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Fisking the National Association of Secondary School Principals on Two Million Minutes

wahhh!

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has released an official statement on the film Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination. On their Principal’s Policy Blog, NASSP introduces the film before applying their criticism:

“Recently, the Ed in ’08 campaign released, in cooperation with Broken Pencil Productions, a film that focuses on how students in the United States, China, and India use their “two million minutes” in high school. The film makes a compelling argument that the United States is losing its competitive edge in the global economy. Unfortunately, its lack of objectivity taints the central message and prevents a constructive dialogue around its theme.”

Two Million Minutes creator and Executive Producer Bob Compton provided a detailed – and respectful – response both on the 2MM blog and in the comments of NASSP’s original post. If you’ve got the time, read it in full. If you don’t have the time, this summary will suffice:

Compton/2MM: 1, NASSP: 0.

I wanted to take the opportunity to fisk the weirdly defensive statement by the NASSP.

Their first gripe:

The film stacks the deck against U.S. high school students. The U.S. students the documentary profiles are in the top 5% of a school that is itself ranked in the top 5% of U.S. high schools. Although impressive, this does not compare to the Chinese students profiled. One had won a math competition that placed him among China’s top 100 mathematics students, which probably puts him in the top 0.000005% (or so) of Chinese students overall. A more balanced film might have taken top U.S. students from magnet schools such as Stuyvesant High School in New York City or Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in northern Virginia for their comparison.

As Compton explains in the comments of their statement and on the 2MM site, the kids’ situations – parents/family, income, all-around achievement – were roughly equal. It’s awfully tough to take 6 high school kids from 3 different countries and ensure several constants, but the film does a fine job. Also, complaining about how the 2 US students can’t compare to the Chinese students – and then citing one example from one student and leaving the other Chinese student out of the discussion entirely – is sloppy and unconvincing.

Unless the NASSP has compelling data showing that the top 5% at the featured Carmel, IN school is significantly different than the top 5% at Stuy, I’m not interested. At this point, it’s useless conjecture.

SPOILER ALERT: It’s also important to note that despite the male Chinese student’s victory in that math competition – you know, the one that places him in the “top 0.000005% (or so) of Chinese students overall,” he failed to be admitted to his school of choice. The Chinese girl? Not admitted to Yale. The Indian boy and girl were both denied admission to the universities of their choice.

If Broken Pencil Productions “stack[ed] the deck,” as the NASSP claims, they did a rotten job.

Their second gripe:

The film implies that engineering alone will set you free, and devotes almost no attention to success in other academic subjects. The Indian and Chinese students all excel in mathematics and science, and most plan to be engineers. Although we’d all like to see more students pursue engineering, Dan Pink and even Tom Friedman convincingly argue that right-brained activities should not be sacrificed at the altar of technical proficiency.

Stating that the film “implies that engineering alone will set you free” is disingenuous and borders on obnoxious. I’m not sure why the NASSP is trying to pick a fight here, but they could have chosen an argument that didn’t rely so heavily on logical fallacy.

If we want to pull any useful conclusions – even tiny ones – out of comparing 2 students each in 3 different countries, we need a common thread. 2MM chose math/science – all 6 students are working toward fields that use both. Math/science provides a common international language, as so many jointly-awarded Nobel prizes have shown us. Just imagine how disjointed the film would be if we were comparing a physics whiz in Bangalore to an aspiring romantic poet in Texas. Though I’ve only viewed the film 3 times, nothing comes to mind that suggests for a second that writing/communication, creative endeavors, etc. are less valuable – let alone “sacrificed at the altar” of technology, science or math. Grow up, NASSP.

And, if you’re keeping score, note that the NASSP’s Gripe #1 was about how 2MM compares apples to oranges, while Gripe #2 laments 2MM comparing apples to apples.

On to Gripe #3:

The film engages in some statistical sleight of hand. While presenting disheartening statistics about U.S. dropout rates, the documentary presents no comparable statistics from China or India–and little information about school access and how students are tracked as they progress to secondary level education. A quick Google search on Asian dropout rates, for example, reveals that the primary school dropout rate in India is a staggering 53%. Nowhere in the documentary is there a conversation about closing the achievement gap in China or India.

China is, by all facts and figures, a big place. So are India and the United States. I see this omission not as “sleight of hand,” but as pragmatic.

To suggest that seeing dropout rates for China and India might add to the discussion is valid to some degree. But the challenges that the United States faces in educating all of its youth are quite different than those in China and India – and those challenges make up the context within which statistics operate. Without devoting a great deal of time to providing that context, including a raw stat gives little value. From what I understand, the film is for United States educators, businesspeople, students, parents and taxpayers – we can give them stats for the US and they largely understand the context without the film having to provide it.

I have to guess at this – after all, I didn’t make the film – but I think the reason that “[n]owhere in the documentary is there a conversation about closing the achievement gap in China or India” is because that isn’t what the film is about.

Two Million Minutes also fails at:

Pursuing a massive, complex tangential topic – no matter how important that topic is – would do a disservice to 2MM’s point and, for example, to “closing the achievement gap in China or India.” The NASSP concludes:

Two Million Minutes opens a conversation about what we value in U.S. culture and the reality of a global economy. But it fails to prove its case against U.S. public schools.

Agreed – Two Million Minutes does a remarkable job of opening a conversation that we desperately need. It does not, however, open a “case against U.S. public schools” – any inference along those lines is owned entirely by NASSP. As Compton wrote in his reply, “Does it matter to America’s economic future that Indian and Chinese students spend more time building their intellectual foundation than American students?”

2MM is about how we use our time and the opportunity costs of those decisions.

I lament that the NASSP ignored their own conclusion – that the film “opens a conversation about what we value” – so they might release an official statement about a fabricated one-hour attack on public education. I’d prefer to see school leaders discussing how their schools and districts can use this state of affairs to forge better curricula and better instruction. The NASSP dropped the ball.

Then again, I’d probably be awfully defensive and insecure if my organization’s members averaged a GRE score of 950 [Verbal: 427, Quantitative: 523, national mean for those pursuing graduate degrees in Education Administration, page 19 of PDF].

Those one-dimensional engineering technonerds the NASSP so derided in Gripe #2? Well, their Verbal mean is 467 [40pts higher than education administration tracks], with a predictably-higher Quantitative score of 720 [197pts higher, page 18 of PDF] for a total mean of 1187.

I’m not much of a religious man, but I sure can tell when an organization needs a dose of Luke 4:23.

3 Responses to “Fisking the National Association of Secondary School Principals on Two Million Minutes”

  1. I, Rakesh Khullar, Chairman, DLF Public School, Sector-II, Rajinder Nagar, Sahibabad, U.P. am interested to become the regular member of your Association. Our school is a senior secondary school in NCR Delhi, India and affiliated to CBSE, India. The school was established in the year 1996, in the name of great educationist of India, late Sh. Darbari LAl, who was the President of DAV College Managing ommittee, Delhi, India. He opened more than 500 institutions including Schools, Colleges, Polytechnics, Engg & Medical colleges in whole of India.

    Rakesh Khullar

  2. Rakesh,

    I’m not a member of the NASSP or affiliated with the organization in any way.

    Membership information is available at this link:

    http://www.principals.org/s_nassp/sec_inside.asp?CID=1037&DID=54167

  3. You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the work you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who
    are not afraid to say how they believe. At all times
    go after your heart.

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