NCSL International Education Study Group Report Released


NCSL News‘States Now Have More Flexibility to Reimagine Education’ 

Chicago—While the United States has fallen behind the top performing nations in K-12 education, there are specific actionable steps states can take to once again compete internationally particularly with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), according to a report issued by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) during the annual Legislative Summit.

The report, “No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State,” is based on the culmination of nearly two years of study by the NCSL International Education Study Group, a bipartisan group of state legislators and legislative staff representing 28 states.  The report explains the commonalities between the top performing countries, and details what steps states can take to once again compete internationally. Read a full copy of the report (PDF).

“The passage of ESSA gives states the opportunity and the incentive to reimagine what our education systems look like and, then, to make it happen,” said study group member Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (WA). “The lessons shared by the NCSL International Education Study Group are a valuable place to start.”

The report finds the top performing countries have a set of four elements in common, including:

  • Children come to school ready to learn and extra support is given to struggling students.
  • A world-class teaching profession that provides highly effective teachers to all students.
  • A highly effective and intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education.
  • Individual reforms that are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive systems. 

“We understand that many U.S. citizens and policymakers feel that the U.S. cannot be fairly compared to other countries in terms of education success.  But we learned that this shouldn’t be an excuse for continued poor performance,” said Rep. Howard Stephenson (UT). “Other countries are improving overall results for all students and reducing achievement gaps while our results are stagnant.”  

According to the latest reports, out of the 65 countries, the U.S. placed 24th in reading, 36th in math and 28th in science. Another report, which looked at millennials in the workplace, placed the U.S. last in problem solving.   

“We know what these countries are doing; they have taken steps that our states can take as well,” said Sen. Joyce Elliot (AR).  “Many states have tried one or two of these reforms, but few state efforts have been strategically designed and systematically linked.  In addition, states have implemented some reforms – such as charter schools, reduced class size, and teacher evaluations – which, perhaps, could be effective but aren’t strategically linked to a long-term vision and a set of statewide goals.”

The study group also pointed to some steps states can take immediately to improve their education system, including: 

  • Build an inclusive team and set priorities.
  • Study and learn from top performers.
  • Create a shared statewide vision.
  • Benchmark policies.
  • Get started on one piece.
  • Work through “messiness”.
  • Invest the time.

“We need to shift the focus of these comparisons from the United States to the states,” said Rep. Robert Behning (IN).”  “Actually, Finland, Poland, Singapore and some of the other top performers compare quite favorably to our states – in terms of diversity, governance of education, and local control.  The states are really the places with the responsibility and ability to provide high quality education to citizens and improve results.”  

The report further urges state legislators to join with other state and local policymakers to examine the lessons and strategies of the top performing countries that may be appropriate for each state to consider.

NCSL would like to acknowledge the following for their assistance in the report: The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Microsoft Corporation, Business Roundtable, National Education Association (NEA) and ACT.

Read a full copy of the report.


In 2013, the National Conference of State Legislatures hosted a major session during its Fall Forum to discuss the results of the Organization for Economic Co-ordination and Development’s (OECD) most recent survey of what 15-year-olds in industrialized countries could do with their knowledge of reading, mathematics and science, known as the Programme for International Assessment or PISA.  Upon hearing of the disappointing performance of the students in the U.S., officers of NCSL’s Standing Committee on Education requested that NCSL immediately launch a legislative study into international comparisons of high performing education systems.

In 2014, a bipartisan group of 22 veteran legislators and six legislative staff, along with several partners from the private sector, began an 18-month study. They focused on the top ten highest performing countries on PISA to discover commonalities across their policies and practices.  They met with education leaders from these countries and national and international experts who study these systems, and visited several countries to see the difference firsthand.

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.