The World Leaders in Education

Lessons from the Successes and Drawbacks of Their Methods

by Hani Morgan (Volume editor) Christopher Barry (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VI, 210 Pages


The World Leaders in Education: Lessons from the Successes and Drawbacks of Their Methods explores the practices and policies that the highest-ranking nations in education implement to achieve their success. Topics include the education of disadvantaged students; cultural attitudes toward education; teacher preparation; and teacher salaries. Eight countries are examined: China, Japan, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, Finland, and the United States. The United States is discussed for several reasons, including its large number of strong performers on international tests and its notable history in education. The book looks at both the successes and the failings of these nations, and also mentions the possibilities and limitations of implementing the practices of world-class nations in education in areas where students tend to perform poorly on tests like the PISA. This book may be used for undergraduate and graduate courses such as comparative education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter One: Introduction—What World-Class Nations in Education Do That Makes Them So Good
  • Chapter Two: Finland—Ethos of Equality: Finnish Educational Policy and Practice
  • Chapter Three: The United States—Schooling in the United States: What We Learn from International Assessments of Reading and Math Literacy
  • Chapter Four: Japan—The High-Achieving Educational System of Japan
  • Chapter Five: Canada—Education in Canada: Separate but Similar Systems in the Pursuit of Excellence and Equity
  • Chapter Six: South Korea—South Korea’s Education: A National Obsession
  • Chapter Seven: Singapore—Success in Singapore: A Model for Excellence in Education
  • Chapter Eight: New Zealand—Education in New Zealand: Maintaining Quality in an Era of Change
  • Chapter Nine: China—Reconciling Fairness with Efficiency: Reforming the Chinese Examination System
  • Chapter Ten: Conclusion—What We Can Learn from High-Ranking Nations in Education
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

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What World-Class Nations in Education Do That Makes Them So Good


Imagine a country with a utopian school system. In every classroom you enter, you see outstanding teachers with expertise in the subject they teach and in the methods they use to teach it. This country recruits its teachers only from the top-performing students in its secondary schools, requiring them to have high scores on college entrance exams, a strong grade point average, and a high level of participation in extracurricular activities. Candidates hoping to enroll in a university program to become teachers must score well on a written exam on teaching, demonstrate effective communication skills, and perform satisfactorily in an interview in which they explain why they wish to become teachers.

You do not have to worry if your child underachieves in a particular subject, because in the early years of schooling, teachers intervene promptly and provide strong support for pupils with learning problems—support that continues as students get older. Teachers adhere to national standards, but enjoy autonomy to teach the way they feel students will learn best. They do not worry about being held accountable through frequent external standardized tests that put pupils and teachers under pressure and promote lower-level thinking skills, because everyone in the nation knows that these teachers are experts in their field. As a result of the respect they receive and the freedom they have to use different methods of teaching, teachers enjoy their profession. Students from this country score higher on international tests than those from almost all other countries, because all pupils, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances, get outstanding teachers, receive ← 1 | 2 → the help they need when they struggle, and learn in a manner that emphasizes thinking critically, rather than recalling information.

The only problem with the preceding description is that it is not about a utopian country, but a real one: Finland. This book is about the countries with the highest-performing school systems in the world and includes chapters on Finland, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, China, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Why include a chapter on the United States in a book about outstanding education systems considering all the negative attention this nation gets on its issues in education? Two reasons are its large number of strong performers on international tests and its notable history in education.


Contrary to what we hear in the news, some students in the United States have achieved the highest scores in international testing in the world in the twenty-first century, but they often receive little attention. Unfortunately, the United States also has too many poor-scoring students who lower the overall test score averages the mass media emphasize when they report these scores. In 2009, for example, the PISA test score averages indicated lackluster achievement: the United States ranked 25th in mathematics, 14th in reading, and 17th in science among the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (Duke, 2013).

Many U.S. schools located in disadvantaged districts fail to provide students with optimal learning environments. Severe socioeconomic inequality at these schools—a condition that does not exist in world-class nations in education—lead privileged students to score much higher on international assessments than the less fortunate students who are more likely to attend these inferior institutions (Darling- Hammond, 2010). Such schools suffer from overcrowded classes, lack of curricular materials, unskilled teachers, and limited course offerings that hinder students’ chances to be eligible for college (Darling-Hammond, 2011/12). Although out-of-school factors often have a stronger impact on student achievement levels than the school and its teachers, inequalities in U.S. schools contribute to mediocre scores.

