"That speaks about who is going to be leading tomorrow."
So said Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Every three years, the Paris-based OECD holds its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the reading, math and science skills of 15-year-olds in developing and developed countries. Gurria was talking of the results of the 2009 tests.
Sixty-five nations competed. The Chinese swept the board.
The schools of Shanghai-China finished first in math, reading and science. Hong Kong-China was third in math and science. Singapore, a city-state dominated by overseas Chinese, was second in math, fourth in science.
Only Korea, Japan and Finland were in the hunt.
And the U.S.A.? America ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, producing the familiar quack-quack.
"This is an absolute wake-up call for America," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "We have to face the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investment in education."
But the "brutal truth" is that we invest more per pupil than any other country save Luxembourg, and we are broke. And a closer look at the PISA scores reveals some unacknowledged truths.
True, East Asians -- Chinese, Koreans, Japanese -- are turning in the top scores in all three categories, followed by the Europeans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.
But, looking down the New York Times list of the top 30 nations, one finds not a single Latin American nation, not a single African nation, not a single Muslim nation, not a single South or Southeast Asian nation (save Singapore), not a single nation of the old Soviet Union except Latvia and Estonia.
And in Europe as in Asia, the northern countries (Finland, Norway, Belgium, Iceland, Austria, Germany) outscore the southern (Greece, Italy, Portugal). Slovenia and Croatia, formerly of the Habsburg Empire, outperformed Albania and Serbia, which spent centuries under Turkish rule.
Among the OECD members, the most developed 34 nations on earth, Mexico, principal feeder nation for U.S. schools, came in dead last in reading.
Steve Sailer of VDARE.com got the full list of 65 nations, broke down U.S. reading scores by race, then measured Americans with the countries and continents whence their families originated. What he found was surprising.
Asian-Americans outperform all Asian students except for Shanghai-Chinese. White Americans outperform students from all 37 predominantly white nations except Finns, and U.S. Hispanics outperformed the students of all eight Latin American countries that participated in the tests.
African-American kids would have outscored the students of any sub-Saharan African country that took the test (none did) and did outperform the only black country to participate, Trinidad and Tobago, by 25 points.
America's public schools, then, are not abject failures.
They are educating immigrants and their descendants to outperform the kinfolk their parents or ancestors left behind when they came to America. America's schools are improving the academic performance of all Americans above what it would have been had they not come to America.
What American schools are failing at, despite the trillions poured into schools since the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is closing the racial divide.
We do not know how to close the gap in reading, science and math between Anglo and Asian students and black and Hispanic students.
And from the PISA tests, neither does any other country on earth.
The gap between the test scores of East Asian and European nations and those of Latin America and African nations mirrors the gap between Asian and white students in the U.S. and black and Hispanic students in the U.S.
Which brings us to "Bad Students, Not Bad Schools," a new book in which Dr. Robert Weissberg contends that U.S. educational experts deliberately "refuse to confront the obvious truth."
"America's educational woes reflect our demographic mix of students. Today's schools are filled with millions of youngsters, many of whom are Hispanic immigrants struggling with English plus millions of others of mediocre intellectual ability disdaining academic achievement."
In the public and parochial schools of the 1940s and 1950s, kids were pushed to the limits of their ability, then pushed harder. And when they stopped learning, they were pushed out the door.
Writes Weissberg: "To be grossly politically incorrect, most of America's educational woes vanish if these indifferent, troublesome students left when they had absorbed as much as they were going to learn and were replaced by learning-hungry students from Korea, Japan, India, Russia, Africa and the Caribbean."
Weissberg contends that 80 percent of a school's success depends on two factors: the cognitive ability of the child and the disposition he brings to class -- not on texts, teachers or classroom size.
If the brains and the will to learn are absent, no amount of spending on schools, teacher salaries, educational consultants or new texts will matter.
A nation weary of wasting billions on unctuous educators who never deliver what they promise may be ready to hear some hard truths.