Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sudhakar Reviews the Two Million minutes Trilogy

I do not write documentary reviews very often, but I decided to make an exception for these two DVDs that were released in December. The two DVDs, as their titles mention, are in-depth reviews on the educational systems of India and China, the two countries that have been absent in the traditional international comparisons of educational achievement, such as TIMSS and PISA. However, these countries are becoming hard to ignore, since they have taken much larger global share of the manufacturing and intellectual capital in the last decade. The conventional wisdom in the US is that the labor costs are the sole drivers for this shift. The documentary sheds a totally different light on the issue. It suggests that the quality of graduates coming out of schools and colleges is fundamentally better suited for the 21st century knowledge economy. Putting two and two together, the shift in manufacturing and software may have initially happened because of cost (which continues to be an advantage for both nations), but the growth in those countries is happening because of the fundamental difference in the quality of human resources. Putting it bluntly, “those jobs ain’t comin’ back”. Another hard-to-ignore fact is that put together, these countries have roughly eight times the number of students in their K-12 system as the US. Historically speaking, this is unprecedented. The US high school graduate now has to compete in a tremendously larger pool of qualified job seekers or college applicants.

For those who are just getting introduced to 2 Million Minutes, it was a DVD released earlier in 2008. The producer of the DVD, Bob Compton, is a venture capitalist and an angel investor in several technology companies worldwide. His venture funding includes several companies in India and China. Bob mentions that when he visited these companies and met their employees, their “well roundedness” and the depth of general knowledge impressed him. He then proceeded to look into the K-12 education system, and was impressed even more. His passion for the topic of education led to the first documentary “2 Million Minutes”, which depicted the time a typical high school student spends in the four years (which add up to roughly 2 million minutes) in the US, China and India. Although a bit light on the statistical aspects, the videos highlight the important difference between the US and the emerging nations – amount of time spent in gaining knowledge and skills. The DVD puts the Chinese students first, Indian students next, and the US students last, in the rough proportions of 3:2:1. The first DVD was screened at several high power conferences, to education leaders and governors of several states, and even to Barak Obama. This was one powerful documentary in its own right.

In the new DVDs, probably produced in response to questions raised after the first one, Bob Compton delves deeper into the time spent on each subject, the high level curriculum in the last four years, and interviews with the principals of two schools, one in Shanghai, China, and another in Bangalore, India. Again, the focus here is on main differences between the US system and the systems in the other two. I particularly liked the interviews with the principals. The Chinese gentleman was particularly impressive, with his vast knowledge of the school system, curricula, and the command of English language. (I cannot imagine a typical principal in the US doing an interview for a Chinese documentary in Mandarin, unless he/she is of Chinese descent). The lady who was the principal of the Indian school was equally impressive because she had a master’s degree in Physics, and other than a slight accent, her command of the English language was comparable. This boiled down to their students as well. They felt comfortable enough with English to crack jokes, use slang, and debate their American counterparts. There is enough meat in the hour or longer in each video to whet the appetites of people wanting to get an introduction to high school education in both countries, and I recommend them highly.

But that is not what I want to spend my time on in this blog. Having been born and educated in India, and raised three kids in the US education system, I can highlight a few important differences between the two based on my personal experience. A few comments I will make on the Chinese system are based on research, not first hand experience. For example, China hardly has any private schools, and segregates their top performers early so that they can get advanced education, and go on to college. The US has about 12% of the students attending private schools, the rest attend public schools. A small but growing number of students are home schooled. India has roughly a third attending for-profit private schools, another third attending schools built with public-private partnerships, and the last third attending government run schools. I have categorized my comments in “myth busters” format. Please read on.

1. Myth - Kids educated in India and China are not “well rounded”. Reality – “Well roundedness” has different definition in different countries, and it is very subjective. In the US, someone who is active in athletics, and maintains a decent GPA may be considered “well rounded”. The emphasis tends to be decidedly tilted towards sports in the US, and towards academics in both India and China. It does not mean the kids grow up with no exposure to the arts or athletics. The kids from both countries in the videos play sports, musical instruments, and engage in social activities with their friends. I think this is fairly typical of India, from my personal observation.

2. Myth – Kids in 3rd world countries have poor English language skills – Reality - While this may be true for immigrants from some nations, India has had a long tradition of dealing with the British, and continues to mandate English as a second language in all schools. China has started doing that as well. The top one third of the students (more than twice the total number of students in the US) get top notch English education – including penmanship, spelling, grammar, essay writing, modern literature, and the classics. Recently, more and more schools have started offering English as the only language of instruction for all classes. Ironic, because they end up taking their native language as a second language! And because of large populations, both China and India, by some accounts, each have more English speakers than the US.

