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    Competition in the Classroom

    I recently read a piece from the fall 2009 edition of Education Next called “Reward Less, Get Less: Student performance gaps are easily explained.” The article came to my attention because it mentions Dr. Chavis in light of the documentary film he was in called Flunked.

    Flunked looks at what’s dragging down American public schools but primarily focuses on schools that are achieving, such as American Indian Public Charter School. Joe Mantegna (think Criminal Minds) is the narrator. You can find more information at

    Mark Bauerlein, the writer of the Education Next article, compares Flunked to another education documentary featuring international students called Two Million Minutes (which I have not seen). Bauerlein pretty much comes to the conclusion that American students can’t hold a candle to their more driven, international peers. The difference, he says, is competition.

    The motivation to study and learn, Bauerlein implies, is higher for the Asian students in China and India than for American students because the Asian students’ chances of getting into the university of their choice are lower and their desire to get out of poverty is higher. In order to forge better lives for themselves, the international students in Two Million Minutes study longer, work harder, and sacrifice more.

    Here’s an excerpt from the article featuring frightening statistics:

    “But American students appear unaffected by what one commenter after another says in Two Million Minutes: We are in a global competition, and we’re losing. From 1985 to 2004, the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded in math or science in this country fell from 21.7 to 15.8 percent. Engineering went from 9.8 to 6.2 percent, and the numbers won’t improve soon. On the 2006 American Freshman Survey, only 0.8 percent of entering college students intended to major in math, 0.5 percent in physics. These fields are a micro-niche.

    “For Asian students, though, math and science degrees are the way to prosperity. These students live with ‘economic uncertainty,’ the film explains, and view math and science study as a form of ‘economic opportunism,’ a ‘passport out of poverty.’ The girl from India wants to be rich, and she terms engineering the “safest” field. She attends a two-hour math tutorial that starts at 7:45 each Saturday morning, and after a break, three more hours of class follow…”

    Why don’t more American students look to education as a way out of poverty? We certainly give a lot of lip service to the notion that an education is the ticket to escaping poverty, but we don’t put those words to action as much as one would expect or hope.

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