The Debate: WaPo’s Jay Mathews vs. Two Million Minutes’ Bob Compton on CNBC

bob compton, jay mathews on CNBC

On June 4th, I wrote a post titled Will We Have a Debate about Global Competitiveness in Education? that called for a debate between Bob Compton, Executive Producer of Two Million Minutes, and the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews. Mr. Mathews wrote a response to Compton’s film in the Post – and then veered off the rails a bit in Wilson’s Quarterly.

I wrote on the 4th that:

If Mr. Mathews is serious about our education system, he should accept your offer – we all need the serious discussion. However, I expect him to continue to dismiss gently the argument in the Post and downright disparage it when he publishes elsewhere.

Well, Friday we got that debate on CNBC’s Street Signs with Erin Burnett. I can’t embed the video from the CNBC site, so you’ll have to click the link the old-fashioned way to watch. The link opens in a new window so you can alt+tab back to the transcript [or have both windows viewable] to make things a bit easier. As with all TV debates, there is some overlap and a few muffled words, but the transcript is accurate.

After a very brief unrelated report, Burnett starts the split-screen debate. Compton is relaxed, jovial and confident; Mathews is smug, shrill and, at times, obtuse. They largely disagree.

But I’ll let the video and the transcript below speak for themselves. It’s an absolute must-watch.

I’ll have my own comments on the transcript tomorrow.


My comments begin here: Fisking Jay Mathews on the Global Economy and Education, Part 1.

Erin Burnett: You’ve heard the argument that America’s schools have lost their edge, they’re not graduating enough engineers. China and India turn out hundreds of thousands more engineers than we do, and that means our future is at risk. What if it’s not quite true? This is one of those conventional wisdoms that some people strenuously disagree with.

So, let’s talk with Bob Compton, Executive Producer of the documentary Two Million Minutes. Many of you on our show would have seen him a couple of weeks ago as we’ve been talking about this education issue. Jay Mathews is the education reporter for the Washington Post and author of the upcoming book “Teach, Baby, Teach.” Thanks to both of you for being with us, and Bob, let me start with you… “You did this movie, following kids around here in the US, high-schoolers, America, India, and China, bottom line takeaway, what is it that makes you believe that they are doing something more right than we are?

Bob Compton: Well, a couple things. One, I went in the classrooms and saw how they were teaching. I talked with students, I’ve looked at their curriculum in detail and compared it to the American curriculum – or at least one state’s American curriculum – and did the same in China. And I hire young people in both those countries in technical jobs. I own 6 software companies here in the US, I hire people in those technical jobs. I am getting the best talent for high-wage, high-technology jobs in India and China.

EB: And how do you respond, before I bring Jay in, to when CEOs say that, our viewers all say, “Well maybe that’s just because he wants to pay them less, and they’ll work for less money over there when they’re really qualified here, how do you respond?”

BC: No – well, I’ll tell you how I respond to it. My six software companies here have 200 open positions right now for Java programmers paying $100,000 to $120,000 a year. If someone wants a job, send me their resume – I’ll hire them. I cannot find the employees.

EB: In this country?

BC: In this country. I am forced to go overseas.

EB: Jay, what do you say?

Jay Mathews: Well, there is indeed a teeny slice of Chinese and Indian schools that are educating kids kids at a very high level – and that’s good, the more middle class Chinese and Indians we have out there, the more customers for American goods. But Bob is suggesting that our country is going to Hell in a handbasket if we don’t improve the schools because schools are the key to the economy and we’ve proved over the last several years that it’s not our schools that produce our great economy, it’s people like Bob. Bob will tell you himself that he had a pretty bad education, didn’t do very well, didn’t apply himself, but he’s a smart, creative guy, once he got into the American economic, social and cultural system, he went bananas. He’s a terrifically creative guy who’s produced lots of companies, producer lots of millionaires, it’s not the schools that produced Bob, it’s our system which the Chinese and Indians have a long way to go —

EB: But you’re talking about leaders there, Jay, right? I mean people who will be creative, be entrepreneurs and lead companies. Most people are going to work at companies and most people need jobs, and that’s where the problem appears to be —

JM: In order to get jobs, in order to get effective jobs, you have to be creative. The Chinese and Indian systems, the Chinese political system, the Indian social system, discourage creativity of the sort that has made Bob all his money.

