School & District Management

‘Two Million Minutes’ Film Profiles Charter School

By Sean Cavanagh — September 16, 2009 5 min read
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While it may not match a big-budget Hollywood sequel for hoopla, a follow-up documentary to a 2007 film about the challenges facing U.S. schools seems likely to draw broad attention from educators and policymakers, judging from reaction to the first installment.

“Two Million Minutes: A 21st Century Solution” is the sequel to a documentary that presented a critical view of American students’ academic performance and motivation compared with their peers in China and India.

The first film, which offered portraits of the academic and personal backgrounds of students in each of the countries, drew a mix of responses. Some praised it as a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. schools’ shortcomings when held to international standards; others said it overplayed American schools’ weaknesses and Asian schools’ strengths.

The new documentary, which debuted in Washington on Sept. 17, comes at the topic from a different angle.

It focuses on a single U.S. school, BASIS Tucson, which the filmmakers hold up as a model for how the American education system can meet the challenges of international competition. The school is a high-performing charter school serving grades 5-12 in Tucson, Ariz. The documentary depicts the school’s founders as having overcome community resistance and budget woes to establish a program that sets demanding academic standards for its hardworking, multitalented students. The film makes an argument for giving charters more funding and placing fewer restrictions on them, and for paying teachers for improving students’ academic performance.

The filmmakers were joined at the premiere by an audience that included the Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The seemingly unlikely duo have joined together recently in touting the importance of improving American schools.

The film’s executive producer, Robert A. Compton, said he originally learned of the school while showing his first documentary, a one-hour film titled “Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination.” He said he was intrigued enough to begin examining teaching and learning there.

“I realized that this school is taking ordinary American kids and educating them at an extraordinary level, above the world standards,” Mr. Compton said in an interview. “I said, this is amazing. ... These are average kids, without any special privileges, and they can learn.”

The first “Two Million Minutes” drew widespread scrutiny. It was promoted by the group ED in ’08, a venture led by philanthropic organizations to raise the status of education in last year’s presidential campaign. Then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama watched a portion of the film at a private screening during his successful campaign. Mr. Compton supported the Democratic candidate. (“Film Depicts China, India Besting U.S. in Schooling,” Jan. 9, 2008.)

That film depicted highly motivated, multitalented Chinese and Indian students and contrasted them with relatively unfocused American peers. It warned that India and China have the population and growing educational might to pose an economic threat to the United States.

An American Model

Backers of the first “Two Million Minutes” said the film laid bare the collective complacency of the U.S. educational system. Critics countered that it downplayed the shortcomings of Chinese and Indian schools, such as the lack of access to high-quality education for large swaths of their populations. Similar debates over the United States’ educational standing on the world stage have grown increasingly common in recent years. (“International Exams Yield Less-Than-Clear Lessons,” April 22, 2009.)

Mr. Compton, 53, is an American venture capitalist and entrepreneur in technology, health care, and other fields. In addition to his U.S.-based investments, he says he owns three companies in India, including a heath-care business, and invests in a venture-capital firm there; he was also formerly involved with a company that had significant operations in China. His experiences with those businesses have convinced him of Indian and Chinese students’ rising talents, he said.

The filmmaker said he hopes the new “Two Million Minutes” documentary will draw public attention to charter schools as “laboratories of innovation,” and persuade policymakers to lift restrictions on their growth. He also wants the film to make the point that effective, inspirational teachers with strong subject-matter expertise—like those at the charter school in the film—are not always the product of traditional schools of education, but also go through alternative routes.

The message about career-changers and other aspiring teachers who undergo alternative certification is “get them into the school,” Mr. Compton said. “We should not put up barriers here.”

Mr. Compton said he expects the film, which is directed by Dan Treharne, to draw criticism from colleges of education and teachers’ unions but support from other circles. As with the first documentary, he said the film will probably be shown mostly at screenings in schools and universities and before business groups and other organizations.

John Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, had only seen a trailer for the film. While he agreed the United States should consider international models in teacher development, he pointed to high-scoring Finland, where educators are required to receive extensive educational training but are also given significant classroom autonomy. (“Top-Scoring Nations Share Strategies on Teachers,” June 30, 2009.)

The NEA has resisted lifting caps on charter schools, arguing that many of them do not have strong records of success, and voiced skepticism about alternative certification.

The union backs innovative charter schools, Mr. Wilson said in an e-mail, yet most have fallen short of that goal and have “not connected to the public schools to share any new information or research.”

When it comes to alternative certification, the “NEA supports teachers who achieve their license through a high-quality alternative-certified program,” he added. “We believe that no one should be the teacher of record until they have been prepared to serve students.”

Vivek Wadhwa, a scholar who appeared in the first documentary but who had not seen the new one, cautioned against U.S. audiences evaluating the strengths of some Chinese and Indian schools and wrongly assuming that “the whole system looks like that.” The economic growth of those nations is driven by many factors other than education, he said. Likewise, the political and economic characteristics of those countries—such as China’s authoritarian government—do not lend themselves to education innovation, said Mr. Wadhwa, a senior research associate in Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and an executive-in-residence at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Even so, Mr. Wadhwa said he applauded the film’s goals and its overall message.

“It will have a positive impact,” Mr. Wadhwa said. “The world has changed, and we need to understand that. [The film] is showing us life on the other side.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Two Million Minutes’ Film Profiles Charter School


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