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U.S. Sinks in Student Test Scores; Hong Kong Worried About Avian Flu; Violence Continues in Syria; Bolshoi Attackers Sentenced; Bolshoi Acid Attack; Uruguay President Wants to Legalize Marijuana

Aired December 3, 2013 - 12:30   ET



FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CO-ANCHOR: All right. This might be a little depressing to many of our viewers. It is to me. New figures now from an international study suggesting U.S. students are falling behind their peers overseas. Every three years, 15-year-old students in more than 65 countries take tests to see how they're doing in math, science and reading

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Yeah. You would think we did pretty well. They call it the PISA Test, actually. Have a look at the most recent results now.

In math, students in Shanghai, China, topped the list, tested way above average. U.S. students, 26th in the world, but that's not all. In reading, Shanghai, top again. The U.S., 17th.

WHITFIELD: And in science, guess who is topping that list, Shanghai. U.S. students coming in at number 21.

HOLMES: Overall, when they worked it all out together, the list I saw had the U.S. at number 36.

Let's talk about this now. Steve Perry is --

WHITFIELD: You're very proud of where Australia is.

HOLMES: Not so much. We were ninth, and I think now we're 19th, according -- if I'm reading the list right.

Let's get to Steve Perry, principal of Capital Prep Magnet School in Connecticut, Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools.

What do we read into this? And the one overwhelming thing that you see in the top-1-, top-20 list, Asian countries.

MICHELLE RHEE: I think that if you --

WHITFIELD: Go ahead, Steve first.


I see it's about high expectations. We know what it's not. It's not the kids. The kids are manufactured the same way they've always been. But even in America, we find that the states that have the highest performance had the highest standards and highest expectations, not just the states, but the schools themselves.

We have this middle-class malaise of mediocrity in which students are expected not to be pushed because that makes them feel uncomfortable, where in other countries, comfort is not what we're talking about. It's about performance.


WHITFIELD: Michelle, how do you see it? If there is an explanation or maybe a host of explanations as to this kind of disparity, how do you kind of interpret it all?

MICHELLE RHEE, FORMER CHANCELLOR, D.C. PUBLIC SCHOOLS: You know, it's interesting, because if you look at the actual scores on the tests, America hasn't changed. And that's part of the problem, is that we've stagnated.

The issue is not that we as a nation have become worse. It's that other countries are actually leapfrogging ahead of us. So we are nestled in between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania, which is not where America wants to be. You've got countries like Ireland and Poland and Estonia who are ahead of where we are.

So the bottom line is that we as a country have to stop being complacent. We have to stop settling for just doing the same old thing over and over again, because in this global economy, it's going to mean that our kids won't be able to compete.

HOLMES: Yeah, I thought something Steve said resonated, too.

I've got a couple of teenaged kids. There is this sort of expectation that they shouldn't have to work too hard, that after school should be home time and all the rest.

Whereas you look at Asian countries, and I know -- I was in South Korea last year. Some of those kids go to school, they come home, they have dinner, then they go to school again for four hours to a separate school. It's an industry.

What does America need to do, Steve?

PERRY: What America needs to do is understand that these other countries are as many as three years ahead of us, so one student is three years ahead of an American student in other countries.

And that's not small. We're not talking about where the real issues lie. The real issues lie in the fact that we know how to run successful schools, but we keep running the schools that we're most comfortable with. Because, to run the most successful schools, there would need to be fundamental change. There'd need to be school choice. There need to be other options we do not often want to have the conversation around because it could mean, God forbid, that some people lose their jobs.

WHITFIELD: So Michelle, how do you see it? What is America's homework assignment?

RHEE: Look, if you look the an American culture today, we are so busy spending our time making our children feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of taking the time that is necessary to make them good at things.

So in America, every kid gets a trophy for soccer, whether or not they played, whether or not they scored, just merely for participating. And that's a problem in our society because we are not teaching our kids about competition. We are not teaching our kids to work hard and do the right thing.

WHITFIELD: Where did that come from? I don't remember that when I was little.


WHITFIELD: You get acknowledged if you make a good play.

