Some facts: Two million minutes stand between the end of eighth grade and high school graduation. The typical American student will spend 382,400 of these minutes in school, while the average Indian and Chinese student will devote 422,400 and 583,200 minutes to school, respectively. And a threat: The United States may soon lose its preeminent status in the global economy.
What’s the connection? Two Million Minutes, a documentary film by Robert Compton, Adam Raney, and Chad Heeter, profiles six high school students from three high schools: 4,000-student Carmel High School, a high-performing public school in Carmel, Indiana; 1,600-student Shanghai Nanyang Model High School, located in Shanghai, China; and St. Paul’s English School, a for-profit K–12 school serving just 300 students in Bangalore, India. The film’s message is clear: The rigorous in-school and extracurricular experiences of Indian and Chinese students far surpass an American education system more dedicated to serving the demands of adolescents than the economic needs of a nation.
The featured American students—Neil and Brittany—are certainly intelligent, but they seem more concerned with extracurricular activities and friends than with their studies. Indian students Rohit and Apoorva, however, and Chinese students Xiaoyuan and Ruizhang all plan careers in math or science, and their families and schools support these goals. The film incorporates these students’ descriptions of their high school experiences and future aspirations with the hopes of their parents, and filmmakers juxtapose scenes from the different homes and schools. A Carmel High School teacher passes out a test explaining that everyone should ace question thirty-three because “I will accept three of the four answers on that,” while classroom scenes in India and China feature students completing morning aerobics, English drills, and science labs. Even weekends differ, with Saturday tutoring sessions in Bangalore and Friday night football games at Carmel High School.
Statements from experts—including Harvard economist Richard Friedman, former CEO of the Indian company WiPro Technologies Vivek Paul, and physicist and president of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute Shirley Ann Jackson—are coupled with bleak international statistics to support the film’s claim that America is “losing its competitive edge,” a failure for which the American school system is largely responsible. The United States ranks twenty-fourth among countries in math achievement, the film notes. Viewers also learn that “nearly 40 percent of U.S. high school students do not take any science class more challenging than general biology,” that 70 percent of American parents believe that schools teach enough math and science, and that 79 percent of high school principals are untroubled by “low academic standards.”
This theme of international competition runs throughout the film, highlighted by the contrast among the schools and their cultures and the dismal numbers regarding the United States’ rank globally. However, this competition is one that U.S. school systems pay little attention to. As an expert explains, “America is the one country in the world that doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s in competition for the great minds and the capital of the world.”
Blame for this educational failure may not originate with American schools, however. The film implies that this failure is larger than the school system itself; it is actually a failure of American priorities. During a personal interview I conducted with the filmmaker, Compton characterized the film as a “cultural critique” and, primarily, as “a critique of American parents.” School systems reflect parents’ desires, he believes, and until parents demand higher educational standards, American schools—and the economy—will fall further behind their international counterparts.
In India and China—nations in which large segments of the population are poor—parents push their children to be economically self-sufficient. An engineer is “treated like a movie star,” and children are motivated to rise to the top of the global economy. Yet America, the film argues, with years of unquestioned affluence and international status as a global leader, seems to have lost its motivation. There was a time following Sputnik when America set math and science as national educational priorities. Without a new motivating crisis, the country may continue to slowly and silently lose its global economic position.
Although Compton’s concern is the weak math and science education of American students, he highlights a more general confusion about the educational purposes motivating the school system. Compared to the profiled Indian and Chinese schools, American schools appear diffuse and unfocused. Whether American parents and schools have the wrong priorities, as Compton argues, or whether it simply lacks any agreed-on priorities, the film could ignite a broader dialogue about just what those purposes could—and should—be.