Thursday evening here in Tucson I viewed a premier screening of the brand new film, 2 Million Minutes: the 21st century Solution. Now,  I am here to report that it is a poor and disappointing film, and inappropriately singles out one charter school program as “the solution,” without making an effective educationally grounded case for that school’s qualities.   This is a quickie, uninformed, film which does not reflect or convey a good understanding of teaching, learning, or contemporary best practice in 21st century education.  It is more a piece of propaganda and political advocacy than it is a film about, truly or deeply, teaching and learning.

I want to be careful here in my review to say that I am not seeking to criticize the subject school, BASIS, though I am, sharply, criticizing the film and film-maker who calls BASIS the best school in the world.  While I have a number of questions about BASIS, I admire its founders the Blocks, I commend them for their valiant efforts and outstanding successes in some quarters, and I am glad that BASIS offers Arizona families an additional, valuable educational option and alternative.  But I think the film that praises it does not serve it well; I think the film that praises it does not capture or convey any important insight about contemporary and/or effective teaching and learning.

I have to admit to a potential bias, of sorts, as the head of school at a school that, in some ways, is a competitor with BASIS in Tucson.  Full disclosure: read my comments with this knowledge.   But it is important for me to point out that I am an advocate for charter schools that are, indeed, “21st century solutions,” such as High Tech High in San Diego, New Technology High School, and CART in Fresno. I believe I am reviewing this film with my own, clear independent judgment.

It is not my purpose to review its production values.   The cacti, landscapes, and skyscapes were beautiful; the other elements of filming were poor, I thought.  Interviews were choppy, lighting inconsistent and sometimes bad, and the overall effect was a bit hurried and slapdash.  But that is not my area of particular interest.

Much of the film make various broad, political points about US education:  1- in the 25 years since A Nation at Risk was published, US education has continued to decline. 2. It is important to improving student learning in this fast-changing era, and to better prepare our kids for global competition.  3. Charter schools face opposition from many and varied quarters, but we, the US, should make fast changes to make easier charter school operations.  4.  The teacher unions, and “educational bureaucrats,”  have a stranglehold over educational reform and must be overthrown in order to make advances.  I suppose I agree with all these points, very generally, although there are many, many nuances I would think are important about each of this assertions that this, un-nuanced film,  mostly misses.

2Million Minutes also spends quite some time lionizing the founders of BASIS, and I am not complaining about this.   Michael and Olga Block have, to their credit, given their life to starting and lifting up this school, and fairly swiftly have taken it from nothing to the tip-top of the Newsweek 100 best high schools list.   Yes, that is an outstanding achievement, and huzzahs to them.  I do not think it is indicative of the school’s being “the 21st century solution,” but it is in itself a great thing.   I salute them, and think they deserve praise.

But this 55 minute film, after covering all the ground outlined above, plus a good five-plus minutes of showing gorgeous landscape photography of Tucson, doesn’t have much time left for what this blogger thinks is the most important thing: what is the teaching and learning here that is so great?

The film’s few claims for the excellence of teaching and learning are generic, vague, contradictory, and unsubstantiated.   It is said that students do better when we have very high expectations of them.   I think this is true, and I think it is true that some schools, sometimes, make the mistake of expecting too little .  But I think that there are many, many, many schools that do not make this mistake, and simply saying that it is important to have high expectations doesn’t offer a whole lot of information about the practice of holding high expectations.

BASIS is praised for its decision to hire only great teachers.   Well, this is very nice, but it is hard to find schools that don’t share this commitment.   The movie does next to nothing to clarify either what is meant by great teachers, or by what particular and specific means they hire them, rendering this advice rather empty.

One specificity is offered: they hire teachers without regard for their holding teaching credentials, and they hire subject experts, usually MA and Ph.D. holders.    This is good; this is actually saying something, which in this film of generalities I appreciate.   This is also something Intel’s Craig Barret makes a big point of, expressing his disbelief and irritation that he, as a Ph.D. in Physics with ten year’s teaching at Stanford, could not teach in a public school.   This is an important point, that we should not be restrictive in who can be employed to teach, and those of us in independent education strongly agree with this argument.   I have myself made this case, many, many times.   But I also know that to simply assert that better teaching will come from teachers with subject expertise can be a bit naive, and in an age when we need to be more intentional than ever about how and what we teach, it does not offer great value to the world to say that the 21st century solution will be found when we simply require subject expertise in our faculties.

Two other points are made about teachers.  First, it is said that they are given, at BASIS, great autonomy and room for creativity.    My own opinion is that autonomy is easy to claim but varies widely in the details; I prefer to say our teachers are given professional latitude, myself, because I think we as educational leaders have an obligation to coordinate and hold accountable our teachers in a way that true autonomy would not allow for.   I would also point out that this is a school that swears a great allegiance to the AP program of the College Board; it is my belief that most excellent teachers believe that it is impossible to reconcile true teaching autonomy within an AP curriculum.  So to say that the school is excellent for its provision of teaching autonomy is both a vague abstraction and a fierce contradiction to what is said in other parts of the movie, a mistake that a film-maker more informed about education than Bob Compton would not have made.

The second detail (there were so few) about teaching excellence at the school was the report that teachers are rewarded with bonus dollars, ($100 for a 5, $50 for a 4) for student success on the AP.   I don’t know what to say here.  It strikes me as crude and a bit demeaning to do this, and I will point out that Dan Pink is launching a new book with the argument that although you can effectively extrinsically reward conventional, inside the box thinking tasks, you cannot effectively extrinsically reward higher order thinking tasks.   I don’t think this kind of rewarding performance is reflective of contemporary best thinking in education, but I acknowledge there may be others of different ideologies who might think this is the cat’s meow.