BC: Jay, that is absolutely not true. The Chinese and Indians are highly creative. I employ hundreds of them —

JM: They are indeed, but if you are a creative person in China, the political system isn’t going to go to the full extent of that creativity – and the social system in India’s not going to either.

BC: Jay, answer one question for me. When were you in India?

JM: Never been in India.

BC: You’ve never been in India. When was the last time you were in China?

JM: 1989.

BC: Almost twenty years ago. Things have changed radically, Jay. You need to get out more – you need to get back over there.

JM: I’m afraid, Bob, that you’re absolutely wrong about that – the political system in China —

BC: How can you say that? You haven’t been there, man! How can you say that?

JM: Have you visited any reform for labor camps in China? Have you looked at what happens —

BC: Jay, I’m looking at education. I’m looking at education – and their education is superior. And it’s not just a tiny slice. We have 53 million kids in K-12 here in America. In India, they have 212 million, in China they have 194 million. So, a tiny slice of 200 million, we’re talking about tens of millions of kids who are getting great educations. It’s happening Jay, you’ve gotta go see it!

JM: Ahh, but 2/3 of the kids in each of those countries aren’t getting much of an education at all because they have huge numbers of poor people who are not getting out to school at all.

BC: Jay, so what? Some of them aren’t getitng an education, there are a lot of people in America who aren’t getting an education – I see it in Memphis where I live. The fact is hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese are getting a great education and raising their cognitive skills —

JM: Hundreds of millions? Completely false!

BC: Over a period of years, Jay.

JM: That’s a complete sham! Hundreds of millions?!

EB: Hold on, let me just clarify here – you said right now there are 53 million in K-12 in the United States —

BC: Do you agree with that, Jay?

JM: That’s right.

EB: — and in India that comparable number is 200 million.

BC: 212 million, is that right, Jay?

JM: I think that’s probably right, but the problem is that the vast majority of those don’t get out of senior high school.

EB: Right, but isn’t that true that most Americans don’t either? Most people finish with a high school equivalent degree and that’s what they have their career based on.

JM: 83% of Americans get out of high school and 30% have college degrees. The percentage of kids getting college degrees in India and China is much less.

EB: But Jay, the numbers game here is what would worry a lot of people, right? Because even if you only have a small percentage of the 212 million going on to jobs…

JM: But it’s a false calculus, you have to consider in that calculus how many people in your country are still living of subsistence wages in forms – that’s a huge drag on both those economies.

BC: Jay, let’s talk about – economically, I am telling you because – I don’t know how many people you employ in India or China, or in the US for that matter, but I have started lots of companies all over the world, I invest in companies all over the world, I am hiring people right now into high-technology, software and bio-technology companies in India and China, as well as the US, and I am getting the best talent, the most creative talent, the highest-educated talent, in India and China. Now you tell me your experience.

JM: Well, what you’re saying is absolutely right – and keep in mind they’re being hired by an American company that has all the creative talent and all the freedoms to do what you want to do with those companies. The reason we are so successful i sbecause you have the creativity that matches the creativity of your culture. The Chinese, unless they find you, are gonna find much less ability and range to put out that creativity because of the limits of their political system, same thing with India, the limits of the economy and the social system —

BC: Jay, you gotta get over to India and China, man! You don’t know what you’re talking about.

JM: That’s what your movie is about! India and China!

BC: Yeah, and you’ve got to go visit there, it’s changed since you’ve been there, man. Go to India! It’s changed, Erin’s been there.

JM: I have had long conversations with our correspondents in both places – what you’re describing is a thin slice of a country that’s very —

BC: I’ll tell you what, I’ll pay for your plane ticket, Jay. Go with me, I’m going in December.

EB: Why don’t you two go together and come on [the show] together from there?

BC: We’re going to tour schools through December and January. I’ll pay your way, come with me.

EB: What do you say, Jay?

JM: Unfortunately, the Washington Post can’t accept freebie trips. But our correspondents are already there, looking at it every day, and they are telling me exactly what’s happening. You’re describing countries that don’t exist.

