As John Adams Said ...
Some filmmakers love location scouting. I'm not one of them. You drive in a van or fly a plane for eternity just to get out, look around, and say, "This isn't it." You do this over and over till you find the place where you know the characters can live and breathe and walk around.
Which is what I was doing in the spring of 2007, with a team of location managers and scouts who were ferrying me around Philadelphia, looking at potential filming locations for The Happening, which was going to star Mark Wahlberg as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school. Our search had taken us to the Julia R. Masterman Middle and High School, a public school located at 17th and Spring Garden, right in the middle of the city. This is a flat-out beautiful building and beautiful school. I knew right away when I stepped out that this was the place. It just felt right. There was light there.
I'm not superfamous, but people know my movies. Once it got around that we were scouting Masterman High School, the kids went crazy. They started coming out of the classrooms, circling, asking questions. "Are you making a movie here?" "Is someone going to die here?" "Can I die?" The usual inquiries. It was a pied piper–like scene as we moved through the building. We took our notes, talked to the principal, and left.
Then we drove fifteen minutes to Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia. It is a towering, imposing building. Inside, it's all fluorescent lights and metal detectors. The classrooms had bars on their doors and windows, and each one had to be unlocked before we could see them.
Something you should know about me is that I'm a pretty selfish guy. Not a great citizen of the world. I care about my family and films. That's it. Someone needs saving, countries need assistance, I'm sympathetic, but it doesn't penetrate me. But when they showed me the floor of the school that was closed because of too much drug use and sexual activity, something dark wrapped in outrage started growing in my stomach. It kept growing as they showed me the school theater that was being renovated because of a suspiciously set fire.
Something happened to me standing in the hallway in Overbrook High School. My arms became tight. My jaw set. It's exactly what happens when someone elbows me in a basketball game. It gets my attention.
Which is more than we got at Overbrook. When we walked down the halls, only one boy even looked at us. Something akin to recognition flickered in his eyes and then vanished. He looked back down and kept walking. That was the only moment of acknowledgment that a film-location crew was in the building.
I'm certain that the students of Overbrook watch just as many movies as the kids at Masterman. Just as many of them want to be actors or directors or producers. To Masterman's students, though, while a visit from a film crew wasn't an everyday event, it was exactly the sort of thing they expected to happen. Their entire lives had taught them that things like that were possible. That anything was possible. Overbrook's students didn't even believe we were there. If the kids at Masterman had spent their lives being taught that anything was possible, Overbrook's student body had learned the opposite.
That's one reason that the achievement gap that separates inner-city schools from suburban ones doesn't exist at Masterman. Which meant they had opened up a cavernous gap between themselves and Overbrook. In 2010, Masterman was one of only two high schools in the state of Pennsylvania to be awarded a National Blue Ribbon, which means just what it sounds like. Masterman students take enriched math and foreign language programs, participate in half a dozen different music ensembles, and can try out for nationally ranked chess and National Academic League teams. The school has a 100 percent graduation rate, and nine out of ten Masterman graduates are headed to a four-year college. Overbrook? Only 54 percent of Overbrook's students get a diploma. At Masterman, nearly one student in four takes the Advanced Placement test in English, and 90 percent receive a score of 3, 4, or 5: enough for college credit. At Overbrook, only one student in fifty takes it and, the last time anyone checked, none got as high as a 3.
It's not apples to apples. Masterman is a magnet school, and a very selective one. Even to apply to Masterman, a fourth-grader — almost every student starts in the fifth grade, and continues to graduation — needs to test in the top 12 percent of all students in the city of Philadelphia. But neither school has an especially affluent student body; the percentage of poor kids at Masterman is around 40 percent; at Overbrook a little more than 60 percent. The teachers at Overbrook work just as hard as their colleagues at Masterman, and care just as much. The schools use the same standards for language arts and mathematics. Only about four miles separates them. And a sense of possibility.
Here's another thing about me: My mind is hardwired to see possibilities everywhere. I look up in the night sky and expect to see a UFO. I was the kid who stared at the paper cup for hours convinced I'd move it with my mind. (Never happened.) I'm also the guy who saw my wife for the first time and knew she was the one. (Married twenty years.) I went to my first dance at a girls' school when I was twelve and knew my kids would go there one day. (All three do today.) I'm that guy. The eternal optimist on steroids.
The visit to the two schools made something crystal clear to me: I was now invested in the struggles of education, and I was going to figure out what Masterman's kids were getting that Overbrook's weren't. I wasn't sure how to do it. But I had a notion of where to start.
