It has become fashionable to blame the shortfall in scholastic achievement on American public schools. We are often privy to soundbites from talking point memos prepared by self interest groups. Comments such as: inefficient teachers, attention deficit students, obsessive parents, sink hole for budgeted funds, teaching to pass the tests and, of course, teachers’ unions.

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The root of all troubles, say some, are the unions. This is similar to the reaction, anecdotally, of a shipwrecked sailor who gets washed ashore somewhere. He quickly walks up a country road, sees a pedestrian and accosts him. “Sir, is there a government in this country?” “Yes, we have a government in this country,” says the native. The sailor promptly asserts. “Then I am in the opposition.”

From a totally unexpected source comes a contrarian finding: screenwriter, director and producer of films, M. Night Shyamalan, one among the Indian diaspora in the United States. “What everyone knew just wasn’t so. American schools are not failing,” he states in his book, I Got Schooled, published by Simon and Schuster in 2013. Shyamalan, apart from having produced and directed several films in the last few years such as Signs, The Sixth Sense and Lady in the Water, reveals his continuing interest in education with full support from his wife, Bhavna Vaswani, a professional psychologist. The cost of the study was borne by an ad hoc foundation funded by Shyamalan himself.

The PISA Test

The most important international test for educational performance is Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for fifteen-year-olds given every three years all over the world. Among the 34 countries who participate in the test, the United States scored below average (26th rank) in mathematics in 2012; about average in reading (17th rank), and average in science (21st rank). The top performer in mathematics is Shanghai-China with a performance that is “the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state,” according to the Organization for Co-operation and Development (oecd.org).

It is interesting to put everything in context. United States is the third wealthiest nation in the OECD test group, which is borne out by the fact that the United States spends $115,000 per student as compared to the Slovak Republic which spends $53,000 per student and is ranked about the same as the United States. Furthermore, parents in the United States are better educated than parents from most other countries, yet over one quarter of fifteen-year-olds in the United States don’t meet the PISA baseline Level 2 proficiency in mathematics.

The Poverty Link

Demographics show that twenty percent of the United States student body attend inner city schools. They come from low income families at poverty levels exceeding ten percent. They pull the ratings down to statistically unacceptable levels. Eighty percent of our schools, therefore, are not failing. This means that the achievement gap problem is not staggering and focused remedies can be attempted for that segment.

I am not belittling the problem. Young students in this category are most probably hungry during the entire school day. That is a shame anywhere, especially in the richest country of all. You may recall a few months ago (Jan. ’14) a shameful incident occurred at a Utah elementary school when two school officials picked up the lunch plates from a whole group of students while they were eating their subsidized lunch and threw them in the trash. Some of the youngsters, allegedly, were late in paying their subsidized dues.

The author has addressed other contributing issues to failure in the school system such as: class size, teachers’ unions, inefficient or unmotivated teachers (estimated to be about two percent only) and teacher tenure. Every one of these has been dismissed as inconsequential or minimal in the larger perspective.

In his book, Shyamalan presents five key steps to be taken to reduce the scholastic achievement gap for American students.

Shyamalan’s Five Step Solution

Remove the roadblock of inefficient teachers. Teachers in this category should be evaluated thoroughly and fairly before termination. They might turn out to be extremely good in some other line of work. This step by itself is not the road to achieve excellence, however
Find the right balance of leadership. The team leader in the school, the principal, should be able to inspire confidence by words, deeds and examples among his/her team of teachers so that their productivity per hour increases. The principal should no longer to be considered an operational manager but an instructional leader.

Get regular feedback. Data which is defined as objective evidence of the benefit or failure of a program or methodology such as test scores, graduation rate, college admission rate and so on should be carefully analyzed to find out if one is following a blind or right path to improvement in scholastic achievement.

Control school size. The Melinda Gates Foundation found that school size is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating the desired learning environment. Shyamalan’s finding is that a school size of about 400 to 500 students is a lot more desirable than one with a thousand or more. The main reason for this is that a principal will find it a lot easier to aggressively visit and supervise the smaller number of classrooms. Large schools suffer from lack of close supervision.

The length of the school year. The number of instruction days on the average in American schools now is 180 days at between six and seven hours per day. Based on several studies, the recommendation is for a school year to be between 200 and 220 days at seven hours a day.

Shyamalan concludes that all five of these key guidelines have to be adapted in a systematic way—not some, but all—in order to make noticeable improvements in reducing the achievement gap. Of the fifty schools across the country that follow these guidelines and have shown improvement, eleven are from California, fifteen from Texas and thirteen from New York. At least 65% of the students in each of these schools are classified as poor and are qualified to receive subsidized lunch at school.

Shyamalan may possibly be simplifying the problem to fit his 5-point strategy, yet his solution does sound reasonable and is fodder for the ongoing education debate.

P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.

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