Film Depicts China, India Besting U.S. in Schooling

Election-year message tied to use of high school years.
By Andrew Trotter — January 04, 2008 9 min read
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U.S. students spend too little time and effort on academics in high school, compared with harder-working young people in China and India, according to a new documentary being shown to “thought leaders” in states holding presidential primaries this winter.

The documentary, conceived and financed by high-tech entrepreneur Robert A. Compton, suggests that the difference in the way students use their roughly “two million minutes” in high school will seriously affect their economic futures and that of the United States.

“Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination” makes that point by giving viewers glimpses into the lives of six obviously talented students—two from each of the three countries—as they complete their senior years of high school.

The two Americans, who attend Carmel High School, in Carmel, Ind., outside of Indianapolis, seem casual about their studies and unconcerned about competition for jobs, compared with their overseas counterparts.

Those students from China and India are depicted as studying much longer hours, including on weekends. They are shown pouring their energies into science, mathematics, and computer programming—which the film presents as the most economically valuable disciplines—as well as the arts.

Two Million Minutes Movie Trailer

Though the one-hour film has not been broadcast nationally, it has been embraced by ED in ’08, a philanthropy-funded campaign aiming to elevate educational improvement as an issue in this year’s presidential election. (“Effort for Education as Campaign Issue Fights for Traction,” Dec. 5, 2007.)

ED in ’08 will host a screening of “Two Million Minutes” in South Carolina on Jan. 9, ahead of the state’s presidential primaries on Jan. 19 and 26. The campaign showed the film in Iowa Dec. 13.

Before ED in ’08 got involved in promoting the documentary, Mr. Compton presented versions of it this past fall in Indiana and at Harvard Law School, he said in an interview. After each screening, audience members have discussed the film heatedly, organizers said.

Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois, who this week won the Iowa Democratic caucuses, saw a portion of the film at a private screening in Chicago, said Mr. Compton, who is backing Mr. Obama’s candidacy and has contributed money to his campaign.

ED in ’08, which supports no candidate or party in the election, nonetheless is seeking more of that kind of exposure for the film, said Roy R. Romer, the chairman of the nonpartisan Strong American Schools and the director of ED in ’08, which is supported by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Contrasting Profiles

Mr. Romer, a Democrat and former governor of Colorado who has also been the superintendent of the Los Angeles school district, said that the film is “sounding an alarm” about what he sees as the severity of America’s educational crisis, and that ED in ’08 embraced the film because “it told a story we want to have told.”

Between interviews with economic and educational experts and presentations of statistics, the documentary features the six students going through their typical days.

Rohit Sridharan, a 17-year-old in Bangalore, India, describes how he often seeks homework help from his father, a physicist, or his sister, also knowledgeable in physics, to help him on his quest to become an engineer, which he considers a “safe” career.

“The final year of high school is hard and exhausting,” says Hu Xiaoyuan, of China, in the film. She aspires to a biology degree from a top university, and is hoping for early admission to Yale University. She is also shown studying violin with one of China’s most prominent violinists, whom her parents have hired; a music degree is her back-up choice.

By contrast, the two Americans, Neil Ahrendt and Brittany Brechbuhl, though clearly able and near the top of their class academically, seem unfocused and unconcerned about their future prospects. Their parents also seem less intimately involved in their schooling.

‘A Human Drama’

Mr. Ahrendt, a student leader and athlete, confesses to having coasted through most of his high school years, though he has landed a full scholarship to college, based on his score on the PSAT in 10th grade. He also works part time at a restaurant and helps lead a school organization that promotes environmental causes.

Ms. Brechbuhl, for her part, is shown watching “Grey’s Anatomy” on TV while studying math with a group of friends and spending her free time trying on sunglasses. She talks about the need to “kick back” before facing the rigors of college, where she aspires to a pre-med degree but also to have free time, join a sorority, and party.

“You can talk figures all day, but if you can talk to someone about a human drama, a human story, it communicates very efficiently,” Mr. Romer said, explaining why ED in ’08 decided to use the film.

Liza Dittoe, a spokeswoman for Mr. Compton, said the group will show the film at private, invitation-only screenings “in primary states and states where the voting will be close in the general election.” Screenings are tentatively planned in California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“The goal is to have the media, thought leaders, and opinion makers see the film, recognize its importance, and press the debate in the presidential campaign,” Ms. Dittoe said. ED in ’08 will not show the film at any campaign events, she added.