Six years before visiting the two schools, in October of 2001, my wife, Bhavna (who is a great citizen of the world), and I had signed the various documents — and written the check — that launched the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation (MNS Foundation). Its mission is "to support remarkable leaders working to remove the barriers created by poverty and inequality, which prevent individuals and communities from unleashing their full potential." Bhavna and I believe that every person on the planet is born with an unknowably great potential for knowledge, growth, and success, and that we are all responsible for helping turn that potential into actuality.
Over the years, the Foundation has mounted initiatives to fight hunger and improve access to livable housing in Philadelphia. We've supported single mothers in their efforts to get GEDs. We've funded programs of self-empowerment around the world, investing in community leaders like Usha, a woman from the slum community of Nagpur, India, who stood up to the gang that had terrorized her community for years and came to MNS when she needed help training her neighbors in job skills. The Foundation invested in the Sudanese secondary school for boys and girls built by Valentino Achak Deng (the subject of Dave Eggers's What Is the What). The Foundation has given orphans in Africa access to a daily multivitamin that, all by itself, prevents a whole raft of potentially life-threatening deficiency diseases like scurvy and pellagra. We provided a grant to the Samburu Project, started by Kristen Kosinski, a former Paramount executive who left her job, flew to Kenya, and is now working to provide fresh water to an entire region.
So, when we decided that America's educational failures were the biggest obstacle "preventing individuals and communities from unleashing their full potential," we had an organization in place that could examine the scope of those failures. The first thing the foundation came back with was a reminder — the first of many — that what I knew just wasn't so. In this case, what everyone knew just wasn't so. Despite the impression left by thousands of research studies, tens of thousands of blog posts, and millions of words in every newspaper and magazine in the country, America's schools aren't failing.
I know how this sounds to you. But it's true. The country's high school graduation rate, college graduation rate, and average performance on those work-of-the-devil standardized tests are the highest they've ever been. Elementary and middle school students in the United States have been tested on their proficiency in math and science every four years since 1995, and have improved every single time. (A separate problem is that America's best students, our top 10 percent, are starting to fall behind the best European and Asian students. A good book could be written about this problem, but this isn't that book.)
OK. So maybe the problem is only that American schools are in relative decline. Maybe our schools shouldn't be compared to what they were twenty years ago, but with what other countries are doing today. If you read the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or listen to National Public Radio, or just about anything else, you've already heard about how they do education better everywhere else — Finland and Singapore are favorite examples. But, again, there's a lot less to this than meets the eye.
The most important international comparison of educational performance is the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a test given every three years to fifteen-year-olds all over the world. Last time out, the U.S. average score was 500, just behind Poland and ahead of Liechtenstein.
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. The top four-fifths of America's public schools are Norway The bottom 18 percent — 14,000 elementary schools, and more than 3,000 secondary schools — is Serbia. I knew there was a gap. But I didn't know that the gap was as big as the Grand Canyon. And, like the Grand Canyon, it was around for a long time before anyone actually "discovered" it. The first real evidence of what everyone already knew emerged only around fifty years ago, when the U.S. Department of Education issued the first comprehensive study of the subject, the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity. New studies have been coming out what seems like every few months ever since. A few highlights:
· A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that third-graders who live in poverty — and remember, that's a fifth of the entire country — and read below grade level are three times as likely to drop out as students whose families have never fallen below the poverty line.
· In 2010, the average reading score on one test given to eighth grade students in high-poverty schools was thirty-three points below the score in low-poverty schools. The gap in scores between poor and nonpoor students in math was thirty-six points. Every ten points is approximately equal to one grade level in performance.
· Twenty-two percent of children who have lived in poverty for more than a year or two don't graduate from high school (only 6 percent of those who have never lived in poverty fail to graduate). Spend more than half your childhood in poverty, and your chance of dropping out rises to an almost unbelievable 32 percent.
· 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.
· The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that only 68 percent of twelfth-graders in what they defined as high-poverty schools — ones in which more than 75 percent of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch — ever graduate, as opposed to 91 percent everywhere else. Overbrook has a lot of company.
· Here's the really bad news. None of these numbers has improved in any real way for at least the last twenty years.
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?"
Well, it's both, obviously. In America, especially, they overlap. In California, black students are six times more likely than white students to attend the state's lowest-performing 30 percent of schools; Latino students four times more likely. But an honest look at the numbers shows that poverty is an even bigger part of the problem than race. The reading-score difference between low-poverty schools and high-poverty schools is nearly a third higher than the achievement gap separating African-Americans or Hispanics from white students.
