Two telling sets of statistics this week point to the problem at the heart of K-12 education. The Post reports, “The nation’s high school seniors have shown no improvement in math and reading performance since 2009, and large racial achievement gaps persist, according to the results of a test administered by the federal government last year. The results, released at an event Wednesday at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, detail students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Also called the Nation’s Report Card, NAEP is widely regarded as the most consistent measure of U.S. students’ achievement over time. Since the 1990s, it has been administered every four years to high school students and every two years to students in grades four and eight.” That news comes “just days after Education Secretary Arne Duncan celebrated the nation’s 80 percent graduation rate, its highest ever.”

In short, we are churning out more worthless diplomas than ever before. We have spent a boatload of money only to find we are not improving the ability of U.S. high school graduates to tackle college-level work or compete in the global economy. The results are a disgrace: “Twelfth-grade national reading scores averaged 288 on a scale of zero to 500 — the same as 2009 and down four points since 1992. Nearly four in ten students scored high enough to be considered proficient or above in reading. In math, only 26 percent scored high enough to be considered proficient or above.”

If you look around the world at nations that are now outperforming the United States on international tests, it is not hard to figure out the differences between their vastly improved educational systems and ours. It is not simply the pay of teachers that matters but the selectivity of education programs, the rigor of their preparation and the continuing education and feedback they receive. Improve all that and many taxpayers would be willing to increase pay for teachers whose students excel.

At the American Enterprise Institute recently, Bill Gates observed the current system is “not a personnel system that right now is focused on teacher improvement.” It is also a matter of standards, sufficiently high standards that require kids to attain competencies U.S. schools seem not to be requiring. As Gates put it, success in large part depends on “having the twelfth-grade expectation be high,” as they are in Massachusetts:

And so when kids from Massachusetts take international tests or the SAT, anything, they do better, better than the rest of the country. And so often, when you see those country rankings, they’ll take Massachusetts and show you where it would be if it was a separate country. And it’s way past the U.S., that now is virtually at the bottom of any of the well-off countries, with the Asian countries totally dominating the top six slots now. Finland had a brief time where they were up high, and now they’re not even the European leader anymore. . . . Changing your math standards is not like some new form of math that’s being invented. And there has been in a sense a national expectation. When you take the SAT test, it has trigonometry on it, so if you’re in a state that doesn’t have that, you’re going to get a low score.

And finally, real improvement means holding people accountable when expectations aren’t met (i.e., when students don’t graduate, principals don’t get raises). We can pat ourselves on the back that we are keeping kids in school, but we now have to insist that what they learn there is commensurate with what they will need to thrive in the 21st century. If that means rethinking our budgets to see if all those technological gizmos we’ve paid for actually help kids learn (hint: much better performing schools don’t have a lot of the high tech gadgetry), or schools suggesting goals for parents (e.g. read to your child 30 minutes a day really does pay off), we have to get serious about fixing what is going on inside the public schools.

And those conservatives who rail against increased immigration should take a look at the gap between American kids’ abilities and the needs of employers. It is vast. Every year we graduate more students unequipped to fill the jobs that will allow them and the country to prosper. If we don’t improve our teachers, set higher standards and then hold people accountable, the problem will worsen.