Millions and Millions of Minutes

It’s been used by education reformers and praised by the folks like Newt Gingrich.  Business leaders point to it as a sign of the looming “crisis” our education system may be facing.  It’s been screened at policy events and cited in opinion pieces.  The “it,” of course, is the movie 2 Million Minutes: The 21st Century Solution.  Produced by Robert A. Compton, the film is demonstrates how the United States is failing to keep up with the world (notable India and China) when it comes to education.

The movie is essentially the visual equivalent of Tom Friedman’s World Is Flat tome, watched through an entirely education lens.  Those living in the education policy world (particularly those who pay attention to international assessments like PISA and TIMSS) will not be surprised by what they see and hear.  China and India do a remarkably better job graduating students from high school (or high school equivalents) and the hard work is represented on international benchmarks and other assessments that measure student learning, particularly college and career readiness.  These countries are adapting, and adapting quickly, meeting today’s educational challenges and thus preparing for tomorrow’s economic opportunities.  Their students may be venturing across the Pacific to attend American colleges and universities, but the message is clear.  They are building a better 21st century mousetrap when it comes to teaching necessary skills and knowledge.
And for those looking for some positive news, the film’s producers have also found some American success stories in some unlikely neighborhoods.  So it does provide some hope, it what many may see as a hopeless situation.  The trailer can be viewed here. 
But 2 Million Minutes raises some interesting questions, particularly as we look at issues like common core standards and the assessments that will soon follow.  When it comes to programmatic and instructional innovations, Eduflack would like to believe the United States is second to none.  In my travels, I have seen communities, schools, and classes that were long written off succeed, despite the odds, out of sheet will.  They turned it around when it came to effective reading instruction.  They implemented groundbreaking STEM initiatives, ensuring that students and jobs were properly aligned.  They implemented technologies in ways never thought possible.  And they even enacted whole school reforms to boost expectations and drive achievement gains.  
Assessment, though, remains a tough nut for us to crack.  It was little more than a decade ago when it was every state for itself, with a mismatch of tests, standards, and expectations littering the national map.  In 2002, we made the national commitment to measure reading and math achievement (and in theory, science) in grades three through eight, presumably to give us a common frame of reference.  But assessments still vary, the once-a-year tests have their limitations, and we are still left with only the samples found in NAEP to stand as our only true common yardstick for student achievement.
If we are serious about running a school improvement and innovation race with the Chinas and the Indias of the world, we need to get serious about the assessments we will use to evaluate our successes.  That means setting new expectations for learning that measure beyond a common bubble sheet.  It means differentiated learning, investments in teachers, and holistic measures of effectiveness.  And it means a focus on higher order skills and the multi-faceted assessments that truly measure critical thinking, performance, and meaningful progress for all students.
At state education agencies across the nation, they recognize that current state assessments just aren’t cutting it.  But they are also pragmatists, recognizing that the new common core standards will demand a revision of any assessments used in the schools.  So no one is ready to invest in assessment overhaul now, knowing that it may be coming again in a year or two once the common standards are adopted.
Hopefully, the end game is not to simply find the one state assessment that is better than many others (and I know quite a few states that believe theirs is the gold standard).  Instead, we need to be looking at the assessment systems coming out of countries like Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and Singapore to guide our thinking., a new approach that measures not just the memorization of key facts, but the true comprehension and application of those facts in multiple learning venues.
Assessments and accountability aren’t going anywhere (particularly as we see what other nations are doing to leapfrog us on current international assessments).  So our challenge is to build a better assessment system, aligning a strong system of national standards (coming through the common standards push), a strong and robust commitment to teaching and learning in the classroom, and the evaluation of that learning through the proper assessments.  It is the only way we are going to be able to out-innovate the other guys, and it may be the only way that 2 Million Minutes becomes simply a warning of what could be, and not a self-fulfilling prophesy for where American public education is headed.

244 thoughts on “Millions and Millions of Minutes

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