News: CJ Exclusives

U.S. K-12 Students Trail Global Counterparts

Documentary studies performance of U.S., Chinese, Indian students

RALEIGH – For more than two decades, cross-national assessments of student academic performance against international standards have shown that U.S. students consistently score below the international average in mathematics, science, and reading compared to their counterparts in 30 industrialized nations.

In 2003, for example, U.S. 15-year-old students scored lower in mathematics on the Program for International Student Assessment test than did students from 25 of the 30 participating countries. They also scored lower in problem solving than 24 out of the 30 countries; lower in science than 19 out of 30; and lower in reading than 15 out of 30.

Now, a new documentary film on global education released in April 2008, Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination (, raises serious questions about how well U.S. students fare against their counterparts in Third World countries, notably China and India.

Experts agree that high-quality education is essential for a nation’s long-term economic growth and stability. The United States spends more money per pupil than most industrialized nations and far more than any developing nation, yet its student performance continues to worsen.

Two million minutes

The film gets its title from the approximate number of minutes available to a student during the student’s four years in high school: 60 minutes x 24 hours x 365 days x 4 years.

In 2005 and 2006, Robert Compton, creator and executive producer of the 54-minute documentary, had a film crew follow six students — two each in the United States, India, and China — during their senior year in high school, to compare how the students spent their time.

The film reveals startling differences in American students’ priorities, focus, and motivation, along with a disturbing lack of academic rigor, as compared to the Indian and Chinese students.

Compton has been criticized for choosing only top students, whose parents are professionals, from wealthier communities in their respective countries, but he said his premise was that “the schools be ones that every parent would like to send their children to and that the students be driven and ambitious. Why would you want to compare the worst students?”

“I thought I could get a representative sample by selecting a male and a female student from the same school in each country with roughly similar demographics so I could compare apples to apples as much as possible,” Compton said. “That some people have chosen to see the glass as half empty doesn’t negate that the glass is half full,” Compton added.

Compton, a venture capitalist who owns six software companies in the United States and invests in high-tech and biotech companies in India and China, said, “India and China treat academics the way Americans treat sports. They [India and China] invest their time, money, and talent making sure their children have the best education and opportunities.”

In a recent screening of his film at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Compton quoted Stanford economist Eric Hanushek as saying “a nation’s gross national product growth correlates directly to the level of math and science scores achieved by its students.”


China has about 194 million students in K-12, India has 212 million, and the United States has 53 million. While China and India educate only a fraction of their children compared to the United States, their raw numbers dwarf those of America, and their middle class is rapidly growing, so those figures will increase over time.

Critics worry that Americans aren’t paying close enough attention to the rapid leveling of the playing field among students worldwide and the economic implications of the increased competition.

In China and India, all students in grades seven, eight, and nine are required to take mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, geography, English literature and grammar, and world history. Once they reach the 10th grade, students are placed in a business, science, or liberal arts track based on their academic ability, where they continue to take advanced courses in science and math.

By contrast, in the United States, nearly 40 percent of high school students do not take any science class more challenging than general biology, and 55 percent do not take any math courses beyond two years of algebra and one year of geometry.

By grade 12, only 3 percent of African-American students are proficient in math, 4 percent of Hispanics, 10 percent of Native-Americans, 20 percent of white Americans, and 34 percent of Asian-Americans.

Yet 70 percent of American parents “think their child’s high school is teaching the right amount of math and science,” Compton said.

One of the most striking differences was the amount of time students spent studying or doing homework. The school year in China is one month longer than in the United States, and the school day is longer. Factoring in homework, tutoring, and study time, Chinese students spend twice as much time studying than do Americans, according to Vivien Stewart, a specialist in international education.

Experts say 66 percent of college-bound high school students in the United States have no more than one hour of homework per evening and none on the weekends. The average U.S. student spends 900 hours in the classroom and 1,500 hours watching television each year.

Chinese and Indian students attended tutoring and other classes until late in the evening and all day on Saturdays. Ruizhang, one of the top math students in China, had been competing in math competitions since he was a small boy. Sridharan spent 12 hours each week studying for the entrance exam to the Indian Institute of Technology, often compared to MIT.

Both of the American students were in the top of their class academically, but each said it was important to have balance in their lives, and they talked about wanting to have fun. The American students were seen attending sporting events, hanging out with their friends, working, or volunteering. One student was studying with a group of friends to prepare for a test while they watched a television program.

One-third of students in India are educated in for-profit schools. Compton said these schools charge tuition based on student performance. If students don’t perform well and go on to top-rated universities and graduate programs, the school doesn’t do well financially.

Karen McMahan is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.