This post draws on a discussion I participated in that was published in Comparative Education Review in 2009. It brought together a variety of scholars to comment on a new film about schooling produced by Bob Compton called Two Million Minutes. The film draws its title from the number of minutes that students around the world spend in high school. It focuses on a pair of students from three different high schools — in Bangalore (India), Shanghai (China), and Carmel (Indiana).
The story it tells, backed up by commentary from a couple of economists, is how tightly focused Asian students are on pursuing high achievement in the school curriculum in order to gain access to the most economically productive jobs. Meanwhile the American students focus on almost everything else — extracurricular activities, after school jobs, sports, and hanging with friends.
My argument is that focusing so heavily on learning the school curriculum (and aligning the school so tightly with human capital production) is in fact counterproductive, undermining the social and even economic benefits that come from schooling.
Maybe the lesson from this is that it is dangerous to take school too seriously, for both individuals and societies. The result of an intensive focus on academic learning may be, at the individual level, a generation of stressed‐out students and, at the societal level, an accumulation of academic skills and knowledge that are not especially functional for modern political, social, and economic life. It may turn out to be advantageous for a society to have an American‐style educational system, which discounts academic learning and encourages students to game the system.
The difference is that all of the noncurricular things that the American students in the film were doing had the potential to enhance their ability to contribute to society. They were picking up skills about how to function in a work environment, network, compete, lead, improve the environment, and juggle priorities. They were also learning how to work the system to their advantage, how to do the minimum needed to satisfy school requirements so they could do what they really wanted elsewhere. Isn’t it more productive for the economy and society to produce fewer zealous students and more accomplished hustlers? Doesn’t the contest mobility system do a pretty good job of preparing actors for life in a market economy, which rewards entrepreneurship over scholarship?
Below you will find three parts of the discussion — the producer’s introduction and my first- and second-round comments. Here’s a link to the full discussion.
Bob Compton — Producer
I never imagined that my 2005 visit to a first‐grade classroom in Bangalore, India, would compel me to make a documentary film, change how my own children are educated, or land me on TV shows and in the U.S. media. The seminal moment occurred when I asked a dozen 5‐ and 6‐year‐old Indian children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their answers astounded me: “Engineer, engineer, scientist, cardiologist, engineer, fighter pilot, teacher, engineer, engineer, doctor …” How remarkable! Little children in a country I imagined as mired in third‐world poverty had already set very ambitious career goals.
Perhaps this class was an aberration, a coterie of little Indian geniuses or just wild dreamers. So I decided to visit high school students close in age to my own two daughters. What I quickly learned from them was that my daughters’ education, in a well‐regarded American private school, lagged the Indian national academic standards (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education examination) by 2 or more years in almost every subject. I also discovered that Indian teenagers were not the math and science nerds I had expected but were knowledgeable in world history (including U.S. history), geography, civics, English literature, English grammar, and economics. And, as expected, they were also deeply educated in science, having taken from 2 to 4 years of physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as 4 years of mathematics.
The fact that my own daughters’ Indian peers were more advanced academically filled me with anxiety. In the competitive “flat world” described by Thomas Friedman, and in the twenty‐first century that David Brooks has dubbed the “Cognitive Age,” I knew two things would be crucial to my girls’ career success—a broad knowledge of the world and solid cognitive skills. Perhaps by being on the ground in India, by dropping into classrooms unannounced, and by asking simple questions and getting spontaneous answers, I had discovered that something profound was going on in Indian education and Indian culture.
To make others aware of what I saw in India as well as in China, I chose to make the documentary film 2 Million Minutes. Only through film could others see and hear the students and parents of India and China in comparison with American students and parents. High school was selected because that is where the school curricula diverge most dramatically. The film’s title is drawn from the fact that as soon as a student completes the eighth grade, he or she has 2,102,400 minutes until high school graduation.
The film follows two high school seniors—a boy and a girl—from each of these countries. How students spend their 2 million minutes—in class, at home studying, playing sports, working, sleeping, socializing, or just goofing off—will affect their economic prospects for the rest of their lives. By extension, how a country’s high school students spend their collective 2 million minutes will affect a country’s economic prospects in the twenty‐first century.
I intentionally selected Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana. It is a highly regarded U.S. public high school, it is in the heartland of America in a wealthy community, and 91 percent of its students go on to college. Carmel is a school most American parents would want their child to attend. I then selected schools in Bangalore and Shanghai in which the demographics of the parents were similar—professionals, upwardly mobile, relatively well‐off.
