Based on what people said at the forum, the core driver of mediocrity seems to be the dual function of the American school. A home-schooled child studies for three hours per day. A Russian child studies for about four hours, from just after breakfast until just before lunch (with 10-minute breaks, but no recess). Children are parked at an American school for 6-7 hours per day and thus necessarily much of the time is spent on stuff other than learning. This leads to the school becoming a place for “social/emotional development” during 2-3 hours per day. The “social/emotional” aspects were the foremost concerns of the parents at the forum. One mother described how the first 20 minutes out of a 25-minute parent/teacher conference were spent discussing a child’s social life during recess. This was not a complaint, just a response to the question of how such conferences were going. When asked what was on their mind, nearly every other parent led with “social/emotional.” It makes sense if you step back from the situation and ask “What is urgent for a parent?” Of course we would all like our children to be well-educated at age 25 (or 30?) when they are done with the master’s degree that is now our entry-level credential. But the immediate (and therefore urgent) goal is to see one’s child smiling. If a child comes home in tears because of something that happened at recess it would be a rare parent who would say “let’s talk about how what you learned writing this history essay is going to affect your performance in college.”
As this was a new principal and the forum was a place for open discussion, I asked if anyone had read The Smartest Kids in the World, which was a New York Times bestseller and recommended heavily by Amazon, The Economist, and various newspapers. Everyone in the room was either employed by a school or interested enough to take time to show up at this forum, but nobody had read the book. So I mentioned that the Russian system (not much better results than ours, but absurdly cheap to run by comparison) and the Finnish system had schools and teachers concentrate on the single mission of academics. Day care, sports, and social/emotional were handled by people other than teachers in venues other than school. Then I asked if there were state regulations that would prevent the town from setting up a Russian-style system in which teachers taught until lunch and then a separate set of employees took over for the lunch+afternoon social/emotional/daycare shift. That way parents could concentrate on academics when talking with teachers. The principal responded that “children aren’t built that way” (i.e., the American way of alternating academic and daycare activities for 6-7 hours is the only possible way to run a school).
Mediocre math standards are not a new issue.