Sunday, May 04, 2008

2 Million Minutes [film]

Life's biggest challenges involve knowing which questions to ask. Once you know the right questions, schools in China and India are great at teaching students the discipline and focus to answer them, especially in science and math. But are American schools, by contrast, squandering the high school years with frivolous activities that leave kids underprepared to compete in a global economy?

That's the implication of this new documentary, whose title represents the amount of time kids spend in high school (4 years = 2 million minutes). It's being discussed at the Seattle Schools Blog, the P-I School Zone blog (which notes there will be a public screening at 6pm in the LeRoux Room at Seattle University), and of course many other places like the 2MM blog .  [buy a copy here for $25 if you'd like to see it yourself -- it's not yet on Amazon or Netflix]

The 54-minute film follows high-achieving kids in three different schools, one each in India, China, and the U.S. (Carmel, Indiana). The differences in student life are striking; or -- to be precise -- the difference between the US and the other countries is striking. While others focus intensively on science and math, the American kids load up on athletics, extra-curricular activities, TV watching (1500 hrs/year versus 1200 hrs/yr on homework), and socializing with friends. Chinese kids spend so much more time in the classroom ( longer school days, full Saturdays, one fewer month of vacation) that by graduation they've attended the equivalent of an extra year of high school compared to Americans.

The results speak for themselves: only 20% of white American kids are proficient at math upon graduation, blown away by their Chinese and Indian counterparts -- who, in a global economy will someday be their direct competitors! Worse, polls of school administrators, teachers, and parents show that most Americans think the homework/play balance is about right. The only area where American kids score clearly better is in self-confidence.

So how bad is this? More importantly, what can or should be done about it? I admit that I watched the film expecting to be deeply concerned about America's future. Even here on Mercer Island, which prides itself on its strong education focus, I think our schools are not anywhere near as good as they should be.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, never one to be humble in prescribing top-down government mandates, is quoted in the film thinking nostalgically about how the arrival of Sputnik in the 1950s forced the government to wake up and encourage the hiring of a whole new generation of math and science teachers (many of whom are now retiring). Is that what we need now?

But the film doesn't address some issues about the real world that, to me, leave open the question about what, if anything, should be done. Consider:

  • In my experience, engineers rarely, if ever, use all that math these Chinese and Indians spend so much time learning. Why? A lot of it (e.g. calculus, physics/chemistry depending on your field) is just not relevant to many high-tech fields, which depend more on logic and discrete math, which still isn't taught much in schools.
  • The best engineers and scientists spend more actual time on, say, collaborating with others, project management -- and most importantly--learning brand new things that didn't exist when they were in school. How do you teach that?
  • Although many/most of the recent huge success stories of the US economy are high tech companies -- yes, often founded by scientists and engineers -- it wasn't just the math and science that got them there. The best engineer founders stop doing day-to-day engineering as soon as they're in charge.

I think it's revealing that, of all the kids in that film, it's pretty obvious which one you'd expect to lead a company or create a new industry someday: it's Neil, the laid-back football player who doesn't study because it gets in the way of his extra-curriculars . While his Indian/Chinese counterparts are hitting the books so someday they can get their PhDs, he's organizing new after-school activities and learning how to win class elections. If he ever needs a PhD, it's pretty clear what he'll do: go hire one of those smart Indian or Chinese guys.

Maybe in fact, that's the trouble with the film: it focuses only on the top schools and not the middle or lower schools which are training the vast majority of kids in either country. Who's Neil going to hire for his new businesses or industries? Can you teach more kids to be like Neil -- especially in those lesser-performing schools? Or maybe what they really need is just focus, maybe on math/science, or maybe just on something, anything that teaches the discipline to take on new, unfamiliar challenges. But how do you do that?

So I'm left with a bunch of questions, but as always, which are the right ones to ask?


Anonymous said...

I’d add that there should be two films: this is the elite, and then a film for the rest of the schools, rest of the ranking students. What are the middling and dragging students like in India and China? Are all they prepared for is factory work? Do they drop out at age 12? Do they have no job prospects – i.e. glass ceilings are set in place so even entrepreneurial smart kids who shine later in life can't get to the top?

As for America’s middle ranks who will be the majority workforce, they do need more rigor and high expectations in my opinion. I keep thinking of something outside this movie, a recent comment about a professor who was shocked upon returning a C paper with a “texted-abbreviated”, poorly written essay: 1) the quality is not nearly as good as in previous generations, 2) the student got indignant and said he deserved better (sense of entitlement even for poor work), and 3) worse: accused the professor of “disrespecting” him. Now THAT is very troublesome: workers with no respect for hard work, authority, and quality.

Back to the film. I was very impressed with Neil. He stuck with a part-time job while everyone else quit (although I believe he shouldn’t work unless he had to bring home money to the family – this job adds nothing to his learning besides work ethic); he walked away from the glamour of being an Indiana football captain to pursue other things (wow – knowing his limits and choices at that age!); and as Richard said, is Student Council president, is the graphics editor, has a girlfriend, and has top grades. I think the American girl was made into a caricature so I cannot judge her: capturing her say “I didn’t study at all” was not emblematic of her high school years.

Neil is a stark contrast to the others. As for the Chinese boy, he did nothing but study. How would he manage or work on a project with others? The other 3 Asians seemed like their motivations were from outside them, not from within; how many times can they refer to parent pressure and the “trend is to do engineering”. That is worrisome.

I agree with Richard: we can’t do touchy feely schools, or teach pure creativity but any way we can have high expectations and produce excellence in individual students who are motivated, apply themselves and produce quality work of whatever stripe – that is important. And yes, more than 2 years of math and one biology course are very important – remember you need to know the material enough to ask the right questions.

Anonymous said...

China's literacy rate approaches 91% (ie those who can read and write at age 15). Even though this documentary focused on the upper end children, I'll suggest the Chinese are applying similar standards to the middle 85%. I’ll bet the same rigor is applied to their non-technical classes, ie Philosophy, English, English equivalent, Music, Art, etc. I pause when I hear that a Mercer Island elementary school PTA received more votes to replace an adequate playground set than to establish a program supplementing its science program. A science program testing out at WASL 5th grade 78% (far superior to the State's 36%) but nevertheless a C+ to a test that tests (warts and all) minimums.

Richard Sprague said...

With science and math education it's pretty straightforward to define and test for "rigor". That's much harder for philosophy, literature, etc. so I'm not convinced we can say that China/etc are doing well outside science/math.

But I agree with the general intent of "making kids work harder", which is hard to do if you spend your money on playgrounds instead of science education.

Anonymous said...

The science wasl isn't all that easy, if you've ever taken a look!