Two million minutes is the estimated time that students spend in high school. It is also the title of a new documentary film that suggests American students squander too much of that time. While their peers in China and India study longer hours to sharpen their math and science skills, top students from one of the best high schools in the U.S. are playing video games and watching Grey's Anatomy during a group study session, at least in clips seen in the documentary.
The film, produced by Memphis venture capitalist Robert Compton and promoted by the ED in '08 political organization, is the latest attempt at igniting a national debate about the need to put more emphasis on math and science education if the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy. But supporters of the film acknowledge they face an uphill climb to make education a central issue in the presidential race.
Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination follows six students through their senior year of high school in the United States, India, and China. Brittany Brechbuhl is a 17-year-old who's in the top 3 percent of her graduating class at Carmel High School in Indiana. She aspires to become a doctor but also wants to join a sorority and "party." Neil Ahrendt, 18, is another talented Carmel student who is the senior class president and former quarterback of the football team. These American teenagers' attitudes toward academics differ sharply from those of their peers in India and China, who seem more motivated and focused. Take, for example, 17-year-old Apoorva Uppala, who attends Saturday tutoring sessions to prepare for her university entrance exams. She wants to become an engineer, which she calls "the safest" profession in India. In Shanghai, Jin Ruizhang, 17, preps for international math tournaments. He is already the top math student at his school and hopes to get into a prestigious university offering an advanced math program.
So far, ED in '08—a nonpartisan education watch group supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—has shown the film at private screenings in key battleground states like Iowa and South Carolina. Even though it has not been released to general audiences yet, the film has drawn criticism from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and others who say it fans anxiety without enough evidence to support its claims. Walt Gardner, a former lecturer at the University of California-Los Angeles who taught in public schools for 28 years, says neither China nor India has participated in international assessments. "How do we know how well Chinese and Indian students would perform?" he asks.
ED in '08, which is promoting Two Million Minutes, also has a provocative campaign of its own, designed to get the candidates to talk about how to fix schools. In the days before the Iowa caucuses, the group ran a television ad featuring teenagers who declare themselves the future of the country. Only in the future "I will steal your car," one teen says. Another says, "I will use drugs to escape." Even hip-hop superstar Kanye West has jumped on the bandwagon, shooting an ad for ED in '08 in which he urges the candidates to address the high dropout rate among minority high school students.
Two Million Minutes shows that "we are falling behind the rest of the world quite rapidly," says former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who is chairman of the ED in '08 group and more recently served as superintendent of public schools in Los Angeles. "I don't know of anyone [concerned about the economy] who does not come back to [the notion] that it depends on the skill level and knowledge of our workforce, and that's our message."