Sunday, October 26, 2008

Students abroad, it turns out, are not outperforming Americans

While the documentary "Two Million Minutes" is gettitng a lot of media
attention, the following essay titled "Grade Change" which appeared in
the Boston Globe paints a different picture.

An excerpt --

"OH, LOOK. THERE'S a new film that portrays American teenagers as
distracted slackers who don't stand a chance against the zealous young
strivers in China and India. It must be an election year, when
American politicians, egged on by corporate leaders, suddenly become
indignant about the state of America's public schools. If we don't do
something, they thunder, our children will wind up working as bellhops
in resorts owned by those Asian go-getters.

The one-hour documentary "Two Million Minutes" was conceived and
financed by Robert A. Compton, a high-tech entrepreneur, and can be
ordered on DVD from his website, It follows two
teenagers in Carmel, Ind., as they sporadically apply themselves to
their studies between after-school jobs and sports. The film cuts to
similar pairs of high schoolers in India and China who do little but
attend classes, labor over homework, and work with their tutors. "Two
Million Minutes" has become a key part of the ED in '08 campaign, an
effort by Bill Gates and other wealthy worriers to persuade the
presidential candidates to get serious about fixing our schools.

The documentary's argument is quite common, verging on a truism. You
hear it in Rotary speeches and see it on cable news: Beware, the
rising Third World powers are going to eat our lunch. This assumption
shapes the American educational debate and feeds popular views (and
fears) about our country's place in the world. Its many prominent
promoters include former IBM chief Louis V. Gerstner Jr., New York
Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and former Colorado governor and
Los Angeles school superintendent Roy Romer.

I share what I imagine is Bill Gates's distress at seeing Carmel
High's Brittany Brechbuhl watching "Grey's Anatomy" on television with
her friends while they make halfhearted stabs at their math homework.
But the larger truth is that American education is vastly superior to
the stunted, impoverished school systems of China and India, which,
despite impressive surges of economic growth, are still relatively
poor, developing countries. Our best public schools are first-rate,
producing more intense, involved, and creative A-plus students than
our most prestigious colleges have room for. That is why less-known
institutions such as Claremont McKenna, Rhodes, and Hampshire are
drawing many freshmen just as smart as the ones at Princeton. The top
70 percent of US public high schools are pretty good, certainly better
than they have ever been.

The widespread feeling that our schools are losing out to the rest of
the world, that we are not producing enough scientists and engineers,
is a misunderstanding fueled by misleading statistics. Reports
regularly conclude that the United States is falling behind other
countries - in the number of engineers it produces, in the performance
of its students in reading or in mathematics. But closer examinations
of these reports are showing that they do not always compare
comparable students, skewing the results.

For those who look carefully at the performance of our schools, the
real problem is not that the United States is falling behind, or that
the entire system is failing. It is the sorry shape of the bottom 30
percent of US schools, those in urban and rural communities full of
low-income children. We have seen enough successful schools in such
areas to know that these children are just as capable of being great
scientists, doctors, and executives as suburban children. But most
low-income schools in the United States are simply bad.

Not only are we denying the children who attend them the equal
education that is their right, but we are squandering almost a third
of our intellectual capital. We are beating the world economically,
but with one hand tied behind our back."

Read the full article at--

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