When international test scores are announced, the media typically do not mention America’s high-achieving students because they normally report only average test scores. However, the United States has a significant number of high performers. In their analysis of international test scores, Salzman and Lowell (2008) showed that in 2006 the United States had more top-performing students in math and science than any of the highest-ranking nations in international testing, but news reports generally ignored this accomplishment because the United States also had the highest number of low-performing students, a circumstance that lowers its national averages dramatically. Data on the 2006 PISA test indicated that ← 2 | 3 → the United States had about 67,000 students achieving level 6, the highest category, and Japan had about 34,000, the second-highest number (Bracey, 2009).

Additionally, Salzman and Lowell (2008) suggest that average test scores are a less important measure of economic potential than the number of top-performing students. They suggest that since the United States has a sizeable number of strong performers, Americans sometimes overreact to international test score averages. Although Americans may at times worry too much, Salzman and Lowell regard the inequalities in American schools as a severe problem that needs attention. Although they make a good point, analyzing international test scores through a different perspective reveals that the United States has far fewer than an adequate number of high-scoring students in math and science.

When Tucker (2011) discussed the 2009 PISA results, he mentioned that even top performers were not doing well in the United States, because he compared the percentages of these students in the United States to those from the highest-ranking countries and found significant differences. Tucker explained that the PISA categorizes performance into six bands. According to him, the 2009 PISA results showed that the proportion of U.S. students scoring in the top band in reading was 1.5%, or higher than the OECD average of 0.8%. Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Finland, and Shanghai all had higher percentages ranging from 1.8 to 2.9%.

In math, however, students in the United States fared much worse. Only 2% reached the top level, lower than the OECD average of 3%, and there were greater differences between the proportion of U.S. students reaching the top and the proportion of those achieving this level abroad. For example, 27% of students in Shanghai scored in the top band, considerably higher than the percentage of U.S. students. In science, the percentage of American students achieving the top band was 1%, near the OECD average, but Singapore, Shanghai, New Zealand, Finland, and Australia all had a greater percentage of pupils scoring at this level (Tucker, 2011).

Unfortunately, the United States is having difficulty correcting problems in its educational system and has made little progress in recent years. This lack of improvement results from short-term reform efforts that are often politically motivated rather than research based. These haphazard approaches are antithetical to the clear goals of the leading nations in education, because outstanding educational systems use a systematic ideology and implement a decades-long plan with the guidance of ministries of education (Darling-Hammond, 2011).


The United States has an impressive history in education. Although in 2006 high school graduation rates in the United States fell to 18th out of 24 industrialized ← 3 | 4 → countries, over 40 years ago the country was first in the world in this category (Jerald, 2008). Furthermore, when the GI bill made it possible for many veterans returning from World War II to get a college education, the United States was the world leader in the number of people with university degrees (Paine & Schleicher, 2011).

The United States was also the first country to create universal secondary education and to achieve mass higher education (Stewart, 2012). The implementation of universal secondary education at the start of the twentieth century led the United States to have the most educated workforce in the world in the 1940s (Paine & Schleicher, 2011). Finally, the United States is the home of some of the most influential figures in education, including John Dewey. Some of the countries now experiencing success in international testing have implemented practices based on theories of teaching that originated in the United States. For example, when Finland reformed, it created a new system based on the democratic idea that all students are capable of learning, a philosophy of education that John Dewey promoted generations earlier (Sahlberg, 2012).

Since some policymakers in the United States are increasingly interested in borrowing educational practices from other countries to improve the U.S. system, the editors of this book included the United States in order to explore what it can learn from other countries. Some researchers believe the United States can regain its high status by implementing the methods other countries have used to achieve their success. In Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems, Marc Tucker (2011) not only mentioned that Americans have a growing interest in learning from the world leaders in education; he also discussed that in 2010, for the first time, a U.S. secretary of education (Arne Duncan) expressed interest in the methods these nations use when he consulted OECD to request a report on the strategies they implemented to attain their status.

Some countries reached their high ranking only recently, having experienced mediocrity for many years. For example, before reforming its educational system, Finland faced many of the challenges that plague the United States today. However, after implementing systematic efforts beginning in the early 1970s, Finland now enjoys recognition as one of the world leaders in education.


Every 3 years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). OECD was founded in 1961, but its history dates back to 1948 when it emerged ← 4 | 5 → as the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC). Its purpose at that time was to implement the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. In 1961, the OEEC was reformed and became the OECD, extending membership to non-European states.

