No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State


Executive Summary

Cover of the report "NoTime to Lose"The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated in the world half a century ago, is now among the least well-educated in the world, according to recent studies.

At this pace, we will struggle to compete economically against even developing nations, and our children will struggle to find jobs in the global economy.

States have found little success. Recent reforms have underperformed because of silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches.

Meanwhile, high-performing countries implement policies and practices and build comprehensive systems that look drastically different from ours, leading them to the success that has eluded states. Pockets of improvement in a few districts or states is not enough to retain our country’s global competitiveness. 

The good news is, by studying these other high-performing systems, we are discovering what seems to work. Common elements are present in nearly every world-class education system, including a strong early education system, a reimagined and professionalized teacher workforce, robust career and technical education programs, and a comprehensive, aligned system of education. These elements are not found in the U.S. in a consistent, well-designed manner as they are found in high performers. 

We have the ability to turn things around. Much higher-performing, yet less-developed countries—such as Poland and Singapore—have made significant progress developing their education systems in just a decade or two because they felt a strong sense of urgency.

State policymakers, too, can get started right away to turn around our education system by taking immediate steps to:

  • 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 must directly face these challenges and begin immediately to reimagine and re-engineer our own education system. We must implement meaningful and comprehensive changes that will produce real results for our students. 

State legislators must lead this work. Education is first and foremost a state responsibility. Each state can develop its own strategies for building a modern education system that is globally competitive, similar to the approach taken by other high-performing countries.

But we must begin now. There’s no time to lose.

Release Event

2016 NCSL Legislative SummitA media event was held Aug. 9 at the 2016 NCSL Legislative Summit to release “No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State” to the media. 

About the Study Group

The National Conference of State Legislatures hosted a plenary session during its 2013 Fall Forum to discuss the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent survey of what 15-year-olds in industrialized countries could demonstrate about their knowledge of reading, mathematics and science. This survey is known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Upon hearing of the disappointing performance of students in the U.S., officers of NCSL’s Standing Committee on Education requested that NCSL launch a legislative study into international comparisons of high-performing education systems. They wanted to study other high-performing countries to learn which policies and practices were in place and what lessons the U.S. and individual states might learn from their success. They also wanted to learn about the consequences for our economy and quality of life if we failed to improve our standing.

A bipartisan group of 28 veteran legislators and legislative staff, along with several partners from the private sector, began an 18-month study in 2014. They focused on the highest performing countries on PISA to discover commonalities across their policies and practices. They met with education leaders from these countries, along with national and international experts who study their systems. They also visited several countries to see the differences firsthand. 

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

The study group members will continue to meet through 2017 to find the answers to these and other questions by continuing to study and learn from other successful countries, as well as districts and states here in the U.S. Upon completion of our study, the study group will produce a policy roadmap that states can use to guide their reforms, as well as provide support to states ready to embark on these efforts


“We invested in this working group because we believe having a world view on education systems can give policy makers a clearer perspective on the central role education can and should play in civil society. This work has also proved to us something we’ve believed for a long time, when teaching is treated as a revered profession, great things are possible.”

—Bilal-Threats Daaiyah, National Education Association


John Engler“The NCSL report makes a compelling case for state legislators to act now on improving the outcomes their education system is producing today. The ability of U.S. students to compete on a global stage requires state legislators to use data as the backbone of their agenda for improving outcomes. The NCSL report provides a roadmap for addressing the key elements of a state policy agenda that are essential to ensuring every student is college and career ready.”

—John Engler, president, Business Roundtable


Linda Darling Hammond“This diverse and bipartisan Study Group of state legislators discovered that top-performing countries have built their successful education system around a strong teaching profession.  This includes recruitment of top students, rigorous preparation, meaningful professional development and empowerment of teachers to guide their own profession.   This is THE cornerstone of their reforms and their success, and this should be a huge lesson for the states.” 

Linda Darling Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, Stanford Graduate School of Education and president and CEO, Learning Policy Institute


Ray Marshall“The National Conference of State Legislature’s ‘No Time to Lose’ presents timely and valuable analyses and recommendations for transforming American education and training. The report stresses the importance of world-class learning systems for maintaining and improving economic, social, and political welfare in a much more competitive and knowledge-intensive world. Several features make No Time to Lose a valuable and timely report:

It is not only based on solid academic research but, following the example of almost all successful American institutions, benchmarks international best practice.

The report is addressed primarily to states, currently the most important level of government for transforming schools and other learning systems, though all public and private institutions have important roles to play in this important enterprise.”