EB: Ok, we’ve got to leave it there, guys. Here’s the takeaway though – you both have fair points. I have to say, Jay, that Bob’s point that he does raise – you gotta go. You gotta go. I know you’ve got great reporters and everything, but go over -

JM: Because we have Bob, we’re going to win this battle in the long term. They don’t have Bob there.

EB: Bob, Jay, thank you very much.

8 Responses to “The Debate: WaPo’s Jay Mathews vs. Two Million Minutes’ Bob Compton on CNBC”

  1. Bob Compton says:

    Jay Mathews keeps making the comment that “the more middle class Chinese and Indians we have out there, the more customers for American goods.”

    Does he realize the US has a $14 BILLION trade deficit with China and a $1.3 BILLION trade deficit with India? That means we buy more Chinese and Indian goods than they buy American goods.

    Perhaps a definition would help – a negative balance of trade is known as a trade deficit, meaning the US’s sale of goods to other countries is LESS THAN our purchase of goods from other countries.

    To add insult to economic injury, China has loaned the US $150 BILLION by being the second largest buyer of Treasury securities.

    And China recently stabilized Morgan Stanley’s balance sheet by buying 10% of the firm for $5 BILLION.

  2. Thanks for the link Matt.

    As a teacher for 20+ years I side with Bob Compton. Even if he is totally wrong (he is NOT), we will benefit from listening to him and changing our educational system.

    I found Jay’s squirming out of the trip revealing. If he really wanted to impress the audience he would have said, “You know Bob, I believe you are wrong but I also believe in my position. A)This is serious enough for me to resign my position at the Post to investigate. I think I’m a valued enough employee to get rehired.” or B) I will go in December and discuss allowing this first person experience with the Post. Book my seat.”

    Instead he digs in his heels – like a kid “Mommy won’t let me”. Unfortunately the creativity he claims is important is lacking in Jay himself. His experience with/in these countries is almost 20 years old! Are all his templates that old?

    I’m tempted to get out of teaching and go to work for Bob.

  3. Bob,

    I’m puzzled by some of Mathews’ points – they just aren’t as relevant as he seems to think they are. China has its political problems, India has its social problems – both have widespread poverty problems – but stacking those on the backs of successful, expanding school models is an argument with little merit. They aren’t totally separate, obviously, but they aren’t perfectly correlated either.

    What Mathews fails to recognize is how much easier it is for a government like China’s to implement and expand its school models as it extends them into more impoverished areas. This is one of those times when a heavier-handed government is a bit more efficient – and there’s no gigantic union/lobby to oppose their actions, no bizarre arguments about how filling in bubbles on standardized tests is dehumanizing, none of it. It’ll just happen.

  4. Suzie,

    Bob is trying to deliver a bit of wisdom to a profession that has self-imposed isolation, is protectionist, and has plenty of reasons not to listen. In your tradition of throwing a little music into education posts, here’s a performance from 36 years ago last week that sums it up:

    Really, this stuff is marching into Hell with a heavenly cause.

    Mathews squirmed, absolutely. He should’ve just said he’d go because it’s a necessary part of accurate coverage – and that he and/or the Post would finance it. It’s clear that he has no interest in examining any evidence that contradicts his opinions on this particular subject.

    Also, WaPo’s foreign coverage *ain’t* all it could be – if I were Mathews, I’d hop a plane and check it out myself. Then he could either debate Bob properly, with actual supporting facts, or resign himself to agreeing. The discussion would be advanced by either outcome.

  5. JTHRC says:

    Mathews’ claims about political and social suppression in China and India assume that there will never be a change. You have a superior school system in both countries and a growing middle class who are desirous of the lifestyle we enjoy. It sounds to me like a perfect recipe for success and future economic domination. Unfortunately for us, I do not see a Sputnik in our near future to wake us up. It will be too late for the US and the US education system catch up when we finally realize our position in this world.

  6. Thanks for the “summary” Matt!
    Perhaps we need to revisit Boston.

  7. I think we’re headed in that direction. The first step is to take tripe from folks like Mathews and call it what it is.

  8. Nelle says:

    Hi there to every one, because I am genuinely eager of reading this webpage’s post to be updated regularly.
    It consists of good stuff.


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