Joanne Jacobs has written on this thread about mathematics in American education. She remarks that the top American achievers in math are either Asians or recent immigrants from Bulgaria or Russia. In doing this, she raises a larger issue: the relation of emotion and emotionally-held preconceptions for education. I want to say that teachers must deal with students' emotional relation to school and to particular subjects.
We often speak as if cognitive complexity were the only issue, as if we were reasoning and memorizing machines. We seem to think that the problem is to make the reasoning and memorizing easy. But it is not so. Education depends on attitudes toward school in general and toward particular subjects.
I once knew a young man who assured me that he was unable to learn French. As he was a graduate student in humanities, I did think he must be underestimating his capacities, and said so. After talking to him for a while longer, a few things emerged. He had grown up partly in France. His parents, though native speakers of English, were tremendously committed francophiles, to such an extent that they spoke only French to him in early childhood. When he was still a preschooler, they moved to an English-speaking place, and spoke English to him again.
The obvious inference is that the emotional significance of the language was blocking learning.
I think all learning has emotional significance, and that emotional significance has a deep impact on the process of learning. There are subjects that have intrinsic emotional significance: language, literature, history and creative arts. Math and science seem to me intrinsically unemotional, but they still have emotional significance (as Joanne Jacobs points out). The very lack of emotional significance makes them favourite subjects for some students. They love these subjects because there is no messy, emotional interference within them. You might say these subjects have extrinisic emotional significance.
Turning to the macro level, it seems clear that the emotional significance of learning in general, and of particular subjects, varies from one country to another.
Here in Hong Kong, the traditional view of education is almost purely extrinsic and practical. Parents want to see children pass exams with good results, go to university in practical subjects, and make good money when they graduate. As seven of the ten university-level institutions are English-medium, parents put enormous stress on English language, and will do almost anything to get children into English-medium secondary schools. That means students are very pushed on English, and they respond in various ways. Some accept this and excel, and some hate English beyond all other subjects. The relation between students and English is in any case fraught.
The general relation between students and learning is fraught. Four years ago,the TIMSC and PISA studies gave Hong Kong students high marks in achievement for mathematics, but also found that their self-image on the subject was bad. That is, they objectively did well, but thought they were crap. American students, on the other hand, objectively did poorly, but thought they were great.
In the United States, although these factors will vary locally, there are a few generalizations to make. As I noted previously, attitudes to language learning derive partly from the objective position of Americans in the world as native speakers of English. The same is true to to a degree about other subjects. An objectively accurate self-image as citizens of the most important country in the world means that achievement in geography isn't great. On the other hand, it seems to me still true that Americans view themselves as "can-do" people, inventive problem solvers, the nation of Thomas Edison. I suspect that this has a deep impact on both education and professional activity in the country.
I have been here in Hong Kong long enough so that former students of mine are out in the schools teaching. I've interviewed some of them recently, and discovered that they view their function considerably as overcoming the underconfidence of their students. They want to show students that English is not as fearsomely difficult as students imagine. It is a big part of what teachers must do to deal with the emotional difficulties for students of one's own particular cultural situation. American teachers must be aware that they are dealing with students of a particular time and place, with emotional capacities as well as emotional blocks that they need to understand and try to deal with.
There has been much criticism on this thread of standardized testing. In so far as standardized testing treats learning as purely cognitive, learning algorithms and memorizing, they contribute to the phenomenon I am describing. They have important uses, too, but this is how I understand their limitations.