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Monday, February 18, 2008

One Dad's Campaign to Save America

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008; 10:15 AM

Bob Compton may be wrong about American students losing out to our hard-working Indian and Chinese competitors, but he is astonishingly sincere in his views. Even if his country doesn't react to the international threat, he will. He has hired special tutors for his daughters, even though they already have top grades at a premier private school.

Compton, 52, is a high-tech entrepreneur and investor based in Memphis. His documentary film, "Two Million Minutes," has become a key part of a campaign known as ED in '08, which aims to push the next president toward big changes in U.S. schools. Compton and the ED in '08 backers, including billionaire Bill Gates, support the growing movement for more instructional and study time. Compton's message is that American kids are wasting much of their four years of high school--about 2 million minutes--on sports and jobs and television while Chinese and Indians are studying, studying some more and then checking in with their tutors to see what they still need to study.

I am not friendly to Compton's argument. I think the Chinese and Indian threat to the American economy is a myth. I have been convinced by economists who argue that the more prosperous they are, the more prosperous we are, since they will have more money to buy our stuff. I also believe that prosperity in previously troubled countries such as China and India promotes democracy and peace.

I do, however, like Compton a lot, and agree with him that our high schools need to be much better--not in order to beat the international competition but to end the shame of having millions of low-income students not getting the education they deserve. I admire a dad who applies his arguments to his own life in ways I never would. He is significantly increasing the amount of time his children are devoting to their studies, whether they like it or not.

"Let me tell you," he said in an interview, "I'm not liked at home. My daughters wish I had never gone to India. They wish I had never gone to China."

Educators at the St. George's Independent School are apparently not pleased with him, either. After a lengthy trip that inspired his 2007 book "Blogging Through India," Compton went to the expensive and well-regarded Memphis school, attended by his daughters, Elizabeth and Meredith, and asked the staff to recommend tutors in math and science. He wanted them to have extra help to accelerate their learning, as he saw happening at some of the best schools in India.

As Compton tells the story, the St. George's people were astonished that any father would think that St. George's students with top grades need tutors. When they failed to send any recommendations, he responded with words he knew they would understand: "I am your greatest donor. You are going to give me the name of a tutor, or I am not going to pay my next pledge."

"They finally relented," he said, "but they thought I was insane. In India you show your love for your child by getting the best tutors possible. In America you get a tutor if your kid's having a problem. Well, I disagree with that."

He also hired an Indian team to develop a program that would allow his daughters to take a second math course online at home. He could not forget that Indian students he met of the same age were way ahead of them. Next year, he said, his older daughter Elizabeth will be a high school junior but will take some of her classes at a local college. There is always a chance that Compton's daughters will rebel against this Asian-inspired regimen, but I suspect that like all dads, he knows that.

St. George's president and head of school William W. Taylor said the school welcomed Compton's ideas and has made some adjustments, but "we must ensure that any curricular changes that are made are in keeping with our commitment to promoting and sustaining a learning culture that emphasizes the development of well-adjusted and well-rounded students." Taylor also said "financial incentives do not direct or influence any pedagogical initiatives or decisions of the school, and they never will."

Compton's documentary, made with his money by filmmakers Chad Heeter and Adam Raney and screened for select audiences around the country, takes a vivid look at high-performing students in India, China and the United States. What irks Compton is that so many of the Chinese and Indian students he met and profiled want to be engineers, mathematicians and scientists, while those occupations seem less fashionable in the United States. He has spent his life creating or investing in new companies, creating many U.S. millionaires, but he and the entrepreneurs he works with are finding it more difficult to find qualified American engineers. They have to recruit abroad, particularly in India. It frustrates him that American high school students spend so much time on sports. He has persuaded his daughters, top swimmers, to drop out of all competitions except those for their school teams.

I gave him the usual arguments against the notion that our languid high schools are killing us in overseas competition. I pointed out that many commentators blamed U.S. schools for our losing markets to the Japanese two decades ago. When U.S. companies roared back in the 1990s, and the Japanese went into a slump, those same experts fell silent. I told Compton that his own early life -- as an undistinguished student at James Madison High School in Vienna and at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. -- showed that accelerated lessons in school were not necessary for the kind of success he has had. What made him the creative, productive and wealthy person he is was his own energy and imagination, and a free-enterprise economy that gives even B and C students more chances than A students in China and India have.

I argued that both China and India are weighed down by the 70 percent of their populations that are very poor and don't get to attend high school at all. Compton said that doesn't matter. Those countries are so large, he said, that they are going to produce more engineers than we do even though the percentage of their students who can go to high school and college is much smaller.

Neither of us is a soothsayer. We don't know what the future holds. If Compton's campaign results in a better education for his daughters and more efforts to improve our high schools and convince more American youth to try engineering, that is fine with me. But it seems to me that his documentary itself proves that we are unlikely to fall behind by much. Americans HATE getting beaten. "Two Million Minutes" seethes with distress over the possibility of America losing out, including a cartoon car race to show how many other countries pass us in average test scores.

If American living standards and economic opportunities ever slide from their high perch, if many of our students begin dreaming of jobs in India and China, rather than the other way around, perhaps we will hail Compton as the Paul Revere of the 21st century, put a statue of him in every public square and bring on a cultural and social revolution until we get back on top.

But I think we already have more than enough of that competitive spirit, embodied by entrepreneurs like Compton, to make the kind of lives we want for our children and grandchildren. I don't see any way we are going to lose that yearning to improve. And I think we will be pleasantly surprised at how much better we will feel about ourselves and the world when China, India and many other nations build the same kind of creative futures, trading ideas among each other and with us.

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