Search form

U.S. Students No Match for Peers in India, China

China and India may be associated with lower-cost products and labor, but these countries are mass-producing highly-educated, motivated students -- who surpass their U.S. peers at every academic level. The documentary Two Million Minutes warns of a pending economic crisis if U.S. students cant compete globally. Included: Why the U.S. needs to ramp up its high-school education programs.

High school often is measured by years or events, but across many nations, there is a common factor: Every student has 2 million minutes from the time he or she leaves eighth grade until high school graduation.

What happens -- and doesnt happen -- in that span of time in the U.S., China, and India is the subject of the documentary Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination, conceived by Robert A. Compton, who also was the executive director.

What Compton learned in making the film was that high-school students from India and China surpassed U.S. students on every academic level -- which puts the economic well-being of the U.S. at grave risk in a global economy.

"The simple fact is, global education standards have passed America by," Compton said in a press release. "When it was Finland who was winning, it wasn't such a concern. But now that our K-12 students are being outperformed academically by China and India -- the two highest populated countries in the world with the fastest growing economies and with cultures that embrace intellectual challenge -- it is cause for serious concern."


Bob Comptons Blogs

Listen to Comptons conversation with students in India about their aspirations:
High School Seniors
Eighth Graders and 6-Year-Olds
Compton talks with a young entrepreneur:
Education and the Very Poor

In addition, few Americans realize that India and China -- which have a combined population of 2.3 billion people -- will have an enormous educated workforce in the years to come, said Compton, who worked in the corporate world before becoming a documentary filmmaker. The two countries have more than 400 million students in K-12 education compared to the 53 million in the U.S.

"Our knowledge of these two cultures is seriously out of date and that has to, Compton noted. "Our economic future depends on it."

The film examines the lives of students from the three countries both in and out of high school as they are preparing for graduation and competing for college admission. Director Chad Heeter and producer Adam Raney are Teach For America alumni.

Strong American Schools (SAS) became aware of the film in the fall of 2007 and "recognized the movie's potential to put a human face on the global education competition, Compton said. SAS signed an agreement in December 2007 with the film makers to promote the film along with Comptons production company, Broken Pencil Productions, as part of SAS's ED in '08 initiative, aimed at convincing U.S. presidential candidates to make education reform a priority.

SAS is sponsoring screenings of the film which are scheduled throughout the U.S. Copies also can be purchased online.

Compton has been appearing in the national media promoting the film, including an interview on Good Morning America. He talked with Education World about his motivation for making the film and his grave concerns for the U.S. economy without significant changes to the education system.


Scott DeTore
From left to right, producer Adam Raney, executive producer Robert A. Compton, and director Chad Heeter at the Des Moines, Iowa, screening of Two Million Minutes.

Education World: What prompted you to make this film?

Robert A. Compton: I have businesses in both China and India -- and I had been so impressed with the talent, intelligence, and motivation of my employees that I started to visit schools in both countries -- from colleges all the way down to kindergarten -- to see how my employees got to be so good.

What I saw so stunned and amazed me that I published a blog and a book on what I saw. The Indians in particular were delivering astoundingly high-quality education to their kids at a fraction of what the U.S. spends.

And as the father of two teenage girls, I met Indian and Chinese girls the same age who were two-to-three years ahead of my daughters in math, science, world history, music, and computer science. Candidly, I was very worried about my girls ability to compete at the level India and China had set.

So, I immediately changed how my daughters were learning -- although they are straight A students at a top private school, we hired tutors in math, science, and writing to accelerate and deepen their learning.

With an Indian software designer at one of my technology companies, I designed an online math assessment and practice system for my girls that follows the Indian standards for math: Indian Math Online.

Finally, I was inspired to make Two Million Minutes to share my observations with American parents and students about the high education standards being set by the two largest and fastest growing countries on Earth.

EW: What is the primary idea about American education in the global economy that you want viewers to gain from this film?