At each school we asked the administration to identify 20 students who were in the top 10 percent academically and who were also highly regarded by their peers. From that group we then selected two students who represented the high‐achieving, well‐regarded student. Thus, in America we profiled Neil Ahrendt, student body president, football player, and newspaper staff member. In China we profiled Jin Ruizhang, a top student academically and admired for his success in national math competitions.
Many American viewers have seen the film, on the surface, as a critique of the American school system. In fact, it is not. No pedagogical comparisons are made, and no in‐depth interviews with educators in the three countries are conducted. While the American school system needs improvement, that is the least significant aspect of the film.
And yet the film often seems to make some Americans defensive because the Indian and Chinese families on the screen run counter to preconceived notions. The four sets of Indian and Chinese parents are more globally aware than some Americans expect, and they are thoughtfully engaged in their child’s education. Many Americans are quick to point out that China and India combined have over 1 billion people in poverty, as if that somehow inoculates us from the competition posed by the other billion.
For open‐minded viewers, what the film reveals are societal differences among India, China, and America that are reflected in the high school experience. America’s school culture is one that stresses athletics and extracurricular activities, part‐time jobs, and a “well‐rounded” student. Academic achievement is not given the time, attention, or resources that it is given in India and China.
The Indian and Chinese families we followed recognize and reward academic excellence, and they revere intellectual achievement. They emphasize math and science without neglecting history, geography, or literature—Western as well as Eastern. They learn our language, while our students learn Spanish or French. While organized sports exist in their high schools, very few students would consider athletics to be a priority. Both countries also endeavor to have students become “well‐rounded,” but in a different sense than Americans use the term. We see the Chinese and Indian students engaged in the arts (violin, singing, or ballet) or relaxing with friends, but they always put studies first and aim very high—in terms of careers, colleges, and test scores.
What 2 Million Minutes ultimately suggests is that the Indian and Chinese school and family cultures align very well with the challenges of the globally competitive, technologically advanced twenty‐first century. By contrast, America’s school and family culture looks outdated, obsolete, and perhaps a bit arrogant. America’s economic prosperity in this century will require its young people to be more globally competitive and more highly skilled in cognitive technical abilities and to offer unique intellectual and creative value, or the high‐wage jobs will go to other countries. There is no longer any such thing as an “American job.” There are global jobs, and they go to the most efficient and effective producers.
What I saw in a first‐grade Indian classroom 3 years ago shocked me, worried me, and profoundly changed me. I hope that Americans can be brought to see what the global education standard looks like and that we can be motivated to rise to the challenge, just as President Kennedy inspired us to reach the moon after the Soviet Sputnik passed us overhead. We are again at a “Sputnik” moment, and we need leaders who will inspire us to do our best.
David Labaree — Initial Comment
It is tempting to raise questions about many aspects of 2 Million Minutes, but I think it is more fruitful to direct attention to the film’s central argument about what constitutes a socially beneficial form of education. Essentially, the film says that students in China and India are putting the 2 million minutes of high school to good use by concentrating on their studies (particularly science and math), which will help them get good jobs and help their countries outproduce the United States economically. Meanwhile, American high school students are wasting their time on everything but their studies, and those studies in turn give short shrift to science and math. This is how a once‐dominant country can slide into decline and be overtaken by leaner, hungrier, and more ambitious competitors. Time is running out.
As presented in the film, both the Asian and American models of education are effective at providing individuals with an opportunity to get ahead. The issue is the social consequences of the two models, which are quite divergent. The Asian model is a classic example of what the sociologist Ralph Turner, 50 years ago, called a “sponsored” mobility system. Students are required to specialize early in a particular field of study dictated by their intended occupational destination, and they study this field intensively. The American model is a classic case of what Turner called a “contest” mobility system, which encourages students to delay specializing their studies until the last possible moment, with the aim of keeping their occupational options open. The result is an educational system that stresses general education at all levels and deters deep learning in a particular field.
A system of sponsored mobility produces specialists with a deep knowledge of one area but with little flexibility in switching fields or adapting to change. The contest mobility system produces generalists with thin knowledge about everything but with good prospects for changing careers and adapting to a future unanticipated by their schooling. The sponsored system promotes intensive learning of the curriculum, and schools award diplomas based on a student’s demonstrated mastery of this curriculum. The contest system tends to discount learning in favor of tokens of learning (grades, credits, and degrees), and it measures educational attainment in hours of attendance rather than tested performance. The sponsored system gives students the incentive to study hard now and reap the reward later. The contest system encourages students to lag in their studies early but to take them more seriously as they rise in the system and get closer to the point of specialization and employment. For most Americans, high school is not a time to study hard—and neither Neil nor Brittany did. But college is understood to be harder (as Neil anticipated). Even more demanding is graduate school, in which an increasing number of Americans receive their terminal educational experience.