HOLMES: If you show up.

WHITFIELD: But now kids are getting trophies for everything.

RHEE: Yeah, it's because -

PERRY: We actually make kids ---

WHITFIELD: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

RHEE: As we have evolved as a society, one thing that we have sort of taken on is this thing that we don't want to make kids feel bad about themselves. So in order to bolster self-esteem, we want to give every kid a medal. But in fact, the research shows that kids know the difference between real praise and false praise.

And so, when they're not getting real praise because of real accomplishments, we are creating a society where kids just are satisfied with mediocrity.

HOLMES: That actually -- that's something, again, as a parent, has always bugged me, that you show up you get a trophy without actually doing anything.

Steve, we can't be too unfair here. If you take Massachusetts in this study and turn Massachusetts into its own country, they would have finished sixth. So what -- as you say, not everything is created equal. What are they doing that other places aren't?

PERRY: Their expectations are higher. It's very clear. And they've been higher for years.

In fact, if you look at Massachusetts, Massachusetts has many poor communities. Massachusetts has minorities and immigrants and people who are special-ed and special needs, and yet and still, they're among the top performers in the world. We have to understand that the adults created this system. This is not about the kids who get the trophies. This is about the adults who are uncomfortable going home with a child who doesn't have a trophy. This is about the adult who doesn't want to sit home and help her or his child do a homework assignment that make up too much of their night.

We have to own that we, the adults, have to put our children first and create situations in which we push not just the children, but the educators who surround them. Too many of us are too comfortable with mediocrity. And as a result, as Michelle said, the rest of the world is moving forward. We haven't dropped. We're just losing in a race because we're not moving forward.

HOLMES: Look, I could talk about this all day. I think it's a fascinating discussion. It's going be a real talker around the country. Got to leave it there, though.

Steve Perry, Michelle Rhee, thank you so much. Maybe we'll do this again and have more -- expand on this, because it's important stuff.

WHITFIELD: So bottom line, school systems have a lot of work to do, so do a lot of families.

HOLMES: Talking about the future of the country. Yeah.


All right, thanks so much to both of you.

All right, now, for some other news making headlines right now, let's take a look. Hong Kong is on high alert today, worried about a possible outbreak of avian flu.

HOLMES: Yeah, you don't want to hear this.

Officials say a 36-year-old Indonesian domestic worker was taken to hospital after contracting the virus, in critical condition from what we're told at the moment.

The country has escalated the response-level plan, and here's why.

WHITFIELD: The World Health Organization says in the past 10 years, 651 cases of avian full were confirmed, and of those, 380 patients died.

The WHO says whenever flu viruses are circulating in poultry, sporadic infections or small clusters of human cases are possible.

HOLMES: Yeah. Especially in people exposed to infected household poultry, contaminated environments, and as Fred was saying there, the real worry about this is it is so deadly. The death rate from it is ridiculously high, compared to other flus.

WHITFIELD: And so alarming.

We're also learning more about the engineer who was at the controls when this deadly train crash happened in the Bronx this weekend. Law enforcement sources have told CNN the engineer told them that he was, quote, "in a daze" ahead of the crash that killed four people and injured dozens.

HOLMES: Another source says fatigue is a factor that is being investigated, confirming that. Now, investigators are at the crash site today. They're looking at the train's brake system to see if there might have been some sort of failure or not.

And we will have more on this developing story next hour with Wolf Blitzer.

WHITFIELD: All right. It was a horrible, heinous crime, an acid attack that almost blinded this man, the Bolshoi Ballet's artistic director. But now his that's correctors have found out how much time they'll be spending behind bars.


HOLMES: The violence continues in Syria today, a suicide bomber striking in the heart of the capital, an explosion in central Damascus targeting an office used by the relatives of slain government soldiers.

WHITFIELD: Authorities say at least four people were killed in the attack. More than 100,000 people have died in this civil war that has been raging since 2011.

A U.N. fact-finding team has found what it calls massive evidence that the highest levels of the Syrian government are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

HOLMES: Yeah, the U.N. report also blames the rebels for committing war crimes.

