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US report card: $115,000 for a C minus?

Saturday, 7 Dec 2013 | 7:00 AM ET

Well, the results are in and, guess there's no other way to put this: We stink. Well, maybe not so much stink as just we're really, really so-so. And our mediocrity costs a lot.

I'm talking about the latest round of testing 15-year-old students worldwide. The best the United States could do was place 17th in reading. In math we were 26th and in science we were 21st. In fact, the U.S. scored at or just below average in each category, so figure a C minus overall. China and other Asian nations took most of the top spots. Finland, a past champ, dropped a few rankings.

Now there's a lot of debate about this so-called PISA exam. The questions are fairly straightforward. Give this one in the box a try. The answer is at the bottom. If you want more sample questions, go here.

But some argue the test, administered by the Euro-centric OECD in 65 countries or "economies", doesn't check out a valid sample of U.S. students. Others argue that China stacks the deck, only offering up its best urban students and none from the hinterland.

Whatever. If the U.S. slammed the ball out of the park in the first place no one would be debating ground-rule doubles.

Besides our national pride taking a hit (imagine if these were Olympic results?!), this is a money issue: We're wasting it.

We spend about $115,000 in total educating a kid, according to the OECD, more than most countries. Yet this is the best we can do?

If you look at bang-for-the-buck among various selected countries, shown here in two graphs (total education cost per student and the result on the math portion of the PISA test), you see the U.S. isn't doing so great (although Luxembourg may have a bigger gripe).

Japan spends less than the US per student, the equivalent of about $89,000, yet performs much better. Same story with our neighbor to the north.

Just to rub it in, the OECD made it a point to note that the Slovak Republic spends less than half as much as the U.S. yet scores on a par with the United States. Also important to note: China's education costs apparently couldn't be obtained by the OECD. And the scores and rankings of some countries, including the U.S., could be affected by sampling errors, the OECD cautioned.

Nevertheless, the numbers tell a pretty unprofitable tale. The U.S. currently spends close to $1 trillion a year on education. Yet the country's performance in the worldwide PISA test, administered every three years since 2000, has remained static.

"One word describes the U.S. performance: Embarrassing," said Gary Beach, editor emeritus of CIO Magazine and author of "The U.S. Technology Skills Gap", in an email exchange. "Equate the 10 years of PISA scores (back to 2000) as end of year earnings results for a corporation that spent $5 trillion but had not made one cent of profit...or actually produced a loss. What would happen? The board would fire the entire management team by the 10th year."

Then there's the broader job picture. Employers complain they can't find workers with the education and skills necessary to fill certain jobs and so have to look abroad.

"The US continues to have a shortage of IT workers for the positions available in the US," lamented Jack Cullen, president of Modis IT Staffing, in an email response. "While there may be less of a shift to send more jobs off shore, we have fallen behind in getting enough students to pursue IT related degrees. ...I am not surprised by the (PISA) results. The U.S. educational system is in catch-up mode to countries like China, Japan, and India to name just a few."

Others have countered that employers just want cheap foreign labor. If employers offered higher rates of pay, then more people would be interested in pursing those careers.

Hard to imagine, though, that factoring into a 15-year-old's thinking, much less his or her test score. And regardless, if that cheap foreign labor is actually smarter, the decision is kind of a no brainer, right?

Oh yeah, the answer is 11 a.m.

(This paragraph is for the copy editors who will go nuts that I never spelled out the acronyms: OECD stands for the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. Putting either of those in the regular copy would have been truly cumbersome).

Allen Wastler is managing editor of CNBC Digital. Follow him on Twitter @AWastler. You can catch his commentary here and on CNBC Radio. And check out his fiction.

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