Below average: The Spicolis of the world 

The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment were released last week, and compared to their international compatriots, American kids are a bunch of wall-eyed mouthbreathers who can't do math.

OK, not exactly. But who doesn't love a little hyperbole in the face of bad news? The PISA scores unarguably reflect a disturbing trend in American education: Basically, we're not trending whatsoever.

Statistically, the U.S. ranked 26th out of 34 countries assessed by the France-based Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in mathematics. Hopefully you don't need a calculator to see that's below average.

No one's surprised to see Hong Kong, Korea and Japan dominate the top scores; those kids eat algebra flakes for breakfast.

But dude, we were beaten by Estonia. The PISA test doesn't have a geography section, but considering the results of another educational assessment test, most American high school students don't even know where Estonia is. (It's hiding on the western edge of Russia, across the Baltic Sea from Finland. Yes, I had to look it up. By the way, it's unlikely Estonia will remain unheard of for long: This tiny former Soviet country has only had the internet for like five minutes and is already leading the charge in e-commerce, producing over 1 percent of its GDP from information technologies.)

Let's face it: In the fast times of the world's classroom, the American kid is Spicoli. The bureacrats can blow endless hot air about "preparing our students for the global marketplace" and "technology skills blahblahblah," but our happy-go-luckies know they can fritter away the afternoons surfing and playing Minecraft and still live in the wealthiest democracy that ever existed.

Do you hear Mr. Hand shaking his head and muttering, "You're just not living up to your potential, son"?

When it comes to reading and science, the U.S skates in at right around average compared to other OECD countries. What's wrong with average, you ask? Maybe we're not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but at least there's some electricity moving through the synapses, right?

Except that our C-to-C minus scores haven't changed at all since the last PISA 10 years ago, while poor countries like Poland and Ireland showed vast improvements. That means for all the money shoveled in educational assessment programs in the past decade, American educational scores have stayed stagnant as a pond next to the nuclear waste dump.

Some will say that the PISA scores don't mean so much that we're getting dumber; it's just that the other countries are getting smarter. Really, what's the difference? It's a global game now, baby, and our kids are sitting on the bench examining their navels while their Asian and European counterparts bounce in free throws off the backboard. (Come to think of it, that's a ridiculous metaphor. Everyone knows that if this was a basketball contest, we would be killing it.)

The flip side is that often out of navels comes brilliance — some of the worst test takers have gone on to become the geniuses and entrepreneurs who invent Silicon Valley or take cancer treatment to the next level.

According to education expert and Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, the "can-do spirit" of America can't be measured by international tests.

"The scores tell us nothing about students' imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity," wrote Ravitch last week.

If we continue to ruler-slap our kids for their lame international rankings, she continues, "we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years."

No one is suggesting that we turn our climate of creative capitalism into factories full of blank-faced automatons spewing out calculus formulas. But we've spent a crapton of money on programs to address our poor performance that seem like the exact opposite of actual education. Literally billions have been spent trying to figure out how to make our kids perform better on tests like PISA while schools themselves are starved of educational resources. We're the rich kids whose parents keep trying to buy good grades instead of sitting down at the kitchen table and helping with the homework, and it just doesn't work.

No Child Left Behind promised results but punished teachers, and the Hunger Games-esque Race to the Top pit already struggling schools against each other for funding. Talk about suffocating that "can-do spirit"!

Now it's corporate-sponsored Common Core, a set of "robust and relevant to the real world" standards spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Higher standards are good. But expecting teachers and students to accomplish them in the trenches of our broken public school system is a level of magical thinking straight out of Hogwarts. How can your raise standards when the old ones aren't even being met? Over a quarter of American sophomores still don't even meet the baseline math proficiency at which students "begin to demonstrate skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life." The OECD report doesn't specifically list what those productive life skills are, but surely they surpass the simple ability to operate a cash register while simultaneously asking "would you like extra horsey sauce with that?"

The rabid controversy over Common Core makes the Affordable Care Act look like a Disney rave: Objections range from extreme right-wing nuttiness about federal mind control to the justified outrage of burdening our teachers with the new standards but no new materials or funds to implement them.

We say we want to grow engineers and scientists in this country, but budgets for new computers and lab facilities continue to be chopped. Teachers are dealing with a constantly shifting foundation, trying to navigate overstuffed classrooms and administrative commands.

Students — our kids — are tested to hell and back on subjects they may not have had time to understand.

Throw in a coarsening culture where third graders regularly drop F-bombs at recess and an epidemic of special needs diagnoses that each come with a separate and unique individual education plan, and it's no wonder American education is a snarl of unfocused chaos.

It seems like America's performance in the global classroom probably won't improve until we have the courage to address it in the context of our particular cultural and socioeconomic problems: The disparate poverty gap, our hellacious nutritional habits (including their effects on brain development) and the ultimate elephant sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap, race relations.

Maybe it's time for America to stop trying to keep up with the rest of the world's test scores and instead focus our standards on how to become good global citizens — perhaps our role isn't to churn out math prodigies, but well-rounded leaders.

But what I do know? I was pretty sure Estonia was the capital of Delaware.


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Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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