I've done more analysis on a similar test called PISA, but I think it's worth bringing up in the context of this debate. In standardized testing there are often significant underlying factors that have nothing to do with the schools themselves. From the executive summary of PISA: "[In the United States], after accounting for socio-economic
background, the performance difference between students from single-parent families and those from other types of
families stands at 23 score points.... Parents’ engagement with their children’s reading life has a positive impact on their children’s reading performance." Consider that the divorce rate in the US is one of the highest in the world, 5 times that of China. This problem along with any others is one that needs to be considered in the context of education.
Also, PISA was not done on China, but rather on two specific cities: Shanghai and Hong Kong (similarly, TIMSS was done in Hong Kong). Along with Beijing, these are the most advantaged areas in China in terms of both money and education. The US administers PISA to a wide range of schools across the country. I imagine we would see much different results if PISA only tested Boston and some other advantaged city. The PISA study itself even notes that scores were much higher in urban schools. Other countries are either testing exclusively urban schools or urban schools at a higher rate than the US.
There are serious, serious problems with education in the US. But it's important to look at these studies with a critical eye and avoid the temptation to go off on a rant on how the US is bad at math. Data doesn't lie, but analysis is often wrong and/or exaggerated. In sum, problems with education in the US are deeply rooted in racial, social, and geographic issues. Better management practices and policy reform, while good, doesn't change the fact that the US isn't Singapore.
Canada was consistently ranked approximately fourth, a fact that seems to have been largely ignored.
I agree with some points in your reply. I don't think China as a whole is well represented by the schools in its most developed urban areas. The results from Shanghai in the most recently announced test to include Shanghai surely don't reflect what students from rural areas in China would do on the same test. But even agreeing with that point, I wonder if you've had a chance to take a look at what Ma's book
says about differing classroom practices and differing lesson content between the United States and China. China is very, very, very much poorer than the United States because of the lousy policies it had in the 1950s and 1960s. But its educational policies since the 1970s have been on an increasingly sound basis, and seem to be producing admirable results in economic growth with remarkably low school budgets. But please note that I never appeal to China as a country with country-wide results that are uniformly better than those of the United States. China is especially doing well on a resources-adjusted basis, while Singapore, Taiwan, and some other countries are just plain doing well nationwide, period. (I am most familiar with Taiwan, from much time living there.)
I also agree with the idea that it's important to look at education studies "with a critical eye" and it was with that in mind that I referred fellow participants on HN on several earlier occasions to the studies showing that United States schools are underserving the most able learners,
missing opportunities to reach the top end of mathematics achievement reached by other countries. "Data doesn't lie, but analysis is often wrong and/or exaggerated," I agree, and what I find is that some forms of analysis are not even attempted by many commentators on education policy. I think writings that are good examples of good analysis
are food for thought for those of us participating on Hacker News who seek ways to improve education wherever we live.