Education Secretary Arne Duncan opened a can of worms last week by suggesting that college basketball teams with low graduation rates be banned from participating in the annual NCAA tournament.

The University of Maryland got the embarrassing distinction of having the lowest graduation rate, 8 percent, of the 65 teams in the first round of the tournament.

And, no, they aren’t all leaving school early for the pros. Only 1.5 percent of college players will ever earn a dime playing professional basketball.

The other 98.5 percent will, after their college careers are over, be out looking for work, and a lot of them, apparently, without college degrees.

The timing of Duncan’s comments remind us how passionate Americans are about excellent basketball and how willing we are to tolerate chronic mediocrity in education.

Consider a few facts that appeared in Michael Bendetson’s recent Huffington Post column:

• Fewer than half of the students in America’s 14 largest school systems will graduate from high school.

• U.S. students rank 17th in the world in science and 24th in math.

• By the time U.S. students reach eighth grade, they are already two years behind other top performing countries in science and math.

• More than half of the undergraduate degrees awarded in China are in science, technology, engineering and math, compared to 16 percent in the U.S.

• In 1975, we were third in the world in producing engineers and scientists. Today, we are 15th.

Duncan and President Barack Obama recently announced their program to reform education in America. It is heavy on teacher accountability, testing and innovation.

We hope it works.

But we also wonder if we are overlooking a simple and obvious difference between the U.S. and its educational competitors — seat time.

The typical U.S. school year is 180 days. The average European school year is 195 days, and the average Asian student is in school 208 days per year.

What’s more, the average U.S. teenager spends 7.5 hours per day on entertainment media — TV, Internet, cell phones and video games.

That’s time spent not doing homework. Half of Japanese students, meanwhile, have after-school tutors.

Calls to increase the school year are usually met with opposition from all quarters — students, parents, teachers, administrators, school boards and recreational industries, which rely on young people for summer help.

Yet, according to a story in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, this is exactly the formula being used by the highly acclaimed KIPP charter schools — 60 percent more instructional time than public schools, including 8- to 10-hour days, Saturday morning classes and shorter summer breaks.

This is without doubt a tough time to suggest a longer school day, with school districts across the country cutting programs and teaching positions. Some districts are even going in the opposite direction, talking about four-day school weeks.

Most of us believe that people who work hard deserve to get ahead.

If we, and our children, are not willing to make that sacrifice, we may have to accept that the people getting ahead are in countries other than our own.

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