Sixty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading and science tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries last year, Shanghai's teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects. Hong Kong also ranked in the top four on all three assessments.
Though Hong Kong took part in earlier rounds of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the 2009 test marked the first time that youngsters in mainland China participated. It was only Shanghai—the country's flagship city, on which Beijing has lavished much investment and attention, many favorable policies, and (for China) a relatively high degree of freedom. But Americans would be making a big mistake to suppose that Shanghai's result is some sort of aberration.
If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009—Shanghai's population of 20 million is larger than that of many whole countries—it can do this in 10 cities in 2019 and 50 in 2029. Or maybe faster.
I have misgivings about PISA—about how it defines knowledge, what it tests, and how it tries to divorce itself from school curriculum. But its international rankings are widely trusted as a reliable barometer of how young people in different countries compare on core academic subjects.
How did Shanghai accomplish this? The OECD folks offer some explanations, terming Shanghai a "leader in reform." They specifically cite the city's near universal education system, its competitiveness (measured by student admissions to universities and to the best secondary schools), a very high level of student engagement, a modern assessment system, an ambitious curriculum, and a program to intervene in weak schools.
Today most cities and towns in China don't have these resources. But tomorrow is apt to be a very different story.
Also near the top on PISA were five countries that should come as no surprise: Singapore, Taipei, Finland, South Korea and Japan. In reading, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands also did well. The United States was, once again, in the middle of the pack in reading and science and a bit below the international average in math. So we're not getting worse. But we're mostly flat, and our very modest gains were trumped by many other countries.
Plenty of experts have been pointing out this trend for a long time. But until this week we could at least pretend that China wasn't one of those countries that was a threat. We could treat Hong Kong as a special case—the British legacy, combined with prosperity. We could allow ourselves to believe that China was only interested in building dams, buying our bonds, making fake Prada bags, underselling everybody else, and coating our kids' toys with toxic paint, while neglecting its education system.
Yes, we knew they were exporting Chinese teachers to teach Mandarin in our schools while importing native English speakers to instruct their children in our language. But we could comfort ourselves that their curriculum emphasized discipline and rote learning, not analysis or creativity.
Today that comfort has been stripped away. We must face the fact that China is bent on surpassing us, and everyone else, in education.
Will this news be the wake-up call that America needs to get serious about educational achievement? Will it get us beyond excuse-making, bickering over who should do what, and prioritizing adults over children?
I sure hope so.
Mr. Finn is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is a former assistant secretary at the Department of Education.