Hey, who’s up for a little civilizational-decline anxiety on a slow Tuesday news night? Why, I haven’t wet myself like this over China since that Chinese professor ad during the campaign!

After reading this, I’m going to have nightmares like Cartman in that “South Park” episode about the Beijing Olympics.

“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, referring to the groundbreaking Soviet satellite launching. Mr. Finn, who has visited schools all across China, said, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”…

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday…

“This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China,” Mr. Schleicher said. “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

“Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” he said.

Follow the link for breakdowns of international scoring in science, reading, and math. I won’t spoil the surprise about where the U.S. placed, but here’s a hint: Not second. There are a few caveats about the results, though. Duncan says he’s confident that they’re accurate and reliable, but the Times notes that the Chinese could be gaming them by letting gifted migrant students reside in the city instead of going home and by motivating them to study with nationalist appeals about how important the results would be to China’s international standing. Which sets up this immortal line from a U.S. education wonk: “Can you imagine the reaction if we told the students of Chicago that the PISA was an important international test and that America’s reputation depended on them performing well?” Yeah, imagine.

Worth noting: The spread between Shanghai and the second-place country in each category is conspicuously larger than it is between second place and third place and so on, so there is reason to be at least a bit suspicious, especially since we know how desperate China can get in international competitions. On the other hand, Hong Kong’s near the top of the board in almost every category but, again, not nearly as high as Shanghai. If the Chinese were going to cheat, wouldn’t they cheat across the board?

Exit question: Assuming no cheating, what’s the real explanation for the results? Better teacher training and more hours devoted to study instead of extracurriculars? Or the ever-present possibility that if you flunk a test designed to enhance Chinese prestige, the punishment awaiting you might be a tad more draconian than detention?