Nation & World

Film insists U.S. educational system is in critical condition

5 min read

Last month Bill Gates warned Congress that the United States is dangerously close to losing its competitive edge due to a serious shortage of scientists and engineers. The problem required in part, said the Microsoft founder, a revamping of the country’s educational system.

Robert Compton M.B.A. ’84 couldn’t agree more. So much so that he produced a 54-minute film to spread the word.

Education is “the most critical issue facing America,” Compton told a crowd last week gathered to watch the film in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) Askwith Lecture Hall in Longfellow Hall.

“We are not preparing our children for the careers of the 21st century,” he said. “We ignore the global standard of education at our peril.”

The Harvard Business School graduate knows what’s at stake.

A venture capitalist and entrepreneur with 25 years of experience under his belt, Compton said he has had to consistently hire workers from India and China for his high-tech companies, not for lower wages but for higher brainpower, because he simply can’t “find the talent in the United States.”

The notion that something was fundamentally different between the three nations’ approaches to education began to take hold for the businessman after a dinner in India with about 100 software developers. He was stunned by the broad knowledge and high level of intelligence of the 25 to 35-year-old men and women in the room.

“They knew more about American history than I did,” Compton said, as he went from table to table chatting with his employees.

In 2005 Compton began a tour of the colleges, high schools, and primary schools in India to examine the nation’s educational systems firsthand. The seminal moment came, he said, after a visit to a first-grade class in Bangalore, where he asked the children a simple question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The answers were telling. “Engineer, scientist, engineer, cardiologist, engineer, engineer,” he said, were the repeated choices.

Impressed by the high career ambitions of the 5- and 6-year-olds, Compton decided to explore with a film how the United States, India, and China prime their students for the future.

His documentary, “Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination,” follows the path of six students, a teenage boy and girl from each country, as they prepare for the next step after high school. The title refers to the number of minutes a student has between the completion of the eighth grade and their high school graduation. Compton said his goal wasn’t to compare and critique the different systems but merely to show people what he saw and let them draw their own conclusions by examining how students from each country spend their time.

The work caught the attention of Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of International Education and director of the HGSE International Education Policy Program, who arranged the screening.

The film, Reimers said, encouraged an important dialogue.

“Providing students the opportunity to engage in deliberations about the purposes of education is an essential aspect of preparing them to be leaders in the field,” he said.

While the two U.S. teens in the film are diligent students and high achievers, it’s clear they live in a decidedly less stringent academic atmosphere.

In her bedroom in Carmel, Ind., Brittany, 17, says she is not worried about having perfect SAT scores. Her male counterpart, Neil, is able to work 20 hours week at a local restaurant while he goes to school. Neither is committed to a particular career, though Brittany dreams of becoming a doctor and Neil, a National Merit Scholar finalist, isn’t sure what he will do, but thinks a traditional office job is probably not for him.

By contrast, the documentary’s Indian and Chinese students spend much of their waking hours studying. All of them strive to enter a science- or technology-related field. They are urged by their parents to finish at the top and spurred to be the best by the tough competition from their classmates. Jin, who lives in Shanghai, reads the complicated-looking calculus text “Strength in Numbers” every night before bed. Apoorva, 17, is up with the sun on Saturday mornings in Bangalore for tutoring sessions to prepare for college admission exams.

The film also consults a number of experts including Richard Freeman, Harvard’s Herbert S. Ascherman Professor of Economics, and Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Following the screening, Compton took questions from the audience. He admitted to seriously altering the education of his two teenage daughters after his experience with the film, putting more of an emphasis on their math and science studies, and hiring tutors to help them excel.

“I think I am doing what’s best for them to expand their career opportunities for the 21st century,” he said.

One audience member asked how someone without the same financial means could accomplish that goal.

“I think it starts with recognition,” said Compton, adding that educators, politicians, and society in general need to help raise the level of math and science instruction in U.S. school systems. “Our leaders need to produce … the rhetoric and recognition.”

Some criticized his view, arguing the emphasis on a technology-based education ignored a well-rounded approach to learning.

“I don’t think 40 years ago anybody knew what the economy would look like [today]. I wonder about preparing for the economy of 40 years from now by being just interested in technology,” said Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor in Child Health and Development and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

“All I was trying to do was show what I saw,” countered Compton, acknowledging that teaching students ethics, for example, is essential, but referred again to his own experience and his struggle to find qualified workers in the United States.

“What I’m saying is I can’t find that talent in the United States. … I think that has profound negative impact for America.”