And they point to the fact that the majority of Syrian victims have been killed and wounded by conventional weapons and not chemical ones.

WHITFIELD: To find out how you can help those affected by this Syrian civil war, check out your world.

HOLMES: Let's turn to Russia now where Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet has long represented grace and culture, but a horrific attack happened that sounds more like a tragic play, and the drama that's played out more like an opera than ballet.

You may remember the story, a dancer and two others charged with throwing acid in the face of the Bolshoi's artistic director, Sergei Filin.

Now. as Atika Shubert reports, those attackers just found out how much time they're going to serve.


ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the home of the world famous Bolshoi Ballet company, but it also the scene for numerous allegations of corruption and scandal that have unfolded over the course of a month-long trial.

But today a convicted three men of organizing an acid attack on the former artistic director here, Sergei Filin. According to the judge, Pavel Dmitrichenko, a former soloist at the Bolshoi ballet, organized this attack in revenge for being rejected from a number of lead roles. He asked his friend and neighbor Yuri Zarutsky to rough up the artistic director, even though he didn't ask specifically for an acid attack.

But Zarutsky told the court that on his own initiative he threw acid into Sergei Filin's face causing three degree burns to his face and eyes, nearly totally blinding him. The third wan involved was Andrei Lipatov, who drove the getaway car. Now the judge gave six years to Dmitrichenko, 10 years to Zarutsky and four years to Lipatov.

Now, we've been told that the defendants will appeal, but that could take several more months. In the meantime, Sergei Filin has undergone 20 operations to try and restore his sight. He now only has 80 percent vision in his left eye, 90 percent vision in his right eye. And the Bolshoi now a tarnished reputation by corruption and scandal.

Atika Shubert, Moscow.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Investigators looking into the accident that killed "Fast and Furious" star Paul Walker are focusing in on the speed of the Porsche Carrera GT that Walker was a passenger in.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office has ruled out the theory the Porsche was drag racing or that a second vehicle was involved. It's believed Walker's friend, Roger Rodas, was driving at the time. The two had just left a holiday toy drive Walker was hosting for his charity. The $450,000 car is notoriously difficult to handle, even for professional drivers, with three times the horsepower of the average car and no electronic stability control.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: To Venezuela. A blackout leaving much of the country in darkness. The government says it appears to have been that the nation's overwhelmed electricity grid just couldn't take it anymore. But since the blackout happened during a television address by the president, there are some who believe that a little sabotage might have been involved. The situation now being investigated.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, you found one, yeah?


WHITFIELD: Oh, my gosh. This is unbelievable. OK. The hands there says it all. A hand reaching out to a diver. The gloved person is the driver, to rescue this man here, after a tugboat capsized in the ocean off the coast of Africa. It was thought that a dozen men drowned. But then when rescuers reached into this air pocket, a hand reached back. And that was 29-year-old Harrison Okene. He was in the bathroom when the boat sank and he had been under water for two and a half days in that little pocket.

HOLMES: That is unbelievable. And they got him out safe and sound.


HOLMES: Unbelievable.

WHITFIELD: Incredible.

HOLMES: Incredible. Yes. You wouldn't want to be the diver and this hand reaches out to you.

WHITFIELD: I know, it would be a little, you know, unsettling.


WHITFIELD: But at the same time, apparently he had a lot of -- a pretty good sense of humor about it.

HOLMES: Yes, happy story, happy ending from a tragedy, as you say, a dozen people did die in that.


HOLMES: All right, now, a call for help from Uruguay. The president asking the world to help him legalize weed.

WHITFIELD: All for an experiment to see if it would help stop illegal drug trafficking.


WHITFIELD: It's a call for help from Uruguay.

HOLMES: Yes, the president, Jose Mujica, is asking the world to help him legalize pot. Yes, that's right, wants to legalize the sale of marijuana.

WHITFIELD: Rafael Romo has more on this.

So, why is he pushing to legalize pot?