Ray Marshall, professor emeritus of the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Centennial Chair in Economics and Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor


Christianne Y. Runge“Our students deserve the best and we must pursue the best educational practices whether they are found in the United States or around the world.  This report is chock full of the best lessons of what works from other countries.  We should use this research to inform our work.  In that way we can provide our students with the greatest possible chance at success.”

Christianne Y. Runge, director, Public Employees Division, American Federation of Teachers


Marc Tucker“This hard-hitting, refreshingly honest report is a bipartisan clarion call for a very different definition of ‘education reform’ than the one that has dominated the American political landscape for years.  The country will ignore it at its peril.”

Marc Tucker, president and CEO, National Center on Education and the Economy


Further Reading and Resources

  • OECD (2011). "Lessons from PISA for the United States: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education," OECD Publishing, . Combining a description of the practices and policies of the top performing countries with a quantitative analysis of PISA data, this report presents lessons for U.S. policy makers.,"Tucker, ed. (2011). Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Education Systems. Harvard Education Press. This book explores five high-performing education systems, including Shanghai, Japan, Singapore, Canada and Hong Kong, and presents recommendations for U.S. policymakers.


  • Alberta Ministry of Education (2014). Guide to Education – ECS-Grade 12 (2014-2015). The first part of a guide released annually by the Alberta Ministry of Education, this document provides an overview of the Ministry’s mission, guiding principles, key indicators that measure success, as well as a guide to key legislation, regulation and policies governing Alberta schools. This includes teacher policy, resource allocation policies, school leader policy and qualification requirements.
  • Mandate Letter from the Premier of Alberta to Minister of Education Gordon Dirks (2014). This short mandate letter outlines the current priorities of the Albertan government for the Ministry of Education, including funding stability, curriculum reform and higher standards for student performance.
  • OECD (2014). Education at a Glance 2014– Canada Country Note. The OECD released this brief on Canada’s performance on a range of education indicators, including attainment, mobility and proficiency.
  • Ontario Ministry of Education (2010). New Teacher Induction Program: Induction Elements Manual. This manual provides an in-depth look at policy for teacher induction, including the funding mechanisms for the teacher induction program.
  • Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). Equity and Inclusive Education in Ontario Schools: Guidelines for Policy Development and Implementation. This policy manual lays out guiding principles for policy development and implementation and accountability systems for special education. It also includes sample policy memoranda and classroom tools.
  • Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario. This strategic plan presents the Ministry’s proposed action steps for fostering excellence, equity, public confidence and student well-being in the education system.
  • Riveros (2013). From Teachers to Teacher Leaders – A Case Study. This case study looks at teacher leadership development in Alberta from 1997-2007. Alberta’s teacher leadership programs have been cited as among the strongest in the world.
  • Task Force for Teaching Excellence (2014). Report to the Minister of Education, Government of Alberta (2014). This report presents the findings of a 16-member task force convened in 2013 to define Albertan expectations for teaching excellence, enable teachers to grow professionally, define the role of teacher leaders and, ultimately, ensure an excellent teacher for every child.


  • Archimedes (2006). Factsheet, Vocational Education and Training, Estonia – This factsheet briefly summarizes the vocational education and training system, and the qualifications and diplomas awarded students, in Estonia.
  • Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act of 2010 – This legislation defines school governance, compulsory education, public right to education, national curriculum, accountability and evaluation, and teachers’ rights and required qualifications.
  • Center on International Education Benchmarking (2016). Estonia Overview.. This case study explores the development of the Estonian education and provides resources for policymakers interested in learning more.
  • The Economist (2013). How did Estonia become a world leader in technology? – This article traces Estonia’s booming tech industry, including its early investments in school tech.
  • Ministry of Education and Research (2014). The Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020. This five-year strategic plan, a major current initiative of the Ministry, lays out the goals and strategies for expanding access and equity in lifelong learning. It provides a glimpse into where the Ministry’s priorities currently stand.
  • OECD (2014). Education at a Glance Country Note: Estonia – This OECD brief summarizes relevant trends in demographic, attainment, and performance indicators, using PISA 2012 data.
  • OECD (2013). TALIS Country Profile: Estonia – This brief summarizes the results of the 2013 TALIS survey of teacher attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and qualifications.
  • Statistics Estonia (2014). The Statistical Yearbook of Estonia: Education – This chapter provides relevant statistics on demographics, skills, and attainment of Estonia’s students, for those who want to understand the scope and outputs of the system.
  • UNESCO (2011). World Data on Education: Estonia – This UNESCO brief provides an overview of the education system in Estonia, major pathways, governance, early childhood education, funding, teacher and assessment policy, and relevant legislation.


