American kids overworked, overscheduled and underperforming?

On Pearl Harbor Day 2010, America was hit with a bombshell.

Some say it rivals Sputnik, the 1957 Soviet satellite launch, in its alarming message about American education. Across the world, in 65 countries, 15-year-olds were administered a standardized test (PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment) measuring knowledge of reading, science and math. The winners in all three categories were students in Shanghai taking the test for the first time. Americans scored what can charitably be called in the range of average.

(See here for a chart ranking performance — Shanghai, as noted, at the top and Kyrgyzstan at the bottom). Korea — that would be South Korea — also did very well; we might try to figure out how to learn its secrets of success when the trade deal with that country wends its way through a fractious Congress.)

The next day in the New York Times, the same paper in which I read of the PISA results and rankings, came a story about a recently released American documentary titled “Race to Nowhere.” (A Times review noted that its co-director, Vicki Abeles, drew from the experience of the “medical and emotional problems of her own three children” in their overscheduled, overstressed American school lives.)

The Dec. 8 Times report noted that the film had become, in the three months since its release, something of a must-see for parents in affluent suburbs — Winnetka, Ill., for example, the location of the storied New Trier, or in Bronxville, N.Y., at a screening co-sponsored by the elite Chapel School — who remain post-screening for discussions of the “downside of childhoods spent on resume-building.”

Other countries, especially those in Asia — for instance, other top PISA rankers Hong Kong and Singapore — are cleaning our clocks. Why? For starters, they focus on classroom instruction, not on extracurriculars, such as sports — which can become an almost full-time job for students — and orchestra and community service. The stressed-out American students of “Race to Nowhere” believes that it’s goodbye to the Ivy League if they’re not on the varsity soccer team and editor of the newspaper and pulling all A’s, all the while completing hours of homework, memorizing facts for AP classes and receiving private coaching the SATs.

The result is kids filching prescription drugs, getting stoned and drunk, suffering from insomnia, engaging in plagiarism and all manner of cheating.

This film is aimed at parents of the affluent and privileged; there’s another, more famous, film out there called “Waiting for 'Superman' ” that focuses on parents and kids who would love to have a place at New Trier or any number of lavishly equipped private schools — although they might be best off, it turns out, sitting at a desk in one of those classrooms in Shanghai.