We have education all wrong. Politicians, educators, and number-crunchers alike all decry the current state of American education, claiming that we can't possibly compete in a world in which our children are under-educated and continually beaten on tests by foreign students. They are right to criticize our system of education, but they do so for the worst reasons imaginable. I say, let the Asians and Europeans pass us on those math and reading standardized tests. They don't mean squat.
For those readers out there advanced in the professional world (excluding professors), how much of your K-Bachelor's knowledge do you use? By that, I mean, can you recall any of the immense amount of data you stored in your mind for short periods of time, namely until the next test? I bet you can't take the derivative of x. What the vast majority of adults get out of their undergraduate education is formation of their character that makes them who they are today. Their ability to cope with adversity, cooperate with others, innovate, expand, they built on all of these during your time at school. Then, they either picked up a profession or went to grad school, at which point they learned the actual knowledge they needed to succeed at their given job. What didn't they need to know? How to take the derivative of x.
I could care less that the average Japanese kid is better than the average American at math. I'll admit that standardized tests do measure the important ability to synthesize and recall data, but they accomplish little more than that. Before the rise of meritocracy, education was all about building character, a moral compass, and the skills and traits requisite to succeed in any given circumstance. That world had immense faults: it was an old boy's club that only allowed the most privileged a spot at the table, but it was right to emphasize building the student, not filling the student's head with useless data.
So, stop worrying about test scores, how many AP classes a kid is taking, or how many extracurriculars they excel in. That won't matter nearly as much in the long run as how much they grow as a person when in those tasks. If kids continue on their trajectory of accepting authority and just chewing up numbers and facts thrown at them in class, we will lose the emphasis on individuality and innovation that has made our nation so dynamic. We need to fundamentally change our system of education back to the time when it fostered these qualities, not the ability to take a derivative.