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Indian, Chinese students outshine US peers
June, 02nd 2008

US venture capitalist Robert Compton found a number of companies in his portfolio moving research to India and China. Intrigued, he travelled out to India and visited its schools. He was stunned to find Indian students not only generally out-studied their US peers but were powering ahead by two or three years in math, physics, biology, and even subjects like English literature and history.

Compton made a documentary, Two Million Minutes, hoping it would be a wake-up call for American students. It is already making waves in education circles with influential leaders like Senator Barack Obama adopting the films message.   

Americans need to stop comparing themselves to each other and start comparing themselves to the rest of the world, said Compton.

Unlike students of my generation, todays students have an entirely new set of competitors peers from India and China who outnumber them and generally out-study them, said Compton, who was rattled enough by what he saw to hire math and science tutors for his daughters though they are at the top of their class at a US private school.

Compton had film crews record high school seniors in the US, India and China in 2005 and 2006. It tracks six Type A students two each in the US, India, and China during their senior year of high school. By comparing how these students prioritise their time (approximately four years or two million minutes of high school), the film demonstrates that the typical student in the US spends less time on his education and gives less thought to career opportunities than his peers in India and China. The documentary weighs in on the implications for the US economy of having its students lose ground in education.

The film warns about the discrepancies between American education and India and China, Meghan Charlebois, who is promoting the film, told DNA.

One of the two American students portrayed is ebullient Brittany Brechbuhl, 17, whos in the top 3 % of her graduating class. She watches Greys Anatomy playing out on television while studying math. She aspires to a career as a doctor but also wants to party hard in college. The second American student Neil Ahrendt, 18, is senior class president and a National Merit semifinalist. He works part-time at a restaurant and is unsure of what he wants to be when he grows up, but is confident he will find success.

The two are contrasted with 17-year-olds Apoorva Uppala and Rohit Sridharan from Bangalore and Hu Xiaoyuan and Jin Ruizhang from Shanghai. All four are overachievers with little self-doubt. They know what they want to be when they grow up and have academic strategies and stretch goals. They excel in math and science and study on weekdays and weekends to crack tough engineering entrance exams at top universities.

 I hope that this piece is a wake-up call, said Compton whose film shows that the US culture has a highly developed athletic and extracurricular system but a deteriorating core academic system.

 However, Vivek Wadhwa who is executive in residence at Duke University and has been interviewed in the film, says Apoorva and Rohit represent at best 5% of the children in India. Things arent as dire for US students as they might appear in the documentary. I have been researching engineering education and have taught many graduates of Indian, Chinese, and American universities. It can take longer for Indians and Chinese to develop crucial real-world skills that come more easily for some Americans. Yes, US teens work part-time, socialise, and party. But the independence and social skills they develop give them a big advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks, also writes Wadhwa in BusinessWeek.

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