Culture & Society

What the U.S. Can Learn from High School Students in India, China

An entrepreneur screens his new film, 2 Million Minutes, at Stanford GSB and explains how students around the world use their time differently.

May 01, 2008

| by Andrea Orr

Most Americans have heard that the United States lags China and India in math and science education, but they often dismiss that reality, assuming that the leaders emphasize rote learning at the expense of teaching well-rounded original thinking.

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Robert Compton says he carried those same assumptions until he traveled to India. There he found high school students as proficient in English literature and geography as they were in calculus. They had clear career plans and approached their goals with a focus he never saw in the United States, even in his own two daughters who were straight A students at an exclusive private school.

Realizing that no statistic could do justice to what he had seen on the ground, Compton launched a new career as filmmaker, documenting students’ high school curriculums and study habits in India, China, and the United States. The result was 2 Million Minutes, the film Compton screened on May 14 at Stanford GSB. He talked with MBA students about his concerns that the weaknesses in the U.S. school system today could handicap the entire American economy for generations to come, and how students could help bridge the disparity.

“When Finland was ranked number one in math and science education, I wasn’t so worried,” said Compton, president of medical device maker Sofamor Danek. “But when it’s the two largest countries in the world that have fast growing economies and people who are coming out of poverty and driven to achieve, I am worried.” Compton cited a calculation from Stanford economist Eric Hanushek (the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution) that a nation’s gross national product growth correlates directly to the level of math and science scores achieved by its students.

Despite his own concern, Compton said the best response to this educational disparity is to forge better bonds with India and China. He criticized the United States for severely limiting the number of foreign engineers who could immigrate on H1B work visas, and he urged Stanford GSB students — some of whom take part in cooperative programs with the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore or China’s Tsinghua School of Economics and Management — to collaborate with overseas talents on new businesses.

“We can not keep the brains at a distance,” he said. The title, 2 Million Minutes, represents the approximate number of minutes in a four-year period, to show how different students spend their time. As the film goes back and forth between typical days in the three countries it shows American students attending football games in their high school’s brand new $30 million stadium, while Chinese students display medals won in math competitions. Indian students meet for teacher-led study sessions at 7 am on Saturday mornings while their American counterparts gather at a friend’s house to casually study for a test with the television on and Grey’s Anatomy competing for their attention.

While the Americans attend sports, socialize, work in part-time jobs and study, their Chinese and Indian counterparts pretty much study nonstop. And while even the best American students say they don’t feel challenged in schools, the most brilliant in China and India are constantly challenged to learn more.

The average U.S. student, his film states, spends 900 hours in a classroom and 1,500 hours in front of the television. And, by the end of high school, Chinese students have spent twice as much time studying as Americans. The experience led Compton to radically change his own daughters’ education incorporating more tutoring and to develop his own math testing system based on what he saw in India to better parse comprehension and identify areas of weakness.

But he said that nationwide, this was not a challenge that could be fixed quickly, since it would require a dramatic shift in culture and values. “The fault lies not in our schools but in ourselves,” he said. “We are a sports, recreation, and leisure country. We need to lift academic and intellectual achievements at least on par with athletic achievements.”

As a first step, Compton has already started working with some communities to help them more publicly recognize and reward the best students. He said the United States needs to appreciate how valuable engineers will be in the future, not just to create better software but to rebuild a host of ordinary consumer products like washing machines to make them use water, space or some other resource more efficiently. “To me, this is one of the most exciting times in history to be an engineer,” he said. “Everything will have to be reinvented.”

The speech and film screening were sponsored by Stanford GSB’s Global Management Program.

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