What do you do when every movie you direct is more atrocious and reviled than the previous one?
Well, if you're M. Night Shyamalan, you write a dry, rambling education policy book — I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America's Education Gap — sprinkled with irritatingly smug anecdotes about dinner parties at historic estates and lunches of “gnudi with ricotta cheese in a brown butter sauce” at Mario Batali's Spotted Pig.
The incredibly narrow audience for this exercise in self-indulgence is established in its first words: “everyone who decides to give money away.” Specifically: charitable 1-percenters who are interested in fixing the 10 percent of American schools that are failing our neediest students but who need some evidence-based talking points to decide where their money or time would best be spent. People like the multimillionaire director himself, who had grown frustrated with well-meaning but ineffective nonprofits.
So Shyamalan hired a grad student — James Richardson, who should take all the credit for what this book does manage to achieve — to review the education research out there. All of it.
That's great! All philanthropists should be so thorough in figuring out which causes to support. But why charge $20 for people to read about the research you paid for? Why not make your conclusions available for free online, without looking for a round of applause for being a pragmatic humanitarian and a serious intellectual?
The real motivation behind this vanity project sneaks out at the end of the acknowledgements: “I think I wrote this book so [my wife would] still think I am smart.”
Unfortunately for her, Shyamalan's suggestions are nothing new. Fire bad teachers; keep schools below 600 students; hire spirited principals who regularly observe and provide data-based feedback to teachers; and keep kids in school longer, including some time over the summer.
He tries very hard not to piss off anyone with this book, to create a “nonscarred, nonemotional list” of needed changes, because he is rightly disturbed by the level of rancor involved in any discussion about education policy.
However, is an apolitical list even possible? One can only assume Shyamalan's agent, the omnipotent Ari Emanuel, couldn't make it through his client's statistics-heavy book, or else he might have suggested Shyamalan call his brother Rahm, the mayor of Chicago, who knows firsthand the acrimonious and logistical nightmare that is education reform. Last year, Chicago's teachers went on strike for seven school days when Emanuel renegotiated contracts to implement just two of Shyamalan's “keys” — teacher evaluations and a longer school day.
Although he ignores political realities, Shyamalan creates the impression that he is some great savior of America's children, riding in on his data-based horse and offering new ideas — even as Obama's revolutionary Race to the Top initiative, which offered enormous grants to states that implemented many of Shyamalan's suggested reforms, isn't mentioned until page 237.
Shyamalan is correct in saying we've already figured out what needs to be done to fix low-income schools. But if he really wanted his wife to be impressed, he'd spare us another crappy thriller and figure out how to turn any of these “keys” into law.
Now there's a task that would take some smarts.
Amanda Lewis on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter: