M. Night Shyamalan: Is “Fierceness” the Middle Ground in Philly’s Education Conundrum?

Reform supporters and public school defenders sometimes sound like the blind men describing an elephant.

Of the two big themes that ran through last Saturday’s Philadelphia magazine ThinkFest at the Kimmel Center, improving education is probably the bigger challenge facing our city and region than encouraging entrepreneurship and technological innovation.

And the people who have made it their business to dissect what’s wrong with our elementary and secondary education system in order to set it right went after each other — well, maybe not “went after,” but certainly expressed sharply diverging views — in the panel discussion on education in Philadelphia.

The problem, said Parents United founder and pubic school champion Helen Gym, is that we’re starving the public schools of the resources they need to give (in the words of the Pennsylvania Constitution) “a thorough and efficient education” to every child, including the hard-to-reach ones, diverting them instead to a corporate education model.

The problem, said Philadelphia School Partnership executive director Mark Gleason, is that we leave too many children and their families in schools they’d rather not be in, with no good alternatives to consider, and charter schools — privately run public schools that follow a variety of educational models – offer those alternatives.

That’s a rough summary of the two poles in the education argument. Each has allies among the people who actually do the educating – school teachers and administrators.

Might it be that they’re both right?

The key principle all the parties to the education argument are — or, in my opinion, ought to be — working for is equality. While children vary in their talents, all are equally capable of learning and excelling, given the right environment and support. But as M. Night Shyamalan noted in the festival’s penultimate session, a conversation related to his new book I Got Schooled, our children get unequal environments and supports. Nonwhite students, low-income ones especially, get the short end of the stick all around, he said.

So what to do to raise those environments and supports to the level better-off white families enjoy? And how will we know when we’ve succeeded? Reform advocates say, “Focus on the outcomes.” Schools in which parents have a stake, they say, produce students who perform better. Public school defenders say, “Focus on the inputs.” If you don’t provide enough public support, they say, no school can fulfill its mission.

In Pennsylvania, the formula for funding public education, which in effect has school districts paying twice for every child in a charter school, provides lots of ammo for the defenders, and even the reformers agree it’s flawed. It’s also contributed to the red ink all over the School District of Philadelphia’s balance sheet.

But when parents in some neighborhoods vote to have their local public school go charter, as those at Francis Pastorius School down the street from me did last year, that suggests that the reformers have a point as well: Give families schools where they want to be rather than have to be, and they will help those schools do better.

Affluent white families have been able to do this for years simply by buying a house at the right address. Affluent black families copped wise to this and followed them. The challenge is that geography shouldn’t be destiny, and it matters less who is working to change that than that they are at all.

Shyamalan pointed out that in inner-city schools that work, children get a clear message: You matter. (Or, as he put it, “You’re fierce!”) It’s a message they don’t often get from the larger society, or sometimes even their parents. But the kids know when they’re getting it and when they’re not. And making sure they get that message probably matters more than who’s delivering it or how much we’re spending on the school doing the delivering. (With a caveat: That last point isn’t an excuse for doing it on the cheap.)

A few years ago, I met a fellow Harvard alumnus who, after being downsized out of a career in public relations, decided to teach in the public schools. He ended up teaching English at Simon Gratz High, since taken over by Mastery Charter Schools (which also runs Pastorius now). At that time, the school was one of the worst performing schools in the city. One day, after class, one of his students asked him, “Did you really go to Harvard?”

“Yes,” he responded.

“Then what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to make a difference in your life,” was his response.

I hope that kid got the message that at least one person thought he mattered. If we can all remember that this is the purpose of public education, and the reason why those in it should be in it, then maybe we can actually make some headway toward providing that truly “thorough and efficient” education for all.

Veteran reporter-editor Sandy Smith has been scribbling away since his youth, when The Kansas City Star hired him as a summer reporting intern  out of high school. Part of the team that launched an award-winning newspaper at Penn and founder of another  at Widener University, he is currently editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog and contributes to Philadelphia magazine’s Property blog as well as other local publications.

Follow Sandy on Twitter: @MarketStEl.