‘Two Million Minutes,’ in a Couple Paragraphs

By Sean Cavanagh — September 22, 2009 4 min read
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I’ve been backlogged with a couple assignments recently, so I didn’t have time to give my impressions of “Two Million Minutes: A 21st Century Solution,” a film that debuted in Washington late last week. I attended the premiere. The crowd included a lot of business representatives and education-policy types, though the big-ticket draws were probably the Rev. Al Sharpton and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The unlikely duo have moving through the talk-show and public-appearance circuit, talking about the need to improve American schools, among other things. They came in support of the documentary, which is a sequel to a similarly themed 2007 film.

Both men addressed the audience after the showing, and they directed some good-natured jabs at the other. Said Sharpton, while musing about politics making strange bedfellows: “When you roll over on the bed one morning and Newt’s on the other side of you, it can be a little traumatic.”

In the spirit of journalistic objectivity (I reported on the film’s release last week), I’ll refrain from writing a review. I’ll just make some general observations, and invite the comments of others who’ve seen the film, or its predecessor.

Like the first “Two Million Minutes,” the film makes the argument that U.S. students are performing at a mediocre level, at best, in math and science, and that this cannot stand, given the growing economic and educational might of nations like China and India. Unlike the earlier film, this one makes that case through a profile of a single school—BASIS Tucson, a charter school in Arizona—and scaffolds out from there. BASIS is depicted as a high-performing, pioneering school that has succeeded despite initial community opposition and relatively meager state financial support, which caused all sorts of problems for the founders in the beginning and creates continued budgetary woes to this day. The kids at BASIS are not math-and-science drones. They’re presented as smart and engaged—with interests ranging from dance and roller derby to art and fire-juggling (I kid you not). One key difference in the school’s approach appears to be that very advanced concepts in math and science and other subjects are integrated as far back as middle school. (The school serves grades 5-12.) The curriculum is demanding; the filmmakers interview students who struggled to keep up after arriving from lesser schools, but who eventually made it.

The film features interviews with the recently retired chairman of Intel, Craig Barrett, and former Arizona schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, both of whom argue that the current educational system is not cutting it. It also includes some direct and indirect jabs and teachers’ unions and teachers’ colleges; at one point a narrator refers to the education “bureaucrats” who “keep our children locked in the 20th Century.”

In one segment, Barrett, who has a Ph.D. in materials science, and who and taught at Stanford University for 10 years, remarks that he wouldn’t be allowed to teach in a California public school without going back and picking up certification. Keegan, who was also an adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, praises Teach for America. One of the BASIS school’s founders talks about how she rewards teachers not only with financial incentives for student performance on AP tests, but also with the promise that they’ll be given autonomy in the classroom. She praises the College Board for creating a “community of Advanced Placement teachers,” held to similarly high standards.

I suspect that reaction to “Two Million Minutes” will depend on viewers’ willingness to buy a premise. Actually, two of them: 1) That the United States’ education system is falling behind those of high-performing nations (not everyone buys that argument); and 2) that the story of what ails the United States’ schools, and the answer to how they can be improved, can be told through the story of a single school. The filmmakers obviously believe it can. Here’s a school, as they present it, that through determination and a willingness to fight through the constraints of the public school establishment, produces some of the world’s best K-12 students.

Other viewers could be more skeptical. For instance, I wonder about the reaction from principals and teachers at other top-notch public schools, whose curricular approach, teacher corp, and governance is much different than the Arizona charter’s. They might read the message in the film’s trailer—"The world has outpaced us, and the solution is right here in America"—and respond: “The solution is in America. And not only at BASIS Charter.”

There are probably plenty of EdWeek readers who will be sitting through showings of “Two Million Minutes” at schools, colleges, and other settings in the weeks and months ahead. Here’s an invitation for them to play film critic, on this blog.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.