Buried in the headlines about holiday shopping was this wake-up call: For the first time, 15-year-olds in China came out on top of 65 countries, including the U.S., who participated in an international test of math, reading and science skills.

The result came from the 2009 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment and was the first time that China participated. Only students in China's booming Shanghai province took the test. But the message should not be lost: If China can educate children to the top of international standards in Shanghai -- population 20 million -- it can do it across the country and fully intends to do so.

The OECD notes that "more than one-quarter of Shanghai's 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3 percent."

Now that is a shellacking.

The U.S. came in about where it has in the past, at 17th, trailing countries such as Singapore, Taipei, Finland, South Korea and Japan.

Yes, the United States remains the world's innovation leader. After all, we are home to Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Intel, Facebook, Google and on and on across finance and green technology. But that place is in no way guaranteed. And it is, in fact, increasingly under threat.

At a recent angel investing conference at Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park, Barry Schuler, the former AOL CEO, founder of laser innovator Raydiance in Petaluma and principal of DFJ Growth Fund, said bluntly that the poor performance of U.S. education was the greatest single "collective failure of baby boomers."

But he remains optimistic. Mr. Schuler is heavily involved in the New Technology Foundation dedicated to national education reform. He told the Rohnert Park conference attendees that there are workable solutions and that they should remain hopeful.

He also told the audience that to continue to lead the world, "we must lead the Internet 3.0" where people are always connected.

The U.S. must also lead the movement to "automobile 2.0," clean-tech and alternative energy, the "light age" of photonics and artificial biology.

And, of course, "schools 2.0."

"Nothing else matters more to the future of the economy," he said.

"If we practice great entrepreneurialism and become economic development activists, our best days are ahead."

What a great message to take into 2011.

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Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.