That struck me as less of a daunting problem. We don't have to fix the problem of racial discrimination in America. Just the problem of poverty. (I'm being sarcastic.)
Or maybe not. I had another brainstorm. Paul Orfalea, them hyperactive (really hyperactive, as in diagnosed with ADHD) founder of Kinko's, used to say that his only secret was that he was so restless that he visited every Kinko's operation he could, found out what worked, and then told every other store manager about it. We could do that, I thought. If the problem is largely restricted to America's urban schools, let's look at a hundred or so urban school districts and find the ones that have the highest-achieving students. Then we'll figure out what they're doing that's different from the others and tell everyone about it, first in Philadelphia, then everywhere else.
A month later, I had my answer. The Foundation couldn't find a "best" urban school system. They had to move heaven and earth even to find a good one.
Again the eternal optimist on steroids took this as good news. To me, this said that these school systems have different rules than the rest of the education world, and that they are reacting uniformly — like a system. We just had to figure out the system's rules.
Actually, figuring out the rules wasn't all I had to do. I also had to figure out why I was looking for them in the first place. It wasn't enough to carry that dark ball of outrage in my stomach. I needed to get rid of it. After all, I wasn't in this just to satisfy my curiosity, as I believed in change. And when it comes to education, change means changing people's minds. If I had to change a bunch of minds, I needed to know my own.
So I started with one thing I knew for sure: America hadn't become a nation of educational apartheid entirely by chance. A big chunk of the problem was self-inflicted. We've done this to ourselves.
And when I say "we," I mean me, too. Remember that girls' school I visited when I was twelve, knowing that my daughters would go there someday? They're not going there just because I'm sentimental; it's probably one of the two or three best private schools in the state of Pennsylvania. I want my family to have the best, and I've been lucky enough to be able to afford it. And I don't think I'm very different from anyone else. We all want our schools to be great. None of us wants to send our kids to an average school, much less a below-average one.
The dark side of this equation is, if your school is above average, then someone else's has to be below average. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. One hospital might be average, another below, but we expect both of them to be able to remove an appendix or deliver a baby. The real problem with wanting your school to be above average is when that means "in comparison to another school." If what really matters to people isn't the absolute benefit of attending a particular school, or living in a particular school district, but the relative benefit — how your school compares with others — then they start to act as if they're playing a zero-sum game: If someone wins, someone else has to lose.
That's what was wrong with Masterman. It couldn't be the solution. It might have been part of the problem: If the most ambitious, motivated families in Overbrook's neighborhood apply to schools like Masterman, what happens to the kids whose families don't? It isn't just a Philadelphia problem: Thirty-seven of the top fifty schools in Newsweek magazine's most recent list of America's top thousand high schools had selective admission standards. They were there because they were selective, and selection is a zero-sum game. Which would be bad enough, but it becomes worse: You can't get the winners in a zero-sum game to help the losers when the stakes are good jobs or admissions to good colleges.
As I said, I'm just as vulnerable to this kind of thinking as anyone. I get it a lot: "Sure, it's easy for you to pontificate about public schools; your girls are never going to step inside one." The root of that objection, I guess, is the belief that improving underperforming schools has to come at the cost of everyone else. It just has to; that's what zero-sum games require: winners and losers.
Luckily, though, I have a wife, a family, and friends who were willing to give me three different solutions to that particular puzzle, one philosophical, one political, and the final one economic.
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.
I honestly don't know why so many people who tell stories for a living have liberal politics. I've heard it argued that it's because we reflexively take the side of the underdog, if only because it makes for superior drama.
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?
For sure, we wouldn't be so quick to create a system like the one we have. We wouldn't have affluent suburban school districts surrounding poor urban ones if none of us knew which one our kids would be attending. Maybe most important, in Rawls's words, "greater resources would be spent for education of the less, rather than the more, favored ... "
Fundamentally, this problem has arisen because we don't think of all of the members of our society as equal. This is a civil rights issue, and we have to be aware that we are complicit in its existence.
An adequate education is a civil right, just like the right to vote or to due process. You don't earn a civil right by doing anything except being born ... and you definitely don't lose it because your parents were living in the wrong neighborhood when you were born. But there's another reason to support closing the achievement gap: a political one. Because if everyone has the right to vote, then we all have a powerful interest in making sure that every vote is an educated one.
