Venture capitalist eyeing seventh education documentary

May 18, 2011

An entrepreneur and documentarian known for his investments in Indiana-based technology ventures is exploring a seventh education-reform film.

Bob Compton, best known in the education world for his 2008 documentary “Two Million Minutes,” comparing the United States' education system to those of China and India, returned two weeks ago from Singapore, where he was filming and doing research. He is contemplating a documentary on the country’s education system, which consistently ranks among the top in the world.

Compton’s Singapore trip comes just a couple months after the premier of his sixth documentary, “The Finland Phenomenon,” on the highly ranked education system in that country. A screening in Indianapolis is planned next month. It debuted at a meeting of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in March.

Compton spent a decade as a general partner at venture capital firm CID Equity Partners in Indianapolis and has invested in several high-tech Indiana firms, including Exact Target, Aprimo Inc., Interactive Intelligence Inc. and Compendium Blogware.

These days, he resides in Washington and spends most of his time on education documentaries, which have largely focused on what successful school systems do and how that might be applied in the U.S.

“In business, when you see high-performing companies, you try to study them to learn how they achieve their extraordinary results,” Compton said. “It only seemed logical to me to study the highest-performing education systems in the world and to understand how they achieve success.”

That study has taken him from far-flung countries such as India to high-performing charter schools in Arizona managed by BASIS Educational Group, which were the subject of his fourth documentary.

He’s boiled down successful school systems to four characteristics: a culture that emphasizes education; a narrow curriculum with heavy emphasis on core subjects such as math, science and English; teachers with deep knowledge – and master’s degrees – in subjects they teach; and plenty of options, from private schools to post-secondary vocational programs.

In the U.S., Compton believes it will be up to states, many of which have populations roughly the same as Finland’s 5.5 million, to carry out those changes. And he said Indiana, with its wave of recent reforms, is well-poised to do so.

Compton was instrumental in creating state programs that recognize and reward high-achieving math and science students. He maintains close relationships with Gov. Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett, the state’s public schools chief, and has casual conversations with them about what he’s learned from around the globe.

Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of Indiana University’s School of Education, supports Compton’s notion that employing lessons from the best-performing countries would help improve education in the U.S. Gonzalez notes, in particular, the level of esteem the teaching profession holds in countries such as Finland.

But he also acknowledges some cultural differences make those changes difficult, and reforms need to be made with such differences in mind. In the U.S., for example, a more diverse student population means it’s important for teachers to be able to differentiate instruction more than in Finland, Gonzalez said.

“We need to recognize the differences in the countries and the populations we’re teaching,” Gonzalez said. “You cannot take the Finland system and transplant it to the U.S.”

Compton’s films have been criticized by those on both sides of the education-reform debate. “Two Million Minutes” was rebuffed by teacher’s unions, and some education reformers took issue with aspects of “The Finland Phenomenon.”

He acknowledges altering the system won’t be easy.

“Any large, bureaucratic, unionized, complex organization that has existed for well over 100 years is very difficult to change,” Compton said.

But he’s hoping that by highlighting some of the world’s best practices, he can make an impact.

It’s too soon to say the exact focus of his Singapore project or when a film could be released. There’s a chance that, upon further study, he'll determine the country’s system is too similar to others he’s studied and will rule out the need for a documentary on that country.

He also has plans to look at some of the lower-ranked education systems. He’ll visit South America this summer and Russia in the fall.


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