When it comes to math, students in the United States have trailed their counterparts in Japan on tests of international competition for so long that closing the gap seems utterly hopeless. For example, the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment, administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, revealed that only 9 percent of American students performed at the highest proficiency levels in math compared with 23 percent of Japanese students. Student outcomes based on the educational levels of their parents were not much better. American students posted a 43 percent proficiency rate when their families had strong educational backgrounds. This compared with a 68 percent rate for Japanese students.