Now, onto what little the film says about learning.  The school’s claim to excellence rests almost entirely on its record of AP exam success.   The only moment in the film when a BASIS educator refers to an external frame of reference is when Olga Block sings the praises of the College Board and its AP exams.   The school’s national claim to fame is its success on the Newsweek 100 best high school list, which is a formula driven ranking based solely on proportion of students taking the AP test.  (and IB, which I think is much better, but this film is only about AP).  In the brief moments discussing the details of the educational program at BASIS, (there is so little of this essential topic in the film!), the one thing we really learn is that students begin taking AP courses in the 9th grade, and that often they take one year AP courses over two years.    This is a school, the film reports, that has hung its hat on the AP– in an era when a very wide array of leading contemporary educational thinkers are sharply critiquing the AP as not reflecting contemporary evidence based best practices, and not supporting 21st century learning.   Ironically even the College Board has recognized the AP needs to change to better meet 21st century learning demands.  If the film had been entitled BASIS: the AP powerhouse, I would be fine with this.  But not the 21st century solution.

It also should be pointed out that the film, after saying that its 9th graders begin taking AP courses, says nothing about what happens in the classroom to make that work.   One commentator says it is hard to motivate students to do this challenging work (a teacher says in the film that “some think we are torturing the kids”), and then the film reports that it just happens.  We learn it is hard to come into school after 8th grade, and that the middle school preparation helps, which is a little bit of information, but not much.    We are told that the students have a lot of homework, but there is no discussion or explanation of how much homework they have, or what the trade-offs of this homework is.   We are told that the English curriculum focuses especially on grammar (and a student is depicted diagramming a sentence), but we are given no understanding of why this is valuable, or why it would be especially a 21st century solution (this blogger does not think that especially close attention to grammar is an especially 21st century teaching technique).  Similarly in Math there is mention of close attention to mathematical notation, when I would have been more intrigued by real-world mathematical problem-solving as being a topic of interest in a what is being described as a 21st century school.

There are a few short glimpses of classes in session, but we are told so little.  Do they have a block schedule or a traditional schedule?  How much do teachers lecture?  How much time, and how much attention, is given to active student engagement and learning by doing?  We are told and shown nothing of this.  We know students have to take the AP exams, but not whether they do independent research papers, and of what length and rigor, nor whether they do oral reports, presentations, or other demonstrations of learning mastery.   Nothing , other than the AP, is told to us about the assessment tools employed, or how assessment drives curriculum, as contemporary educators know it must.  Had an educator made this film, these are the things about teaching and learning we would have learned about.  Had someone made a film about High Tech High or NTHS,  we would have learned about these things, I believe, because these are the things the educators who lead those schools think about and talk about, and you could not easily overlook these topics.

There is, to the film’s credit, a moment when a student in a physics lab shares a cool scientific tool he is  using, and explains that he has this opportunity to pursue his intellectual interest.  I like this, I am glad for this, and yet, I will tell you, it feels bit perfunctory; it feels as if they are saying it because they know it ought to be said.  But maybe I am being too harsh.

The other perfunctory-feeling moment was when BASIS students were asked whether they had interests other than academics, and, well, methinks perhaps they doth protest too much.   It is great to see the kids talk about their interests in fire-breathing, in roller derby, in music.  I am gladdened by this, and I think this is so important.  But there is no explanation about how much or even whether this happens at school, and it simply overlooks the question of how the challenging (torturous)  “AP in 9th grade” homework-load might compromise this opportunity for students to broaden their development.   It employs what by now is the film’s familiar rhetorical trope- “some might say that we couldn’t also do sports or music in this school setting, but guess what, we can.”  I don’t find this very thoughtful, informed, or persuasive.

There is no reason to be especially surprised at the film’s disappointment.   Bob Compton, the 2 Million Minutes film-maker, is not an educator, he is an activist.   These are not films about teaching and learning; they are films claiming that the sky is falling, that China is overtaking us, and that only if we teach a hard-core, accelerated, developmentally inappropriate, whole child depriving, content mastery but skills deprived curriculum of the type that, to some extent, the AP exemplifies, will we hold off the Chinese hordes.  I don’t know whether this statement is an accurate description of BASIS, I hope it is not, but Compton, I believe, has not done justice to BASIS, and if I were a BASIS educator, I would feel as I had been used, and that my school were being exploited to serve a political agenda rather than being truly celebrated for outstanding practice in teaching and learning.    But true 21st century educators, like Tony Wagner, Dan Pink, Ken Kay, High Tech High, New Technology High School, and so many others, who are actually educators, and are intentional educators, know better.   If only a film were made (better made, I would hope) about their work as the true 21st century solution.

One more topic here.   The film has a brief section where the point is made that no national foundation, not Gates, Broad, or any other, has come to visit BASIS, or offered to support BASIS.  In his Q&A session after the film, Compton talked about this at some length, and was quite nasty in suggesting that Gates (himself and/or his foundation) has lost interest in education, and/or just doesn’t get or appreciate BASIS.   This is inaccurate and absurd, and again reveals Compton’s biases and lack of information.   Gates most certainly is still interested in education, and he is funding many charter high schools including both of my favorites, High Tech High and New Technology High School.   The lack of Gates foundation support for BASIS does not reflect poorly on Gates (which Compton clearly suggested it did), it reflects that the Gates foundation is savvy enough to know what really is, and what really isn’t, 21st century education, and, I am sorry to say, it reflects poorly on BASIS.