path forward. He started looking at successful schools to see whether there were certain key factors – mutually supportive factors – at work.

“Lo and behold, there were all these amazing individual men and women who, by trial of fire, had figured it out. They had come to the same conclusion about how to fix their schools.”

The next task, Shyamalan says, was to distill what was happening in successful schools to a number of basic tenets – key characteristics – that increase the likelihood that educators can close the achievement gap. In the end, he narrowed the list down to five.


1.Start with good teachers.

No one will disagree with this key characteristic of a good school, but Shyamalan makes clear that school leaders are unwise to assume their schools are doing everything they can to put good teachers in the classroom. In the areas of recruitment, evaluation, professional development, and the removal of low-performing teachers, he says, the evidence suggests that many schools could do a lot more.

2.Allow principals to be educators.

It is impossible to put a “Superman” in every school, Shyamalan argues. What district leaders can do, however, is provide the support and training that principals need to be true instructional leaders in their schools. That means, for example, relieving them of some of the bureaucratic administrative work that keeps them out of the classroom.

3.Be serious about data-driven instruction.

Everyone acknowledges the value of data. But, as Shyamalan notes, too many principals and teachers aren’t getting the data they need in a timely manner – and they are stymied in using that data to change instructional strategies or provide timely intervention to academically struggling students.

4.Small schools make a difference.

The value of small schools has come into question in recent years – the victim of research that failed to show a strong link between smaller schools and higher student achievement, Shyamalan notes. But a direct correlation isn’t needed: The advantages of a smaller school setting – such as the greater familiarity of adults and students, or the improved coordination of a small staff – makes it easier to make positive changes or respond to challenges.

5.More time for learning.

It’s tough to find money to expand preschool, after-school, or summer school programs, Shyamalan admits. But the harsh reality is that disadvantaged students need more time in school. Some research, for example, suggests at-risk students lose more ground academically during the idle summer months than their more affluent peers – and this academic decline can account for half of the achievement gap by the time students enter high school.

Will anyone listen?

Shyamalan’s conclusions are unlikely to draw a lot of opposition from veteran school leaders. Who can argue against improved teacher quality or more time for learning?

But it would be a mistake to dismiss them simply because they appear painfully obvious. If it’s so obvious, he might ask, why is it that so many reform initiatives are launched in isolation? Why is the mutual interdependence of key school characteristics so seldom a part of the school reform debate?

Shyamalan also wonders why school leaders so consistently choose to reinvent the wheel. Rather than replicate programs or practices that have been shown to succeed, he notes, local educators have a history of turning everything over to a committee that tweaks and changes things to their liking – with uncertain results.

“There’s something bizarre about the boutique nature of the educational system,” he says. “We don’t have to figure out heart surgery at every hospital. Someone has already figured out how to do it. So when we’re aspiring to the kind of achievement that other schools are doing, I’m not sure why we’re starting programs from scratch every single time. Everybody should have the best practices in place.”

And it’s possible, he says. The key tenets to closing the achievement gap, as he sees it, are well within the ability of any school system to implement. And, if they do so, he sees no reason why they shouldn’t expect the same results.

“After meeting with dozens of men and women fighting for American’s students, after reading hundreds of articles and books, and seeing, over and over again, how the practice of five tenets can close the country’s educational achievement gap, I definitely experienced a memorable change in my own attitudes,“ he concludes in his book.

“But if that’s all that this exercise changed, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.”

Del Stover is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.

Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, April 2014 © 2014 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.