Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Million Minutes

I was recently at a conference where I saw a presentation by Robert Compton on the theme of Two Million Minutes, which is roughly the amount of time a student spends in grades 9-12. Compton is a self-made multimillionaire who now has the luxury of time, which he uses to travel and to make films that dramatize the condition of American education in the context of worldwide education. The statistics are sobering. According to Compton, there are 54 million high school students in America, 194 million in China, and 212 million in India. And his argument is that in addition to being dramatically outnumbered, American students are drastically underprepared. His core argument — and it would be a hard one for me to refute, based on what I see going on around me — is that American students don't seem to even realize that they are in a competition, much less how far behind they are. In his presentation he presented what he called America's four great education myths:

  1. Our kids are more well-rounded.
  2. Asian education is rote memorization.
  3. Our kids are more creative and more innovative.
  4. U.S. education is the best in the world.

He then presented data, student schedules, and samples of student work that demonstrated fairly convincingly that all of these statements are in fact based on false assumptions and misinformation. He then showed us an edited version of his film, Two Million Minutes, (trailer here) in which he profiled two American students, two Indian students, and two Chinese students. The American students, although stars in their own worlds, did not come off well.

In yesterday's post I quoted Galen Guengerich's meditation on "the steadiness of days." Gungerich uses the Twitter prompt "What are you doing?" as a framing device for an investigation of the ethics of time. I walked out the Compton presentation more convinced than ever that as
educators we have to engage our students in some discussion about what time might mean, and how they might use it in a way that enables them to create value. Taken in this context, the seemingly innocent "What are you doing?" might turn out to be the most essential of essential questions.


Dan said...

Hey Bruce,
Great stuff as always. Maybe I am naive but there is something in this "us against the Chinese and Indians" cry that seems sketchy to me, though. I fully agree with you that we need to look at our time with students and reflect honestly about the value of the activities and assignments we have students do, but the idea that we are doing such thinking to fight off the hordes of competitors as proposed by 2MM and many others these days seems overblown. What do you think?

mazenko said...

I was initially intrigued by the movie - though I was quite disappointed in the result. The film is clearly designed to portray American students as slackers who will be bested by the Chinese and Indian students. However, that seems to be far from the truth. Watching the portrayals of the Asian students, I have no desire to pursue that sort of obsessive book study at the expense of the well-rounded lives of Americans. The film also featured some pretty well-educated Americans - those kids are going to be fine.

The filmmaker seems to have joined Thomas Friedman with the "sky-is-falling-Chinese-kids-are-going-to-take- our-kids-jobs" scenario. While there is much to criticize about American education, the economic reality is more, as Fareed Zakaria notes in The Post-American World, about the "rise of the rest" than the fall of the US.

There was much written about China and India graduating twice as many engineers than the US - and then some real journalists did some digging and realized that many of these graduates where "automotive engineers" - what we like to call mechanics.

The United States is still putting out world class doctors, scientists, engineers, physicists, and the like. Because of the freedom inherent in our systems, the US is still the center of innovation and advanced technology. We invented the internet economy, and we lead the world in medical advancements as well. When the world has a crisis, they look to the CDC and NIH.

Granted, many jobs may be lost to Mumbai. However, that has to do with a lower standard of living and the fact that their engineers and accountants will work for 1/7 the salary. It's not that their workers are better - they're cheaper. However, many companies have also started moving some of those jobs back because of the inherent problems in trying to reconcile business cultures.

Two years ago, two juniors at my high school were featured on ABC news for groundbreaking work they pioneered in new treatments for muscular dystrophy ... while they were still in high school. Does the filmaker want to do some profiles about all the amazing work being done by our top thirty percent in our top third of schools?

Just because Chinese students go to school twice as long, doesn't mean their doctors or engineers are twice as good or that their health care is twice as effective or their bridges are twice as strong. As a matter of fact, as one who has lived extensively in southeast Asia, I can verify that's not true.