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.