Compton: American citizens will be competing economically in the 21st century with people all around the world, but the American education system -- where citizens should be learning the skills to compete -- is woefully behind the global education standards and losing ground daily. The next generation of Americans faces the real risk of a declining standard of living.


"I was inspired to make Two Million Minutes to share my observations with American parents and students about the high education standards being set by the two largest and fastest growing countries on Earth.

EW: To what audiences is the film being marketed?

Compton: There are four major audiences:

  • SAS is holding private screenings around the country for thought leaders in government, education, and business.
  • I am hosting screenings for a variety of groups that have requested to see the film -- primarily teacher organizations, community organizations, and colleges.
  • The film has been entered in 20 U.S. film festivals and is scheduled to be screened at those where it is accepted.
  • Also, parents and students -- they can purchase a DVD version of the film at Two Million Minutes, as can the general public.

EW: What, if any, input did you have from educators during filming?

Compton: We filmed teachers in action in all three countries, but the focus was on how the students allocated their time -- at school, but as importantly, outside of school. The film is not a comparison of classroom practices or pedagogy.

Others [with education experience or backgrounds] who appear on-screen or give input include:

  • Dr. Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and former chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Representative Bart Gordon, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. Gordon, a 12-term congressman, introduced legislation to implement key recommendations for scientific research and education from the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University and director of the Labor Studies Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. H also is the author or editor of more than 35 books.
  • Tim Draper, founder and managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson venture capital firm. Draper has served on the California State Board of Education and is the chairman of BizWorld, a 501c3 organization that teaches entrepreneurship and business to children.
  • Vivien Stewart, a Chinese education specialist with the Asia Society. Stewart leads educational exchanges to share expertise between American and Asian educators on reforms to meet the demands of the global economy. She was the primary author of the book, Math and Science Education In a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from China.

EW: Many educators feel that schools and they are getting blamed for poor student performance when there are so many factors they can't control -- such as kids who come from broken homes, who live in chaos, or have no parental support. How does the film address this issue?

Compton: The film takes the viewer inside not just schools in India, China, and the U.S., but also into the students' homes, their outside activities, and their study groups. We interview their parents and other relatives. Astute observers of the movie will see how family expectations, community recognition, national traditions, and teenage norms play a very large role in the "high school education experience. Less alert viewers will see only the in-school experiences and miss the entire point of the film.

EW: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the American education system in making this film?

Compton: That the vast majority of policy makers, administrators, teachers, students, and parents have a wildly outdated, one-dimensional view of education in India and China. They believe, incorrectly, that America high school education standards are higher than standards in India and China. Finally, the American education system actually provides less education in art, music, and literature than the Indian and Chinese systems -- and of course, much less in math and science.

EW: What aspect of the American education system would you say is working?


"American citizens will be competing economically in the 21st century with people all around the world, but the American education system -- where citizens should be learning the skills to compete -- is woefully behind the global education standards and losing ground daily.

Compton: The American high school athletic programs are dramatically superior in every way to sports programs in India and China -- more diverse, more heavily emphasized, much better financed, and more highly recognized.

U.S. schools also give students a sense of self-confidence; they are generally kind and nurturing to all students and the U.S. provides education to all citizens.

EW: How can education policy makers -- at the local, state and national level -- use this film?

Compton: Two Million Minute is descriptive, not prescriptive. It shows how the high-school experience differs between China, India, and America.

At every screening, the discussion following the film lasts for one-and-a-half to nearly three hours. The film shows the facts -- it asks the viewer to think about what those facts might mean for U.S. economic competitiveness in the 21st century and it challenges each viewer to decide for his or herself what if any action should be taken.

In the words of many viewers this film should be required viewing for American parents, teachers, and students -- it shows how our largest global competitors are preparing for the economic battles of the 21st century. Most viewers will find it a sobering, thought-provoking, and ideally, an action-inspiring film.

This e-interview with Robert A. Compton is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World


Published 02/27/2008