I sometimes think that the most revolutionary thing about the American Revolution wasn't creating a constitutional republic or a democratic electoral system, but public education for everyone. Democracies have been around since ancient Athens, republics since Rome, but before the United States, the only people offering free public education were churchmen or wealthy families, and they were doing it out of charity. America was the first place where government took on the responsibility of educating everyone, and we did it because our founders knew that, in a democracy, a basic education needs to be exactly as widespread as citizenship. John Adams, a hero of mine, sure thought so. In his 1779 Constitution ... for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he wrote: " ... the preservation of [the people's] rights and liberties ... depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people ... " (emphasis added).
Revolutionary? Adam Smith, who published The Wealth of Nations the same year that Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and all the other founders were signing the Declaration of Independence, had some pretty revolutionary thoughts himself, but even he favored only schools with teachers "partly but not wholly paid by the public," but charging everyone fees meant that real public education in Britain would have to wait for another century. When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States half a dozen years after John Adams died, he recognized just how different America was from any other nation that had ever existed — and, remember, de Tocqueville knew a lot about revolution; his own country had experienced a pretty dramatic one only forty years earlier — he wrote, in Democracy in America:
I do not think that the system of self-interest as it is professed in America is in all its parts self-evident, but it contains a great number of truths so evident that men, if they are only educated, cannot fail to see them. Educate, then, at any rate, for the age of implicit self-sacrifice and instinctive virtues is already flitting far away from us, and the time is fast approaching when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to exist without education.
Most people, including me, prior to immersing myself in this project, will tell themselves, I'm all for education, it's fairly important, and I believe in democracy, too, but the inner-city problems are too daunting and I have my own problems. To be honest, they aren't really connected to me and my issues.
Nope. That's actually what de Tocqueville was talking about when he came up with the American idea of "self-interest, rightly understood." We really are in this together. That's not my opinion: That's just what the evidence says. Remember PISA, the world's most widely taken test of cognitive skills? Well, the people who created it don't just collect test scores; they also calculate their impact. Here's how Andreas Schleicher, who directs those PISA tests, puts it: "The best way to find out whether what students have learned at school matters for their life is to actually watch what happens to them after they leave school."
Which is exactly what the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development does. They've been tracking the progress of tens of thousands of kids for years, following up every year to see what choices they've made and how successful they've been in college and at work.
In a not-surprising result, you find out that raising the scores of fifteen-year-old students is strongly correlated with success in later life. High scores: good; poor scores: bad. The higher their scores, the greater the impact. The PISA researchers have developed a baseline that allows them to estimate how much those scores matter to what they'd produce over the course of their working lives — how much they'd buy and sell; how much impact they'd have on the number known as the Gross Domestic Product.
This is why measures of parental satisfaction or student self-esteem aren't the focus of this book. Only measurable improvement in achievement scores is correlated with increased economic productivity and allows all of America's families to prosper.
So now I'm appealing to that side in all of us that is practical and economically conservative. (My goal is to systematically awaken every part of us that cares.) A twenty-five point overall improvement in the scores achieved by the world's fifteen-year-olds would add $115 trillion to the world economy over their working lifetimes. Twenty-five points. It's actually not a lot. Twenty-five points would raise only America's lowest-performing fifth, those schools that are more than 75 percent poor, to the level achieved by schools that are only a little less poor — those with poverty rates between 50 percent and 75 percent. Twenty-five points raises the score of the lowest quintile — 446 — to that of the second-lowest quintile: 471. (Remember, the U.S. average is 500, and students in schools where the poverty rate is under 10 percent score 551.) This is really aiming our sights low to make a point.
That movement would produce gigantic dividends for the United States. If all we did was raise the productivity of one-fifth of the U.S. economy to a level that is still way below the national average, it would add nearly $7.8 trillion to the American GDP over the next sixty years. In current dollars: $130 billion a year.
So again I am speaking only to that practical/economic side of ourselves. Wouldn't you want your kids to walk down any street in your city with that much more economic security? Wouldn't you want them in a job market with that much more prosperity to spread around? Wouldn't you want your loved ones to move about a city with that much less desperation?
Education is your issue unless you don't care about prosperity, safety, and stability in our economy. Even in this little example, we gain $130 billion a year by letting our schools fail our inner-city kids, just fail them a little slower than they are now.
Can you even fathom what America would look like without the education gap? You wouldn't recognize this country.
From I Got Schooled by M. Night Shyamalan. Copyright 2013 by M. Night Shyamalan. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.