When the topic of America's mediocre international ranking in student achievement comes up, there are a few typical reactions among adults.
Invariably, there's denial: Our students are more creative and innovative than those in countries that produce robotic test-takers. The test is somehow flawed. Those low-performing students must be at other (read: poor) schools.
Or there's anxiety: Our children are going to be left behind in the global economy. This fear leads those who can afford it to pour more time and resources into their children and their education, continually upping the ante and the latent stress levels.
And, of course, there's blame. Pick your target: lazy students, bad parents, lousy teachers, greedy unions, inefficient bureaucracies, not enough government funding or too much governmental meddling. It's easier, though ultimately futile, to scapegoat than commit to ideas of how we can improve our system.
Each of these knee-jerk reactions miss the most disquieting questions of all: Why do the most privileged American teenagers in the best schools and with well-educated parents still perform worse in math than affluent children in 27 other countries? Why does our country spend more than other countries on students but get less in performance? Why has America's performance on a common measuring stick remained essentially flat for decades, while students in other countries have skyrocketed to the top in a short amount of time?
Journalist Amanda Ripley investigated these mysteries in her book "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way." She took the Program for International Student Assessment herself and found it to be a sound yardstick. She then followed three American teenagers who chose to spend a year in school at one of three high-performing countries: Finland, South Korea and Poland. She looked at what American schools, students and families were doing differently than their counterparts in the top-performing countries.
She, and the students she followed, discovered curricula and schoolwork far more rigorous than ours in their schools abroad. They met teachers who were better prepared to teach and more respected for their profession. It was harder to become a teacher in these other countries. Their selective teacher training schools attracted the brightest and best. Their cultures ingrained high expectations for all students, and the competition among peers raised the bar. While the American communities focused heavily on sports, the countries with the smartest students focused on academic skills, critical thinking and training programs.
Ripley's work should inform the current discussion about President Obama's proposal to offer two free years of community college to any student who maintains a 2.5 grade-point average and makes progress toward a degree or technical certificate in a high-demand field.
There is an appeal to the idea of making the basics of higher education available to all students willing to work for it, to give them a shot at the American dream. It's in the country's best interest to have a trained and educated workforce that can fill the jobs at home and grow the economy.
But how well do community colleges actually perform? They tackle the outcome of an underperforming K-12 system. They serve close to half of all undergraduates in the U.S., and nearly half those students require remedial coursework. It seems ludicrous to inject rigor into a system struggling to bring students to baseline, doesn't it?
But consider the natural consequence of setting the bar too low: "Far too few of those students persist to achieve the educational outcomes that would change their lives and their families' lives for generations to come. By six years after college entry, only 46 percent of community college students have earned a certificate or associate degree, have transferred to a 4-year institution, or are still enrolled," wrote Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, in a 2012 opinion piece.
Yes, community colleges expand college attainment rates for students who otherwise wouldn't attend college at all. Making higher education more accessible is an important goal. But community colleges -- as well as our lagging K-12 schools -- should take this proposal as a challenge to incorporate greater academic rigor, high expectations and consequences for all vested parties.
Are we less willing to have that discussion because deep down, we don't believe American students can be the smartest in the world?