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Documentary Chronicles Pitfalls of American Education in Global Economy

Diverse reporter Michelle Nealy chats with Indianapolis venture-capitalist-turned-filmmaker, Bob Compton, about his provocative new documentary, “2 Million Minutes.” The film chronicles six students from India, the United States and China during their high school years. Compton highlights the pitfalls of American education in today’s global economy and praises those cultures that revere academic achievement.

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DI: What inspired you, a very successful entrepreneur, to direct a film about high school education, and why title it “2 Million Minutes”?

BC: “2 Million Minutes” is the amount of time that any one lives during a four-year time period. What I’m looking at in the film is the four years spent in high school in three different locations: India, China and the United States.

I came about making the film after a trip to India in 2005. One of my companies assembled about 100 software developers in Bangalore, India. We took them out to dinner. I went from table to table to get to know them, expecting to meet math and science geeks who would be socially awkward.

What I discovered was that these young men and women, ages 25-35, were very well spoken, very globally aware, knowledgeable about U.S. history and European history. They were not geeks as I expected.

I decided to make a film that would let the American viewers go not only into the schools but the homes and hangouts of Indian, Chinese and American teenagers and see how in each culture the students, guided by their families, allocated their two million minutes.

DI: You observed all six students in their normal classroom settings. How did the look and feel of the international classrooms differ from the American classrooms?

BC: The classrooms in both India and China have a lot less technology than those in the United States. Most classrooms had just chalk and a blackboard. The difference is the teachers there are experts in their domains. If you teach physics in India, you have a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in physics and a one-year teaching certificate. The same is true for all subjects: chemistry, biology, etc. The teachers tend to be deeply knowledgeable in their specific domain. The same is true for China.

DI: What about the curriculum, how did it differ?

BC: In India, during the seventh, eighth and ninth grades (what they consider high school) students are required to take four years of math, physics, chemistry, biology, English literature, English grammar, civics, world history and Hindi. They are required to take 14 courses. Contrast that with America where there are relatively few requirements. There are just a few basics and a lot of electives. You take one year of physics, not four. One year of biology. One year of chemistry.

DI: You chronicled very high-performing students. Did all six emerge from affluent backgrounds and attend private schools?

BC: In China, all the schools are run by the government. In India, about half of the students go to for-profit private schools. The other half go to government-sponsored schools.

The demographics of the international parents are very similar to the American parents. The parents are all professionals that want their children to go to college.

We picked Carmel High School [in Indiana], because we wanted a top performing high school in the heartland. We wanted high achieving students in a high-achieving school in America. We tried, as much as possible, to compare apples to apples.

DI: During the late ’50s and early ’60s, the United States led the world in science, technology and innovation? Is the United States still in the lead?

BC: We used to be the strongest engineering and scientific base of knowledge. I would say on engineering in the world, India and China have passed us. We still have the most vibrant capital markets, but India and China are working hard to catch up in that area. Their economies are growing so quickly. China’s economy has grown double digits for the last 20 years. No other country in modern history has done that.

In a very short period of time, these two countries have caught up to us in a lot ways. A lot of the reason is their strong math and science education from kindergarten, but particularly in high school.

DI: How come the United States has yet to really respond to the fact that students from foreign countries are outpacing American students in academic achievement?

BC: Several reasons. We presumably don’t have the political will to respond. We don’t respond well unless there is a serious crisis. We don’t seem to be able to come to grips with the reality that we could ever be anything other than No. 1.

Also, those two countries are coming out of poverty. To get a job as an engineer, you can lift your standard of living dramatically. Here, [in the United States], kids don’t want to work that hard. When I go into schools, grade schools, high schools and elementary schools, I always ask how many students want to be an engineer or a scientist. If I get one or two in a class, I’m shocked. Most want to be: professional athletes, professional entertainers, professional wrestlers, rock stars. Our culture recognizes, reveres and rewards athletic achievement. Chinese and Indian cultures revere, recognize and reward academic achievement.

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