Strong Reactions

An especially heated debate about the issues in the film emerged from the October showing of a rough cut at Harvard Law School, which was attended by some faculty members from Harvard’s graduate school of education, according to some participants.

Mr. Compton, who was part of a panel discussing the film with the audience, called the reception the organizers received at Harvard a “brutal experience.”

Of his critics, he said, “I established that none of them had ever been to China and India or studied their curricula; unburdened by that knowledge, they were highly critical of my film.”

Erling E. Boe, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, in Philadelphia, who has studied international educational comparisons, said in an e-mail that while he had not viewed the film, “there is no question the U.S. economy can use more math, engineering, computer science, and engineers than our schools and colleges are producing.”

But, he continued: “Is this a problem of the education system (is not U.S. higher education the envy of the world) or the tendency of U.S. students to avoid math and science as being too difficult or uninteresting?”

One expert who is interviewed at length in the film, Vivek Wadhwa, an adjunct professor and “executive in residence” at Duke University’s engineering school and a fellow at the Harvard Law School, said he thought the documentary was “excellent.”

Yet, in an interview for this story, he gave a fuller description of the problem the film depicts.

“What this film did was show you how the upper-middle class [in India and China] is evolving very rapidly, and their [impressive] intellectual capabilities,” he said. “You are dealing with very smart, very motivated people who work a lot harder than Americans.”

But Americans should not conclude that they need to adopt an identical devotion to academic studies or even to graduate more engineers and scientists, said Mr. Wadhwa, himself an Indian immigrant who has founded two U.S. technology companies.

“What the film didn’t show you was the level of maturity and experience you have when you come out of school. India and China are a lot more rigorous, but America’s students have extensive life experience and can innovate,” he said, pointing to the lessons many U.S. high school students learn by holding down jobs.

“I would not copy them; they would copy us,” Mr.Wadhwa said of China and India. “I’m all for education, but let’s not make believe that more math and science will fix globalization challenges.”

Mr. Wadhwa’s research is available at, and a speech he delivered last fall to the National Governors Association has been posted on the video-sharing Web site YouTube.

Influenced by Book

Mr. Compton, the film’s executive producer, said he made the film after interviewing computer programmers in India employed by his medical-device company,and after reading The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, the bestselling 2005 book by the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman about the erosion of America’s global economic dominance.

Mr. Compton, 51, then embarked on his own investigative journey to India, China, and other countries, before recruiting a team including two documentary filmmakers.

Mr. Compton said he never planned for his documentary to be an element of the political season, though he is pleased that it has become one.

He said he formerly considered himself a “lifelong Republican” but recently turned independent and is supporting Mr. Obama to be the next president.

The film doesn’t proffer solutions. “I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to make policy recommendations,” Mr. Compton said. “I’m just showing you the truth … about high school education.”

One such truth, he said, is that China and India have set a defacto international standard for high school education.

Mr. Romer, noting that the “film does not attempt to lay out a viable alternative,” said that solutions could be found in other themes being promoted by ED in ’08: Americans need to “raise our expectations, have a more uniform standard of education, improve the quality of teaching, and to have more time on task.”

Public-Service Ad

“Two Million Minutes” is not the only video tool that ED in ’08 is employing in the primary and caucus states.

"I will steal your car" Video

In December, organizers unveiled a public-service announcement highlighting what it claims are the stakes involved in improving U.S. schools.

The 30-second spot, which may be viewed on the Strong American Schools’ Web site,, presents a series of attractive young people stating calmly that they are the future of America.

Their lines include: “I will not make it through the 10th grade … I will use drugs to escape … I will steal your car,” and “you will support me because I can’t get a job.”

Asked about the video spot, Mr. Romer said, “It’s accurate, what we did on that PSA; it’s very accurate.”

He drew on his 2001-to-2006 tenure as superintendent in Los Angeles, where 67 percent of high schoolers did not graduate, to say the warning about car theft is apt.

“With a 30-second bite, you’ve got to be very punchy and direct, based on fact; it is intended to shock,” Mr. Romer added. “Americans need to be shaken out of their lethargy, in our judgment.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Film Depicts China, India Besting U.S. in Schooling


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