There has been an endless series of seemingly fruitless education reforms here at home to deal with the gap. Now comes an intriguing approach based on the insights of U.S. exchange students who spent a year in some of the most successful high schools in the world - in Finland, Poland and South Korea.
Author and journalist Amanda Ripley followed three exchange students for her new book, "The Smartest Kids in the World - and How They Got That Way," and argues that a way to improve academics and help American students compete in the modern economy is to de-emphasize school sports.
Instead, the United States should bring its sports-like passion and intensity to academics, she concludes. "High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high-school football practice in America," she writes. "There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted."
Sports are a distraction, Ripley argues, and most countries require them to take place outside of school. Trading in our school sports culture would require a huge change for Americans, who revere teamwork and sportsmanship as training for life. Whole communities are built around school sports teams, and colleges reward student-athletes with admissions and scholarships.
But playing down sports could pay off, as it has elsewhere, if we redirect money, focus and glory to learning.
One exchange student, Kim, studied in Finland, where she noticed that "the students here care more. They see how what they do now will affect them. It's more real to them."
Jenny grew up in South Korea and moved to New Jersey with her family for high school in 2011. She put it this way: "Kids in Korea have this thing inside them. They feel this necessity to study and get a good job and have a better life."
Finland ranks first in science, second in reading and third in math on the PISA - the Program for International Student Assessment - that's given to 15-year-olds. (The United States ranks 12th in reading, 17th in science and 26th in math.) PISA looks not at the test-takers' ability to memorize knowledge, but to reason and think critically.
South Korea ranks first in reading, second in math and fourth in science. Ripley is critical of memorization in Korean education, but she praises its high goals and the freedom students have to fail and recover through hard work - good lessons for American parents.
Too often, we don't ask teachers to give our kids harder assignments - and we're quick to complain about a failing grade. What's working elsewhere is to set ambitious goals for kids, and then allow them to discover that they have it within themselves to reclaim success from failure.
Each of the countries in "Smartest Kids" came to education reform after an economic crisis. Finland was losing jobs after graduating just 10 percent of its teens from high school in the 1950s. Today, the graduation rate is 95 percent.
Poland's wakeup came in 1999, as students consistently tested below average in reading. By 2009, they were outperforming U.S. students in all three PISA measures. In just a decade, Poland changed course, despite having similar levels of child poverty as the United States, and in spite of spending half the money per pupil.
Have the Great Recession and sluggish recovery been sufficient to persuade Americans to raise our school standards? We've tried so many "reforms" in education. Maybe what we need is a truly radical shift away from sports in favor of schooling.