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Can You Top A Rural Indian School Kid?

How bad have American high schools become? A new documentary film tries to drive home just how dumbed down the average U.S. high school is these days by comparing the experiences of American teens with their counterparts in rural India and China.

The movie, Two Million Minutes, makes the case that we have moved so far away from delivering a common foundation of basic and essential teaching of history, geography, math, science and grammar that our kids leave high school with a bogus belief that they have been educated, while students in economically impoverished Third World places are still being drilled in a fairly comprehensive and rigorous curriculum.

How poorly do we compare? Take the Third World Challenge and compare yourself to a rural Indian tenth grader: These are tests from rural Indian schools, and while a couple of them assume a fair amount of India-specific knowledge (I flubbed a couple of questions on the history test because, for example, I had no clue who was known as the father of the Indian National Congress [it's Allan Octavian Hume].)

But the questions in the math, science and English grammar sections require no regional knowledge. Truth be told, these questions actually seem considerably easier than those on your basic SAT and SAT II (what we older folks knew as the Achievement tests) exams that the upper quarter of U.S. students take. But the tests in the Third World Challenge are taken by a much wider swath of students than the SAT and the film's argument is that while the best American students still work hard and get a decent education, it's the average budding citizen who is shortchanged by lowered expectations and a pop mentality that has crowded out the basics of a high school education.

"When it comes to school, America is a sports and extracurricular culture and our kids get that message," the filmmakers say. "On the other side of the globe, the Indian and Chinese cultures are quite different and better suited for the economic competition of the 21st century. In high school, academics are the priority, with sports played for exercise and team building."

To the tests: I aced the grammar quiz (I should hope so) with all 15 right, but my performance on the history (8 of 15) and biology (7 of 15) tests was miserable. I spared myself the humiliation of the physics test (I managed to drop out of physics classes in both high school and college, in both cases within two weeks of starting the subject.

How poorly did you do? Were you thrown by the peculiar grammar of the Indian tests? Does the fact that Indian kids do well on these exams and American kids do not really indicate weakness on the part of our high schools, or do you think there are counterbalancing advantages to our system?

Coming up at noon today--and staying on the big website for the next week--my discussion about the future of Washington's libraries with D.C. Public Libraries director Ginnie Cooper and the director of Ralph Nader's Library Renaissance Project, Robin Diener. That's Raw Fisher Radio at

By Marc Fisher |  July 15, 2008; 10:01 AM ET
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We lost as soon as we began focusing on diversity and equality and self-esteem and pandering to the weakest links in the educational system instead of academic achievement. See those other things are harder to evaluate and let the academic mafiosi claim results without having to actually produce them.

Posted by: Stick | July 15, 2008 10:31 AM

And here in lies the main reason why our public school educational system (across the board, not just DCPS) is screwed.

We have failed at least two generations of school kids, and probably more.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 15, 2008 10:41 AM

Man, that was depressing. I missed one on the grammar (and take issue with it, both answers were grammatically correct), did much better in biology than anticipated, and was HORRID in Geography. I didn't take the History test, but I think I suffered in geography as it was a bit more Asia-centric than I was ready for. Or at least, that's what I'm using for an excuse!

Posted by: OrganicGal | July 15, 2008 11:11 AM

"our kids leave high school with a bogus belief that they have been educated"

I blame that on a local high school (identified here only as AHS) where the assistant principal told me (a teacher) that my job was to make my students, and more importantly my ESOL students to pass their SOL test and not teach them biology.

If they wanted to learn they could do that once they had graduated.

Posted by: Norm | July 15, 2008 11:15 AM

I did well on Physics, Math and Bio, but I think I got ripped off on one of the math questions. If you have 20 tickets numbered 1 - 20 what is the probability of pulling a prime number. I said 9/20 and it said I was wrong the answer was 2/5, I don't think that is correct. 1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19 is 9 nummber out of twenty hmm?

Posted by: Andre | July 15, 2008 11:36 AM

Interesting, but it is rife with either grammatical errors, factual errors/missteps, translation problems or extremely poorly phrased questions at least in the history section. Here are three examples:

"Which of the following is not the official language of the UN?" instead of "Which of the following is not AN official language of the UN?"

"How many permanent members of the Security Council have veto power?" is either a trick question or written by someone who appears not to know that ONLY the permanent members of the Security Council have veto power. Better would have been either "How many permanent members of the Security Council are there?" or "How many members of the Security Council have veto power?"

"The weakness in one way is the hidden cause for the escalation of cold war in the world." (True/False) I'm not entirely certain that I know what this question it asking if weakness in the gov't/system of gov't of either the US or USSR caused the Cold War to escalate?

Posted by: BobT | July 15, 2008 11:38 AM

I don't think 1 counts as a prime number. A lot of these questions were strange (I'm thinking of the history one that asked for the most tragic outcome of the end of WWII). There are pros and cons to both systems. At the higher levels, I think ours works better because it gives students a stronger background in critical thinking and analogous reasoning (I'm comparing myself to my cousins who came over from India to go to college here). But at the lower levels, there's a strong argument that the median student in India is probably better educated than the median student here.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 15, 2008 11:42 AM

Another factor to consider is that schoolchildren around the world also manage to learn English as a second language and in many cases, additional languages on top of that. Many are multi-lingual by the time they are teenagers.

