...are not being produced by the U.S. education system.
When journalist Amanda Ripley points this out (based on PISA--Program for International Student Assessment--tests, on which students in such countries as Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, and France all score better than U.S. students) points this out in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, she makes it clear that she is not blaming the students. She is, in fact, blaming the American education system.
Ripley opens her book with a discussion of the PISA test, and its development, not by an educational theorist, but by a physicist named Andreas Schleicher, who wanted a more accurate and unbiased measurement for how students compare to one another on an international scale. The test is noted for its ability to measure students' ability to think critically (rather than just offering multiple choice questions), and that is the aspect in which many American students really struggle. Based on what she learned about that test, the author decided to follow American exchange students as they studied in Finland, Poland, and Korea, in order to get a more immediate feel for the differences in educational systems.
It was an interesting read. One thing I particularly liked about it was Ripley's debunking of the myth that American students struggle because the American child poverty rate is so high (20%--yet another measurement that Americans should not be proud of). She refers to this as the narrative that external factors (like poverty, negligent parents, etc.) are the problem with schools, and this is what she says about that:
"The only problem with this narrative was that it was habit forming. Once you start locating the source of your problems outside your own jurisdiction, it is hard to stop, even when the narrative is wrong." (p. 36.)
A few of the other differences between education systems that Ripley explores are other countries' more rigorous methods of selecting for and training teachers; the fact that in much of Europe athletics are completely divorced from school (the kids play sports, but sports are not really connected with school, and for the most part teachers elsewhere were horrified that teachers here often combine teaching duties with coaching ones); there is much less technology in international classrooms than in American ones; and students take school and studying much more seriously elsewhere (although, in the "pressure cooker" system in South Korea, this might not actually be a good thing).
And then there was this nugget, which warmed my heart, as I used to tell this to people at the library until I was blue in the face (and very few people seemed to listen):
"And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too...kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said." (p. 111--emphasis mine.)
The book is not perfect; at times Ripley seems to make somewhat contradictory statements (for instance: should control of education be more localized, or less? I thought her conclusions unclear on this point) and she doesn't seem to pay as much attention to the student she followed in Poland as to the other two. But those are small quibbles with an otherwise fascinating read. If you have school-age children, I'd look at it: there's some good ideas for how you can most effectively spend your time helping your children improve upon the embarrassingly low-ranked education available here.