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‘Indian kids underestimate their talent’

Sunday, 8 June 2008 - 3:26am IST

US venture capitalist Robert Compton, 52, has educators exercised with his provocative film Two Million Minutes.

US venture capitalist Robert Compton, 52, has educators exercised with his provocative film Two Million Minutes. Compton’s message is that American students waste much of their four years of high school — about 2 million minutes — on sports, part-time jobs and television while their Indian and Chinese peers out-study them and pursue a “deeper” curriculum.  Since an increasing number of companies in his portfolio were moving research to India and China, an intrigued Compton travelled to India to visit schools. He was stunned at what he found. Compton spoke to Uttara Chowdhury, as his film is being shown across the US and used to push for change in the school system.

How did you finally settle on the six Type A students — two each in the US, India, and China — that you have tracked in the film?
I had film crews record high school seniors in the US, India and China in 2005 and 2006. First, we selected Carmel High School which is among the top 5 per cent of US schools academically and is in Middle America.

I asked for a list of students who were in the top 5 per cent of their class and admired by their peers. 
Neil Ahrendt, 18, is on the school newspaper; he is the student body president and a National Merit semifinalist. He works part-time at a restaurant and is unsure of what he wants to be when he grows up, but is confident he will find success. Brittany Brechbuhl, 17, graduated 28 out of 950 students. She is now a pre-med student. We got high achievers at a high achieving US high school. 

Then we picked a top school in Bangalore where the parents are professionals like at Carmel. Apoorva Uppala, 17 and Rohit Sridharan, 17, were selected because they are at the top of their class. She is active in the debate and elocution clubs; he is on the soccer team and has a boy band.  

In China, the school was picked for us by the Communists. But we asked that the parents be professionals. Hu Xiaoyuan and Jin Ruizhang from Shanghai are high achievers. 

How does US school coursework stack up against India and China?
I think that American high school is wide, but shallow and Indian high school is narrower perhaps, but very deep. I am publishing a detailed comparison of the Indian and US curricula. I am also getting the Chinese
national curriculum translated into English from Mandarin.

Have US educators been upset by the message in your film?
The reaction falls into three categories. I screened the film twice in the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the students and faculty; they were my harshest critics. They believe the American education system is superior. They believe it dogmatically. No one had compared the curriculum of the three countries. 

The second group sees it, but is in denial. They say, ‘they know more about math and science but our children are more well-rounded.’ My one regret with the film is that I emphasised math and science. When we took Apoorva and Rohit into the studios and also drew Neil and Brittany into a round table discussion what came across clearly is that the Indian students know math and science, but they also have a grasp of geography, world history and Shakespeare at a deeper level than their American counterparts. 

The third category consists of people receptive to the message. I sold 12,000 DVDs on my website, primarily to high school and middle school teachers in America, who have been taking the tapes into their classrooms to show their students that it is a globally competitive world. They are saying ‘Let me show you how the other two teams are preparing.’ They see what I saw. They realise that India and China have caught up and passed us in terms of academic achievement. They realise that we are going to be beat economically if we don’t change.        

The film shows a Chinese student  happily going to bed with a book on Calculus. 
Yes, it is incredible. Ruizhang is the top math student at his school and competes in international math tournaments. China scares me, to be honest! The intellectual calibre of the Chinese students may end up being the highest in the world when you count large populations. 

What is the key difference between all these students?
Talented as Apoorva and Rohit are they don’t have the self-confidence that would come with that talent. A lot of Indians underestimate their talent whereas a lot of American students overestimate their abilities. I came back from India so inspired that I wrote a book, a blog and made a film. I teamed up with one of my Indian partners and we created a programme that would allow US students to take an Indian math course online at home.

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