Here, on the other hand, many schools don't even introduce a second language until high school, and even then the coursework isn't substantive and the instructors often subpar. My niece and nephew--both excellent students by U.S. standards--are graduating from high school with only the most rudimentary knowledge of a second language.

Posted by: Glover Park, DC | July 15, 2008 11:43 AM

Oh, and I did ok on history. I thought that the UN Commission on Human Rights was part of the ILO and not UNICEF and didn't know beans about the "Quit India" movement.

Also, moving on to is another question with problems:

Which of the following countries of Africa has luxurious tropical rain forest?
Your answer choices are Ivory Coast, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the Union of South Africa. Apparently, the answer is the Ivory Coast, though I picked Kenya because I've been there and WORKED IN A RETREAT CENTER FOR AFRICAN MISSIONARIES IN THE MIDDLE OF the KAKAMEGA RAIN FOREST () So, other than that.....

Other than that, I spit the bit on a question or two Who produces the most bauxite, Which river has the world's longest river island), but they were very clear.

Posted by: BobT | July 15, 2008 11:46 AM

Ah, 1 not prime, quite tricky indeed. I bet it will be the trig that kills everyone.

Posted by: Andre | July 15, 2008 12:22 PM

"In high school, academics are the priority, with sports played for exercise and team building."

With all due respect in America kids have a better shot at making money in a sport or some sort of entertainment field. Their parents know that. Who would want a career a teacher or librarian making $30K when you could put a ball in a hoop for 30 million? I'm not saying the priorities are correct, but I'm being realistic.

Posted by: GLT79 | July 15, 2008 2:55 PM

I disagree GLT79; your chances of making 30 million to sink a ball in a hoop is about on par with your chances of winning 30 million in the lottery - you have to be the best of the best of the best and not get injured along the way to make big money in sports. So if you don't have that kind of talent, you need something to fall back on.

I'll give you that a kid has a good chance of making a living in a sports field in general - but more likely as a coach or athletic trainer making about what a teacher can make.

Posted by: J | July 15, 2008 3:30 PM

It's been obvious for decades that the american education system is lacking compared to just about everywhere in the world. People always illustrate India and China when talking of rigor in their education that produces highly educated students prepared for the global work force. I must also highlight that African countries as well, probably just about all of them, also are far better educated than American students. People often always forget about the continent of Africa in terms of education. Those African students that are fortunate to go to a good school, and believe it or not there are numerous good schools in Africa are also more well rounded and well educated, than our American students. Lets not forget GLOBALLY, including Africa, Americans are behind.

Posted by: Tye | July 15, 2008 4:48 PM

I agree that many third-world nations have tougher basic educational standards than we do, but then how is it that in India and Africa a high percentage of the population still lives in abject poverty without basics like toilets or potable water? Evidently this superior education reaches only a select few.

Posted by: Lila1 | July 15, 2008 10:57 PM

Y'know, what's really scary is that this column is written by someone who is very interested in education, yet has no knowledge at all about physics and sees absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | July 16, 2008 9:31 AM

I'd say that I, like Marc, don't have MUCH knowledge of physics (took it in HS many moons ago), but I would argue that Marc (and hopefully, myself) know about physics through practical application and real-word examples vs. book learning.

Also? I'm guessing that neither of us (I didn't, Marc!) majored or minored in physics. And there is nothing wrong with that unless in our overwhelming need for math and science graduates we're going to start forcing kids to major in math or science fields at gunpoint.

Posted by: BobT | July 16, 2008 11:08 AM

Honestly, with just a quick preview of the tests but with a summer in Indian schools behind me, I can say that these tests are ridiculous. Not too many of the rural educated are using these FACTS (and 1 is not a prime number, by the way).

I spent last summer in India as a teacher-observer, IN schools, and rote memorization is alive and well all the way up to 12th standard (grade). I agree we need more memorization of basic facts here in our lower grades, but upper level Indian students are clamoring for more creativity. They are bored to tears - it was the number one complaint I heard. The new National Curriculum actually demands LESS rigor and MORE student engagement in learning.

Posted by: Linda | July 16, 2008 3:56 PM

Hey Marc, I am from India. Now grown to 26 years and have completed my post-graduation and MBA. In terms of intellect, yes, Indians do have a better knowledge of Maths and science as compared to the kids of first world countries. But have you ever seen any Indian, who is highly educated and has reached the top position in any sphere? I give you a few names: L.N. Mittal (Mittal steel), Azim Premji (Wipro-IT), Anil & Mukesh Ambani (Relaince Group). None of them have big academic honours to support their success. Its purely the business acumen that gave them the path to succeed. Yes, most Indians do find a job in a good well paying MNC, but most of these companies are based in U.S.
Lets come to sports. Where does India rank in the medal tally at the olympics? India celebrates when we get even a bronze at the Olympics. China definitely is far better in that sphere. Well forget that. How many sports authorities, peace keeping agencies and world organizations have been formed by India and China? What efforts is India making towards reducing Global warming?
The education system in India makes you realize that just be happy with your daily bread and butter. Dont dream for a cake or some wine. That is the main reason why we are lacking in enterpreneurship, innovation and leadership. Americans are always aloowed to think freely and that is why they always try to innovate and improvise. It is easier to criticize your own systems but in reality India will always be producing cheap labor and U.S. will be employing them. It is like a food chain. Nothing goes out of it.

Posted by: Gaurav | July 17, 2008 4:04 AM

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