This Movie Mogul Thinks He Has the Right Formula to Fix Schools

Education philanthropists come in all shapes and sizes these days, from major foundations with teams of wonky program officers to business moguls touting the magic of market approaches.

Then there is M. Night Shyamalan, the hugely successful director who's best known for features like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Shyamalan has been back on the road this spring promoting a set of ideas he first talked about in last year's book, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America's Education Gap.

Shyamalan, whose net worth is around $50 million, recently spoke at a conference on school reform sponsored by Philadelphia’s Federal Reserve Bank and is due to address the National Press club later this month. He's being taken more seriously by the policy community because he represents a new breed of celebrity philanthropist who is focusing both money and influence on improving schools. 

In Shyamalan’s case, it is trying to turn around the “lose all hope who enter here” schools of Philadelphia’s inner city. The film mogul grew up in the leafy Philly suburbs and, in 2001, started a foundation with his wife, Dr. Bhavna Shyamalan, to help disadvantaged youth in the city. But he turned his attention to school reform after filming on location in the city and coming coming across, as told the Atlantic magazine, “prisons in the form of schools. It had guards, everybody had guns. It was very scary. I mean, it was like a cheesy movie.”

Shaken, the director decided he wanted to do something about these schools, and plunged into a five-year research journey to figure out what kinds of solutions would be effective. He ended up identifying five keys to success:

  1. Identifying great teachers and removing "roadblock teachers" if they can't improve with professional development measures 

  2. Promoting instructional leadership

  3. Providing consistent feedback on teaching practice

  4. Reducing school size

  5. Adding more time (longer days/longer years)

Shyamalan would be the first to concede that these ideas are far from new, but argues that the key is that all approaches need to be implemented together.

The movie director’s ideas have gained attention in Philly ed circles. William Green, chair of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, has said that Shyamalan's book has shaped his thinking.

To advance his ideas, Shyamalan and his foundation have hooked up with two of the biggest players in school reform circles, KIPP and Teach for America. One of his main messages is that he does not want anybody "to say that there isn’t an answer right now." Shyamalan thinks he has the answer, and is going to keep pushing it.