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What Did You Do With Your 2 Million Minutes in High School?

By Michele McNeil — January 30, 2008 1 min read
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That’s essentially the question that is asked of six students—two each from the United States, India, and China—in the “2 Million Minutes” documentary that was screened last night at the Jack Valenti Theater in Washington and that I previewed here. The ED in ‘08 folks, who are partnering with the production company Broken Pencil Productions to market the film, were kind enough to invite me.

Dozens of policy wonks attended, representing the U.S. Department of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Strong American Schools, which is directing the ED in ’08 campaign.

The hour-long film was thought-provoking and interesting, shaped by the six students chosen. And frankly, it left me depressed. As the American students are studying while watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” or spending more time in a part-time job and in sports than on their studies, students from India and China are in school even on weekends, busting their butts to get into highly competitve top schools in engineering and math. You can read more about the film in an EdWeek story here.

(An interesting sidenote: Documentary executive producer Bob Compton, who attended the screening, told us that while the film has been very well received among policymakers, parents, and students, one group has consistently voiced skepticism about the film’s message: those affiliated with schools of education, who train our teachers.)

I’m not one of those skeptics. What I took away from the film is that these students from India and China are motivated to excel by basic survival instincts. Students in these countries, and their families, have been affected by poverty, hunger, and what used to be their country’s isolation from the outside world. Now, as one audience member put it last night, the Indian and Chinese students are illustrative of an “economic Darwinism.” Working hard in school is part of their culture, their mentality, and the result of the high expectations set by their country, their teachers, and their parents.

That kind of motivation that drives students in India and China can’t be legislated here, or packaged neatly into a presidential education platform. Sure, the Democrats’ call for prekindergarten is probably a good idea. And maybe the Republicans’ idea for more school choice could work. But what will it take to change the American mindset towards education?