  • Abrams (2011). “The Children Must Play”: The New Republic. In this New Republic piece, researcher Sam Abrams compares Finnish demographics and approach to instruction to the United States, and concludes that teacher professionalization and enriching curriculum are key to Finland’s success.
  • Finnish National Board of Education (2011). International Comparisons of Some Features of Finnish Education and Training – This brief analyzes data on the system structure, attainment, employment, finance and instruction for an international audience.
  • Ministry of Education (2012). Education and Research: a Development Plan 2011-2016 – This five-year strategic plan provides an overview of the system to date, as well as a look at planned reforms. Its strategies include teacher preparation, fostering more equitable access, and reforms to vocational education.
  • OECD (2007). School Leadership for Systemic Improvement in Finland – This OECD case study explores how Finland conceives of the role of the principal, and how other players, including teachers and students, exercise leadership within a school setting.
  • OECD (2014). Education at a Glance 2014: Country Note: Finland – This OECD brief summarizes relevant trends in demographic, attainment, and performance indicators, using PISA 2012 data.
  • Sahlberg (2014). Finnish Lessons 2.0. This book by Pasi Sahlberg focuses on how Finland recruits, prepares and retains its teachers and builds a system that above all values teacher professionalism.
  • UNESCO (2013). World TVET Database – Finland. This entry summarizes the structure of Finland’s vocational education and training system.

Hong Kong

  • Hong Kong Department of Information Services (2014). Education Fact Sheet. This short government publication provides information on funding allocations, system structure, teacher qualification policy and vocational education, among other things.
  • Education Commission Working Group (2011). Report on the Development of Education Services in Hong Kong. This study group report, the result of a year of focus groups, discussion forums, and research, presents 17 recommendations to the Education Bureau. These range from undertaking international education benchmarking, to rebranding the education system for an international audience, to attracting more non- local students.
  • Lai (2010). Qualifications of the Teaching Force in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China: This chapter from the 2007 report A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications Programs in Six Nations looks at what institutions offer teacher training, what courses and practical experiences are required, and how teachers receive ongoing professional development in Hong Kong.
  • Quong (2011). An Analysis of Educational Reform at the School Level in Hong Kong. This paper examines how 2009-2010 curriculum reforms in Hong Kong translated into corresponding changes to teacher practice.


  • Arani, Keisuke, and Lassegard (2010). Lesson Study as Professional Culture in Japanese Schools – Combining historical research with a modern case study approach, this study looks at how Japanese teachers have long used collaborative research as a form of professional development.
  • Fujita, Hidenori (2007). The Qualifications of the Teaching Force in Japan. This chapter from the 2007 report A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications Programs in Six Nations looks at what institutions offer teacher training, what courses and practical experiences are required, and how teachers receive ongoing professional development in Japan.
  • MEXT (2011). The Revisions of the Course of Study for Elementary and Secondary Schools. This short Ministry presentation outlines the major elements of curriculum reform that took place from 2008-2013.
  • MEXT (2012). White Paper: Toward Implementation of Education Rebuilding. This white paper presents the Ministry’s most recent strategic plan for education reform.
  • National Institute for Education Research (2011). Education in Japan: Past and Present – This brief from a research program of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports, and Technology (MEXT) succinctly traces the history of education in Japan from the 1600s to 2010.
  • National Institute for Education Research (2011). Distinctive Features of the Japanese Education System – This NIER brief explains the most unique elements of the education system for an international audience.
  • OECD (2014). Education at a Glance 2014 – Country Note: Japan. This short OECD brief pulls out Japanese data on a range of indicators using 2012 PISA data.
  • OECD (2010). Japan: A Story of Sustained Excellence. This OECD report explores several causes of Japan’s success on the PISA league tables: the teaching force, families supports, a well-structured academic program and systemic incentives that drive students to challenge themselves.


  • Center on International Education Benchmarking (2016). Poland Overview. This case study explores the development of the Polish education and provides resources for policymakers interested in learning more.
  • European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (2011). Vocational Education and Training in Poland – Short Description. This report focuses on the policy and legislative frameworks, teacher policies and funding formulas for a major 2010 overhaul of Poland’s VET system.
  • Eurydice (2012). The System of Education in Poland. This comprehensive report includes a wealth of information on funding, curriculum, assessment, teacher policy, and special education and equity.
  • OECD (2014). Education at a Glance 2014 – Country Note: Poland. This short OECD brief pulls out Poland’s data on a range of indicators using 2012 PISA data.
  • OECD (2013). Results from TALIS 2013 – Country Note: Poland. This OECD brief looks at Poland’s data from the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey, including the background, qualifications, attitudes, morale and behaviors of the nation’s teachers.
  • The World Bank (2010). Knowledge Brief: Successful Education Reform: Lessons from Poland. This World Bank brief looks at 1999 reforms to Poland’s secondary school structure and curriculum, in order to explain the country’s improvements on PISA league tables.