The PISA is an assessment test that 15-year-olds take to evaluate their skills in mathematics, science, and reading. The OECD currently administers this test every 3 years to approximately 70 countries and economies, but the number of countries participating in a given year can vary and has increased considerably since this test was first implemented in 2000. One reason the PISA is so important is that it compares student achievement internationally using countries that make up close to 90% of the world economy (Schleicher, 2011). In addition, the PISA evaluates skills connected to workforce knowledge, whereas some other international tests, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), lack this link (Rutkowski, Rutkowski, & Plucker, 2014).

When the PISA was developed, it was designed for economically developed countries, but in order to make comparisons, economically developing countries also participate with the wealthy OECD countries. Of the 67 educational systems participating in the PISA in 2012, 34 were members of the OECD, and the rest were partner countries. Since students take the test in countries that differ linguistically, culturally, and geographically, it is adjusted to be appropriate for each group and to provide valid comparisons (Rutkowski, Rutkowski, & Plucker, 2014).

The PISA attracts the attention of many educators and policymakers. If a country performs poorly on the PISA, or continuously falls further behind other countries, it is not unusual for that country’s educational leaders to worry and to consider a plan for improvement. In December 2010, for example, when the OECD announced PISA scores showing China to be in first place for the first time in math, reading, and science, some educators in the United States compared this outcome to the launching of Sputnik and the crisis it created in the late 1950s.

In addition to the PISA, students throughout the world take other international tests, but the PISA tends to receive more media coverage. Some other tests used to assess students throughout the world include the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) administers these tests to younger students. The IEA offers the TIMSS every 4 years to evaluate fourth- and eighth-grade students on their mathematics and science skills and the PIRLS every 5 years to measure fourth-grade students on their reading skills.

The PISA and these other tests determine how countries rank in education. The PISA test assesses students on their higher-order thinking ability and demands more skill than typical standardized tests that merely measure what students can recall, because it requires students to apply information and defend their ← 5 | 6 → answers. Organizers designed the PISA to evaluate how well students used their knowledge to solve new problems. It is possible for students to get full credit for a math problem even if they provide a numerically inaccurate answer, as long as they identify the correct procedure for finding the answer (Bracey, 2002). The recent success that some countries have experienced, while others have declined or remained stagnant, has led policymakers to consider borrowing the practices of the leaders.


In the twenty-first century, new technologies have accelerated globalization and transformed the way in which corporations do business by allowing the exchange of information in seconds on a 24-hour basis through the Internet. Technological and economic trends have created new demands for high skills and lowered the need for low skills. An expanding middle class overseas, where an increasing number of highly skilled workers live, enhances the chances that American businesses will relocate if it is cost effective, or that they will hire those from abroad rather than from their own nation. Additionally, corporations can do business electronically with those overseas rather than employ personnel in their own country. Any work that can be automated, digitized, or outsourced can be done anywhere in the world where there are qualified people to do it (Schleicher, 2011).

One consequence of the increase in global interdependency is that American students, more than ever before, are competing with students in other countries for positions requiring advanced skills. Thus, the increase in globalization has ramifications for educational systems throughout the world. As economies expand and the need for high-skills jobs increases, countries lacking a workforce with the expertise needed to compete for these positions will likely encounter problems. Educators concerned about large numbers of students scoring poorly on international tests that measure higher-level skills linked to workforce knowledge, such as the PISA, worry for good reason. The strong-performing educational systems developing this talent are inextricably linked to a nation’s economy. The OECD, in collaboration with Stanford University, conducted a study, the results of which have enormous implications: they suggest that if the United States could increase its average PISA scores by 25 points per year over 20 years, that activity could yield a gain of $41 trillion for the U.S. economy for the generation born in 2010 (Paine & Schleicher, 2011).

Since some countries with lackluster results in international testing implement methods antithetical to those with outstanding records, it is normal for ← 6 | 7 → educational leaders in poorly performing nations to think about borrowing the practices of the highest achievers. These leaders, however, have critics. Those who urge the use of the methods of world-class systems contend that these nations all implement similar methods.



VI, 210
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Education Comparison PISA Studies Pisa
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VI, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Hani Morgan (Volume editor) Christopher Barry (Volume editor)

Hani Morgan is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of over 30 published articles on various topics involving the education of K-12 students. He received a master’s degree in international education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and graduated from Rutgers University with a doctoral degree in foundations of educations. Christopher Barry is a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University. His research areas include the role of youth self-perception in behavioral and emotional adjustment, evidence-based assessment of youth academic and psychological functioning, and outcomes tied to out-of-school learning experiences. His collaborative work on the impact of out-of-school STEM learning has received funding from the National Science Foundation.


Title: The World Leaders in Education
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