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International

Documentary Sequel Touts Charter School as Model for Nation

By Sean Cavanagh — September 22, 2009 4 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, was praised by some as a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. schools’ shortcomings against international standards. Others said it overplayed American schools’ weaknesses and Asian schools’ strengths.

The new documentary, which debuted in Washington last week, comes at the topic from a different angle. The premiere was attended by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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 it succeeding despite initial community resistance and later budget woes. The school sets demanding academic standards, and students are shown as being multitalented and motivated.

The film makes an argument for greater funding for charters and fewer restrictions on them.

‘Extraordinary’ Education

The film’s executive producer, Robert A. Compton, said he originally learned of the school while showing his first documentary, “Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination.” He began researching 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 depicted motivated, multitalented Chinese and Indian students and contrasted them with relatively unfocused American peers, and warned that India and China’s population and growing educational prowess posed an economic threat to the United States.

Backers of the first “Two Milion 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. (“Film Depicts China, India Besting U.S. in Schooling,” Jan. 9, 2008.)

Screenings on Campuses

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. Those experiences have convinced him of Indian and Chinese students’ rising talents, he said.

The filmmaker said he hopes the new documentary will present charter schools as “laboratories of innovation,” and persuade policymakers to lift restrictions on their growth. He also wants the film, which is directed by Dan Treharne, 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 talented teachers who followed alternative routes is “get them into the school,” Mr. Compton said. “We should not put up barriers here.”

Mr. Compton said he expects the film to draw criticism from colleges of education and teachers’ unions. As with the first documentary, he plans to show it primarily 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 seen only 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 yet are also given significant classroom autonomy. (“Top-Scoring Nations Share Strategies on Teachers,” June 30, 2009.)

Although the nea backs innovative charter schools, most have fallen short of that standard, Mr. Wilson argued in an e-mail, 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.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Documentary Sequel Touts Charter School As Model for Nation Two Million Minutes’ Film Profiles Charter School

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