Shanghai, China

  • Gang & Meilu (2010). Qualifications of the Teaching Force in China. This chapter from the 2007 report A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications Programs in Six Nations looks at what institutions offer teacher training, what courses and practical experiences are required, and how teachers receive ongoing professional development in China.
  • OECD (2010). Shanghai and Hong Kong: Two Distinct Examples of Education Reform in China. This chapter from the OECD’s 2010 publication Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education compares the education reform strategies of both Shanghai and Hong Kong. Particularly useful for its historical lens; it also deals with equity and access, teacher policy, and classroom instruction.
  • Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2014). This ten-year education strategic plan lays out goals and strategies for early childhood education, compulsory education reform, equity, special education, teacher and administrator preparation and professional development, and management across China.
  • The World Bank (2013). China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society – Part One of this World Bank report lays out a history of the Chinese economic system and technology industry, and recommends strategies for future equitable economic growth.
  • Stewart (2015). "Made in China: Challenge and Innovation in China’s Vocational Education and Training System," National Center on Education and the Economy. This report explores the progress the Chinese have made in revamping vocational education and documents their efforts to address the challenges that remain.
  • Tucker, ed. (2014). Chinese Lessons: Shanghai’s Rise to the Top of the PISA League Tables. National Center on Education and the Economy. This series of interviews with experts on Shanghai’s education system explores what accounts for their high performance on international comparative assessments.
  • Zhang & Jinjie (2011). Toward China’s Modern TVET System: Take Shanghai as Special Experience: This article goes in-depth into the structure and scale of Shanghai’s vocational education system, and looks at how the recent ten-year education reform plan promises to further improve this system.


  • Low and Joseph (2011). Paving the Fourth Way: The Singapore Story – This report covers a roundtable discussion including many distinguished scholars of Singapore’s education system. Professors look at the history of education policy in Singapore, current reforms and strategic planning initiatives, and especially, hone in on issues of teacher preparation.
  • Ministry of Education (2014). Education in Singapore. This Ministry brochure provides a useful overview, including a look at curriculum requirements.
  • Ministry of Education (2014). Annual Report: The Education Endowment and Savings Scheme. This financial report provides an overview of how Singapore provides public funding for student incentives and scholarships.
  • Ministry of Education (2014). Better Choices, Deeper Skills, Multiple Paths: Government Accepts ASPIRE Committee’s Recommendations [press release, August 25, 2014]. This recent press release announces substantial upcoming reforms to Singapore’s vocational and technical education funding, policy, and structure.
  • Ministry of Education (2014). Growing our Teachers, Building our Nation [press release, September 23, 2014] – This recent press release summarizes upcoming reforms to Singapore teacher mentoring and preparation programs, as well as to the structure of teacher career ladders.
  • OECD (2011). Singapore: Rapid Improvement Followed by Strong Performance – This chapter from the OECD publication Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education presents a history of Singapore, a look at the structure of the education system, and several arguments for the country’s success on PISA, including focus on mathematics and technical education, commitment to equity, and strong human resources and continuous improvement systems.
  • Tan & Wong (2010). Qualifications of the Teaching Force: Data from Singapore - This chapter from the 2007 report A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications Programs in Six Nations looks at what institutions offer teacher training, what courses and practicum are required, and how teachers receive ongoing professional development.
  • The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore. National Center on Education and the Economy, 2012. In this report, a team of researchers traces the evolution of Singapore’s vocational education system and analyzes what accounts for its success.


  • Ministry of Education (2013). Education in Taiwan 2013-2014. This brochure from the Ministry provides an overview of the system structure, governance, upcoming reforms, teacher education, and vocational education and training.
  • Ministry of Education (2011). Technical and Vocational Education in Taiwan, ROC. This brief dives into the structure, governance, curriculum, and enrollment of Taiwan’s vocational education system.
  • Ministry of Education (2008). Administrative Plan – Intelligent Taiwan Manpower Cultivation Project. This administrative plan outlines implementation of a substantial five-year allocation to education and employment initiatives, including a multimillion-dollar investment in new reading programs.
  • Ministry of Education (2013). Matters including teacher evaluation, teacher qualifications, certification exams, teacher in-service education and normal education university engineering. This policy overview lays out recent initiatives to improve teacher preparation, recruitment, and training, including efforts to substantially increase the expectations of teacher preparation programs.
  • Pan & Chen (2011). Teacher Evaluation as a Catalyst for Organizational Learning. This article shows how Taiwan uses teacher evaluation as a tool for continuous improvement and the basis for regular professional learning community meetings among school staff.