3. Myth – Countries like India and China do not educate their entire population – Reality: Both China and India have mandatory primary education, and will soon have mandatory secondary education. Coverage is poor in the rural areas of India, which is comparable to the high school dropout rate in the US. What gets lost in these claims is that both India and China have been able to produce enormous growth rates with what they have already accomplished in education. When they eventually get to 100% secondary schooling, it will only serve to increase the contrast between themselves and the US.

4. Myth – Students are stressed out in the Asian countries. Reality - Stress can come from various sources. In Asian countries, the sources of stress are few and are academically oriented. In the US, the stress sources include divorce, relocation, drugs, sports, peer pressure, jobs, and physical relationships, on top of academics. Those who ignore academics in school get a double whammy in college – high cost of education, and high failure rates. The suicide rate for college students in the US is much higher compared to Asian countries that maintain similar data.

5. Myth – Schools in India and China only teach to the tests. Reality - Testing, or more accurately assessment, is the only measurement tool that systems have for making sure students have retained the skills and knowledge they are expected to have. Without ascertaining a minimum competency at each grade, the students are not allowed to proceed (no social promotions). Over time, this system ensures more students graduate from the system well prepared for college or life. Actually, I contend the vilification of “teaching to the test” is more an indictment of poorly designed tests, than the concept of testing itself. Once a student goes on to college, or gets a typical private sector job, there are tests and assessments galore. Having a competency based promotion system just reinforces this reality much sooner in life.

6. Myth – Our top students can beat their top students. Reality – Maybe a decade or two ago, but no longer. The sheer numbers of students from China getting awards in ISEF (Intel Science and Engineering Fair), an international competition for high school students, is staggering. One study estimates the number of students in the gifted programs in China outnumbers the total number of students in the US. Even when American kids do well, a large proportion of our top students who compete in math, science, chess, spelling bees, geography bees, science fairs and so on, are children of first generation immigrants from China, India and other countries. Apparently, these students do well in spite of our public education system, and not because of it.

All in all, the whole 2 MM trilogy has a lot going for it in terms of raising the awareness of the emphasis placed on education in the two emerging giants. Kudos to Bob Compton for taking time out of his busy schedule to champion this cause.

Posted By Sudhakar to It's Action Time at 1/04/2009 11:46:00 AM
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Anonymous said...

"Teaching to the test" vilifies teachers that do. It is the lack of a solid curriculum that prevents us from teaching to the test, that causes teachers to veer from the textbooks. Some teachers are more successful at it than others. Most jackasses believe "teaching to the test" means with worksheets and rote memorization. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A corollary that should be added to your myth is the kind of test that students in India and China take is far more rigorous and comprehensive than the US standardized test.

Sighned Giddyup

Sudhakar said...

Dear Giddyup

I agree a lot more can be said about each one of these myths, but alas - the blog can be only so long.

Testing has a long history in India. Legend has it that the ancient universities of Nalanda and Taxila (Buddha was supposed to have visited the former during his years seeking enlightenment) had their gatekeepers ask a series of questions to aspiring students. If they could not answer them, they could not get in. The same tradition applies now. Over the years, the curricula, teaching methods, teacher training, cultural outlook of students and parents, all have a way of harmoniously blending to create successful graduates. Before the internet boom, this was hidden to the rest of the world. Now it is there for everyone to see.

From what I see in the videos, tests have changed little from when I went to school. They are a mix of multiple choice questions, essay questions, and free response problems. They test for knowledge retention, application of the knowledge and process skills to solve problems, and impromptu writing skills. Geometry tests still call for proofs. The standards are also much higher. Bob Compton reports that he posted a typical 10th grade test from India, which all 10th graders are required to pass, on one of his websites (he called it the "Third World Challenge"). As of September, he said 5000 people had taken the test and no one had passed. This may be just one piece of data, but it shows what we consider adequate here is not any more.

More importantly, our businessmen have noticed too. Now in addition to low skill jobs, the highest skill and highest pay R&D jobs are being exported. I personally was involved in the transfer of one of the highest skilled R&D projects, employing 2000 highly paid engineers, to India. I am happy for the Indians, but where does it leave the kids educated here? Now there is competition for even the best trained college graduates. Where do our kids go next?

Anonymous said...

'Teach to the test' is one example of a double bind. It has more than one meaning and the meaning is dependent on the context. Education is filled with double-edged words that sabotage good teaching.

A teacher having to write 'constructivist lesson plans' for an evaluation faces a double bind. No matter how well they write; the evaluation they face will probably be negative.

Teachers should never give up tenure for higher pay.

Standardized testing is an attack on the union. The reform curriculum undermines teachers in the classroom. In an irrational world, truth is power.