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Well, in his county it's about to become a law, but he wants to make it a regional law. Essentially change the policy of all the countries in Latin America to legalize marijuana. And this is what the president said to a Brazilian newspaper in his most recent interview. He said, "we ask the world to help us create this experience. It will allow us to adopt a sociopolitical experiment to address the serious problem of drug trafficking."

What the president is also saying is that when it comes to drug trafficking, the trafficking part is worse than the drug itself. Take a listen to what the president told CNN En Espanol back in September. We apparently don't have that part of the interview.

But the lower house of parliament in Uruguay has already approved a law that would legalize marijuana. The senate is about to do it. And the president said he would sign it into law. Now, it's not going to be a free-for-all. People who want to smoke marijuana in Uruguay have to register with the government and the government would have the monopoly on the production, the distribution and sale of marijuana. So it's not like people from other countries can just go and buy pot because it only applies to Uruguayan citizens.

HOLMES: Right. Just takes it out of the hands of the criminals. It will be interesting to see what happens. Keep us informed. Rafael, good to see you.

WHITFIELD: Thank you.

HOLMES: Don't be a stranger.

WHITFIELD: All right, a fairytale come true for one lucky buyer. One of Prince Diana's gowns up for auction.

HOLMES: Yes, bid now.


HOLMES: All right, now to a little bit of royal history that you can actually pick up at auction today.


HOLMES: Get on the phone.

WHITFIELD: And we're talking about a fairy tale gown once worn by Princess Diana. That one right there in the center. The ball gown is made of white organza and it has gold sequins, crystal, pearl beads embedded in it and it comes with a, wait for it, a matching headband.

HOLMES: Oh, it would looked great on you, too. The gown was made by the designers who created Princess Diana's wedding dress. It was actually one of her personal favorites. The London auction house where it is being sold says it could go for about $130,000.

WHITFIELD: Wow. All right. So the U.S. -

HOLMES: (INAUDIBLE) for a dinner party.

WHITFIELD: That's pretty nice.

The U.S. State Department under fire for breaking a record on how much it spends on liquor.

HOLMES: Who knew they spent anything on liquor.

WHITFIELD: I was just going to say that too. HOLMES: The - Yes, "The Washington Times" is reporting that officials went on a bit of a spree in September, bringing the total to the year to more than $400,000.

WHITFIELD: More than $11,000 in gratuity wine and whiskey at the embassy in Rio de Janeiro. They doubled that on wine at the embassy in Tokyo, more than $22,000.

HOLMES: Nearly $16,000 on bourbon and whiskey in Moscow.

Let's head off to the embassy, shall we?

WHITFIELD: And we'll leave it there.

HOLMES: Yes. The military, meanwhile, has been tracking Santa's reindeer flight from the North Pole for years on Christmas Eve.

WHITFIELD: No, but now they're adding jet fighter escorts to the mix. Check them out.

HOLMES: Are things that bad?

WHITFIELD: Oh, my goodness.

HOLMES: He needs -- he needs an escort? Oh, the problem is -

WHITFIELD: You've got to be safe.

HOLMES: Well, and some child advocates are saying, you know, military planes have no place in this childhood fantasy. A spokesman for NORAD, which, of course, stands for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, says adding the jets was part of the effort to give the program a more operational feel. What does that mean?

WHITFIELD: Hey, everyone gets into the holiday spirit. That's what it means. OK, that's a lot of fun there.

HOLMES: Yes. I -- I'm sorry. I'm shaking my head. Why do they need a military escort? The world has become that bad.

WHITFIELD: Because it's 2013.

HOLMES: Exactly. You never know what's out there. Watch out, Santa.


HOLMES: Thanks for watching "AROUND THE WORLD". We've got to run. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, an explanation from the engineer of the derailed commuter train in New York. He says he was in a daze. Investigators also just now releasing new information about the train, how fast it was going, when it precisely jumped the tracks.

Also right now, in Detroit, a judge has ruled the city can go ahead with its bankruptcy. It's a decision that could fundamentally reshape a major American city.

And right now, retailers are tallying up their Cyber Monday sales and it looks to be the biggest online shopping day in history.

Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We start with new developments in the deadly train crash in New York City.