Given the dramatic differences in the core structure of the Asian and American models of education, it is not surprising to see how much harder Xiaoyuan, Ruizhang, Apoorva, and Rohit worked at their high school studies than did Brittany and Neil. As Neil’s mother and one of the commentators pointed out, however, this does not mean that the Americans were not working hard in high school. In fact, they were amazingly busy doing things other than homework. For example, Neil was former captain of the football team, worked at a restaurant, produced graphics for the school newspaper, served as class president, was a member of the environment club, and socialized with friends. The film makes a strong argument that the Asians are using their time on things that matter while the Americans are wasting their 2 million minutes on marginalia. I want to make the opposite argument.
How does society benefit from having students master the formal curriculum in high school with the zeal that the four Asian students demonstrate (to the great approval of the film’s commentators)? The educational machinery in which they are caught is very good at creating good students, but how does it contribute to making good citizens and good parents? Despite the testimonials of the economists, how does it even make good workers? There is a connection between science and math knowledge and the work of engineers. But how many engineers do we need? For everyone else, the classic school subjects (language, math, science, and social studies) have little connection to any work people do in the real world. Contest mobility systems may promote educational formalism, by focusing on the tokens rather than the substance of learning (degree accumulation), but so does sponsored mobility, by focusing on the mastery of school subjects (curriculum accumulation). The difference is that all of the noncurricular things that the American students in the film were doing had the potential to enhance their ability to contribute to society. They were picking up skills about how to function in a work environment, network, compete, lead, improve the environment, and juggle priorities. They were also learning how to work the system to their advantage, how to do the minimum needed to satisfy school requirements so they could do what they really wanted elsewhere. Isn’t it more productive for the economy and society to produce fewer zealous students and more accomplished hustlers? Doesn’t the contest mobility system do a pretty good job of preparing actors for life in a market economy, which rewards entrepreneurship over scholarship?
David Labaree — Second Round Comment
Let me start by picking up on a theme raised by other commentators, namely, the decisions that critically shaped the tenor of the film. One such decision was the choice of schools for comparison: selective schools focusing on science and math in urban centers of technology (Shanghai and Bangalore) versus a rather ordinary upper‐middle‐class high school in the Indianapolis suburbs, of the sort found in almost any prosperous American community. Why not use as a comparison Bronx Science or Palo Alto High, where we would find many American students studying too hard and stressed out by the competition? My Stanford colleague Denise Pope runs a program called Stressed Out Students (SOS), which is designed to help alleviate the overwhelming achievement pressures facing Silicon Valley students. Or, consider the overweighting of economists as talking heads in the film (Robert Reich and Richard Freeman). This decision raises questions: Why is human capital production the most important goal for education? Why does everyone have to become an engineer?
Moving beyond the issue of selective comparisons, however, I want to develop a more basic point that I mentioned at the end of my previous comment. Both students and society may be better off when schools focus less on producing scholars and more on producing hustlers. As we have seen, American schools are not terribly effective at turning out graduates with a deep command of the academic subjects in the elementary and secondary curricula. Our test scores internationally are at best in the middle of the distribution. Other school systems are consistently more effective at teaching this material. But it is not clear that accumulating this kind of academic knowledge is particularly useful. During the same period in the latter half of the twentieth century in which U.S. test scores were mediocre, U.S. economic development was stellar.
Maybe the lesson from this is that it is dangerous to take school too seriously, for both individuals and societies. The result of an intensive focus on academic learning may be, at the individual level, a generation of stressed‐out students and, at the societal level, an accumulation of academic skills and knowledge that are not especially functional for modern political, social, and economic life. It may turn out to be advantageous for a society to have an American‐style educational system, which discounts academic learning and encourages students to game the system. Of all the students depicted in the film, Neil was the most adept at managing his 2 million minutes of high school in a way that allowed him to contain academic demands and focus attention on the array of extracurricular activities most in line with his personal goals. Neil’s pursuit of these personal goals—through his participation in football, student government, school newspaper, environment club, restaurant work, and his peer group—may prove even more beneficial to his own future and to his country’s political, social, and economic prosperity than if he had concentrated on attaining the top grades in the most demanding classes. In high school Neil was learning how to bend school to his own ends instead of training himself to be a good student. The American educational system, therefore, may not be very good at producing graduates with a strong command of the school curriculum, but it may be reasonably effective at producing graduates who are self‐directed, entrepreneurial, and creative.