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Seventy percent of eighth graders can't read at grade level; U.S. students rank 25th in math and 21st in science amongst 30 industrialized nations; almost half the students who enter college need remedial courses. In short, the American public education system is in a shambles.
That our country faces a pressing need to fix it seems to be the one thing everyone across the political spectrum can agree on. Certain bureaucracies and teachers unions may dig in their heels, but beyond groups that have jobs at stake, the left and right are far less sharply divided on how to bring about education reform than they are on other hot-button issues. For example, both the Obama administration and Republican leaders have started looking to high-performing charter schools for methods to emulate.
Venture capitalist and education documentarian Robert Compton profiles just such a school in his new film 2 Million Minutes: A 21st Century Solution that is currently being screened at events across the country and is available for purchase on his website. BASIS Middle School and High School in Tucson, Ariz., is part of the charter school movement that is growing by leaps and bounds across the country.
A kind of public/private hybrid, charter schools like BASIS operate in part with public funds but are run by private groups or individuals and are therefore exempt from many state regulations. This enables them, among other things, to structure more performance-based salaries and to offer teachers more autonomy in the classroom. As Compton demonstrates with a whirlwind of clips of students, teachers, and administrators, thanks to a series of innovative but sensible practices BASIS is managing to educate its students to world-class standards while still spending much less money per student than its public counterparts.
Compton spends a good deal of his 60 minutes making the case that BASIS is an extraordinary school. We hear from teachers who discuss their subjects with the kind of intellectual fervor that few of us remember encountering in our own school days. And teenagers who sound genuinely excited about physics and game theory will make more than one viewing parent long to pull up stakes and move to the Grand Canyon State to enroll their kids at BASIS.
Unfortunately, what Compton doesn't spend much time on are the barriers to a school like BASIS becoming the norm. He films interview after interview of various officials and executives lamenting the fact that the education establishment doesn't believe that the school's achievements can be reproduced in the public system, but he doesn't interview anyone defending that view. Including at least some direct response from those who oppose the kind of merit pay and high standards BASIS employs would help elucidate why such changes aren't being mandated when they are apparently so effective.
Similarly, we get brief glimpses of significant dramas that are never developed. When former Arizona State Superintendent Lisa Graham-Keegan looks on the verge of tears at her inability to get more of the state's schools to adopt BASIS practices, the moment begs for greater context. What reforms did she try to get Arizona schools to enact? Who opposed her? What was their argument for doing so?
In lieu of hard exploration, Compton falls back on remedial-level storytelling (because even documentaries should be engaging stories). With talking head after talking head, he tells us instead of shows us, and for all the important points those heads bring up, their talking isn't nearly enough. Indeed, all that 2 Million Minutes fails to address may be its most effective argument that the national conversation about our education system needs to grow much more focused and urgent. And Compton may grow in his filmmaking abilities as he finds endless themes on which to make new documentaries about the subject.