Saturday, September 26, 2009

DVD Review - 2 Million Minutes - The 21st Century Solution

When the DVD 2 Million Minutes first came out, I was late to the party in writing a review on this blog. It was a ground breaking portrayal of the contrast in some of the largest economies of the world. But the blog did have an impact - I was surprised to see how many people had not heard about until they read my blog. This time, I was determined not to be late. So here it is.

First of all, this DVD is not a direct sequel to the first 2 MM DVD. It is the fourth in a series, the second and third were a more in-depth look at the Indian and the Chinese education systems respectively. But the latest one is a drastic change in its focus. After telling us how well the Chinese and the Indians are being educated, Bob has now found an oasis of excellence in the US. And to help make the point, he has interviewed Craig Barrett, the recently retired Chairman of Intel Corp., the largest semiconductor company in the world.

To help find his success story, Bob went to the Newsweek rankings of high school, and picked the top school - Basis Charter school, which started in Tucson, AZ, and now has a second campus in Scottsdale, AZ. For those who are not familiar with Newsweek rankings, it picks its candidates from schools that have the highest AP test takers. Its challenge index, which divides the number of AP tests taken by the number of graduating seniors, is the primary benchmark. The Basis Charter school topped their 2008 survey, with a challenge index score of 17.167 - which means their graduating seniors had taken an average of 17 AP classes (equivalent to about 2 years in a regular college). One other unique feature of this school is that it is not a school for gifted and/or talented students, nor is it a magnet school. Anyone who applies get in, provided they can stand the rigor. One other big difference I found was that they start with 6th grade. This gives those students who are behind a chance to catch up to the rigors of its high school program. They do this in spite of the fact their charter schools get about $1000 per student less than other public schools.

How rigorous is the program? Let us take math, for example, which is the Achilles heel of most public schools. The expectation in Basis Charter Schools is that ALL STUDENTS take AP Calculus exam by 10th grade. This forms the basis for their calculus based science classes in 11th and 12th grades. So, in order to take AP Calculus, they have to take Pre-Calculus in 9th grade, Algebra II in 8th grade, Geometry in 7th grade, and Algebra I in 6th grade. Impossible, you say? Data show that this is not much different from top performing nations in Asia and Europe, and some developing countries in the world. Our best high school is about as good as an average or slightly above average school in those nations. But I digress. Once the gatekeeper requirement of Math is behind them, the students are ready to take other higher level science courses in their junior and senior years.

The result? The school has 100% college placement rate. Their students enter college better prepared than most other high school graduates. All this at a cost about 10% lower than sending an average student to school.

The main video could have been a bit shorter, in my mind. Or including a piece on K-5 school with similar attributes would have rounded it out more. These are minor quibbles. I thought that its main goal, of pointing out that excellence can be achieved within the public school system, at a lower cost, by those who had the fortitude to go against the entrenched monopoly of our public institutions, was achieved.

The one gem in this DVD is the extended interview with Craig Barrett. Although the DVD has snippets of the interview spread throughout the main feature, what really stands out is the added bonus feature. I think it is worth the entire cost ($25) of the DVD. In that interview, Craig answers a few personal questions, along with other questions on his view of the state of public education in the US. The one observation that he makes stuck in my mind as very astute. We have a dichotomy in this country. We have arguably the best post-secondary university system, both public and private, and arguably one of the most mediocre public K-12 education systems by international standards. He pins the underlying difference to the basic structure of these institutions. Our universities, both public and private, have to compete for the best students, the best faculty, and the best learning environment. When institutions compete, the customers, in this case, the students and their parents, win. The public K-12 system is devoid of any competition. Absence of competition, or a monopoly system, according to economists, leads to the lowest quality at the highest possible cost. So, the natural conclusion is - how do we introduce competition in our public education system? I will make this the topic of my next blog.

In the meantime, get your copy of the DVD, sit back, enjoy! Highly recommended.

Here is the publisher's site:

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