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Her Future’s So Bright She’s Gotta Wear Sunglasses

By Michele McNeil — December 05, 2007 2 min read
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ED in ’08, the national campaign to bring education to the forefront of the presidential campaigns, has gotten some attention lately for struggling to make headway in its efforts to make improving public schools a top campaign issue. (Read the EdWeek story here, and blog items here and here.) Yesterday, in fact, I suggested that the group could take a more aggressive stand on education issues if it wanted to gain traction.

That may happen if a new documentary, produced by Broken Pencil Productions in partnership with ED in ’08, generates some serious attention.

The trailer for “Two Million Minutes,” (below) is without doubt, provocative. It deliberately and effectively paints a picture of the prevailing stereotypes from two education worlds—one in the United States, and the other in Asia. According to the documentary, American students are getting passed by in the global race for admission to the best universities and the good jobs that follow. The film—or at least the trailer—has a certain Inconvenient Truth-iness about it, since it shares many of the same qualities as Al Gore’s environmental documentary, which sounded alarm bells on global warming.

The movie purports to illustrate the problems facing the American education system, and its youth, through the stories of six high school students—two each from the United States, China, and India—whose futures will be shaped by the millions of minutes they spend in high school. The differences among these students are stark and will inevitably spark controversy. ED in ’08 will sponsor screenings of the documentary around the country, beginning in January.

The two American students are from the affluent Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana. While 17-year-old Brittany Brechbuhl, who boasts a 3.9 GPA, talks of college in terms of joining a sorority, partying, and doing some “crazy” stuff, a peer in India describes American students as living a dream, with virtually “no studying.” While Brittany tries on sunglasses in her free time, 17-year-old Hu Xiaoyaun of China says she plays the violin, does her school work, and tries to never waste time.

In another scene, 17-year-old Rohit Sridharan of India describes how he could do math problems even when he was very young. Then, in an effort to question the rigor in American classrooms, viewers see a U.S. teacher giving a pop quiz to high school students. The quiz is on calculators, of all things.

The filmmakers are clearly making a point by drawing distinctions between the (perceived) high standards and serious attitudes that pervade the education systems of Asia with the (perceived) partying and carefree attitudes of sunglass-wearing students in American schools. The problems facing many American high schools are tremendous—high dropout rates, lackluster academic standards, and an achievement gap between minority and nonminority students. But it will interesting to see the entire movie, because my guess is that Brittany (who wants to be a doctor) has a serious side to her, while the students in India and China, like any teenagers, take time to have fun, too.