Top Performing Countries in Education



In our increasingly internationally connected world, state legislators are interested in learning more about the policies and practices in other countries that contribute to high student achievement and the lessons that might be applied to state education policy.

boy in front of mapMany policymakers think the U.S. cannot fairly be compared to other countries that have centralized education governance systems or less diverse populations. However, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analysis of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results indicates that countries doing well have certain consistent education policies, including a clear national commitment to education improvement, a professionalized teaching corps, widely available early education opportunities, high standards, a strategic assessment process, subsidized higher education, and clear workforce/education options.

While many international policies are not feasible in the United States, there are components of these policies that are worthy of study and discussion. In addition, lessons from high-performing countries are particularly valuable at a time when continued federal inaction on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has left states balancing state reform efforts with federal requirements.

For further background on international education comparisons, see NCSL's Primer on International Education Comparisons

International Education Study Group

Phase One (2015-16): NCSL brought together a group of legislative education committee chairs and education legislative staff to better study the current issues and opportunities of international education comparisons. The spent 18 months studying with some of the most well known national and international experts on teachers and teaching, standards and testing, accountability, funding and equity, early education, choice, and other relevant issues. The group met in person as well as worked remotely with one another to study both international education as a whole and examine the education systems in the top performing countries on the PISA assessment in depth. Read the NCSL International Education Study Group press release here, and find the phase one participant roster here

Questions the group explored in phase one included:

  • What is working in other countries and why?
  • What can states learn from these experiences?
  • What is unique to these countries?
  • What fundamental principals support reform in successful countries and are relevant for states?
  • What are opportunities and roadblocks for states in pursuing education reform?

Phase one of the study group culminated in the release of No Time To Lose: How to Build a World Class Education System State by State. In this report, the study group laid out what they learned and made an urgent call for action to the states to begin implementing some of the common policies they saw in the top-performing countries they studied. 

Phase Two (2016-18): NCSL has brought together the below legislators, staff and partners to begin Phase Two of the study group work. In this phase, the study group will dive deeply into some of the policy areas they identified in No Time To Lose via webinars and in-person meetings. Check back frequently for links to new webinars, resources and discussion.

Study Group Legislator Participants Phase Two
Representative Bob Behning, Indiana Representative Alice Peisch, Massachusetts
Senator Joyce Elliott, Arkansas Senator Robert Plymale, West Virginia
Senator Anitere Florez, Florida Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, Washington
Representative Mary Gile, New Hampshire Senator David Sokola, Delaware
Representative Wendy Horman, Idaho Senator Howard Stephenson, Utah
Senator Peggy Lehner, Ohio Senator Mimi Stewart, New Mexico
Senator Rich Madaleno, Maryland Representative Roy Takumi, Hawaii
Senator Luther Olsen, Wisconsin Senator Joyce Woodhouse, Nevada


Study Group Legislative Staff and Ex-Officio Participants Phase Two
Todd Butterworth, former senior research analyst, Nevada Legislature Phil McCarthy, senior analyst, Maine Legislature
Rachel Gudgel, executive director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, New Mexico Legislature Julie Pelegrin, assistant director of legislative services, Colorado Legislature
Rachel Hise, principal analyst, Maryland Legislature  


Study Group Partners Phase Two
Daaiyah Bilal-Threats, National Education Association Chris Runge, American Federation of Teachers
Vicki Gray, Northwest Evaluation Association Terry Ryan, Bluum
Sean Keefer, Pearson Education Lee Posey, Southern Regional Education Board


NCSL is working closely with the staff at the National Center on Education and The Economy on this effort.  NCEE has significant resources available on PISA, international comparisons, reform in specific countries, and policy strategies.  Marc Tucker, NCEE President writes and blogs regularly on important world issues in education.  Visit the NCEE Website here.


NCSL Study Group Resources

The first meeting of the NCSL Study Group in September 2014  brought state legislators together with some of the most knowledgeable and experienced experts in the world of international education comparisons.  Videos of the sessions can be viewed here, and include:

  • Marc Tucker, National Center on Education and the Economy:  Comparing International Education Policy
  • William Schmidt, Michigan State University and Marc Tucker, NCEE: International Comparisons:  Standards, Assessment and Accountability
  • Vivien Stewart, Asia Society: Time and Learning
  • Charles Glenn, Boston University and Helen Ladd, Duke University: International Comparisons: School Choice
  • Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University and Ben Jensen, Learning First (Australia):  International Comparisons: Teachers and Teaching

The International Education Study Group Webinar, held on Oct. 2, 2014, provides great information about the PISA process and takes the listener through the significant resources available on the NCEE website.

Members of the study group traveled to Shanghai and Beijing in November 2014 to visit schools and learn more about why their students do so well in international comparison tests. Read NCSL's Julie Bell's blog about the trip here, and here, and here

The International Education Study Group met on another webinar on Feb. 23, 2015, to learn about and discuss the accountability systems of high performing countries. Important background on ths topic can be found in Marc Tuckers "Fixing Our National Accountability System" listed below, and the PIAAC study discussed in the webinar can be found here.

The study group convened in Chicago April 17-19, to discuss systems reform in high performing countries and in the United States. Participants had an opportunity to hear from implementers from other countries as well as brainstorm with each other about what strategies might work in the states.

The study group met on another webinar on May 29, 2015. During this discussion, NCEE staff helped study group members think about how they might evaluate their own states on the 9 Building Blocks.

On July 8-9, the study group met in Park City, Utah, to once againbe joined by the NCEE staff and international experts to learn more about how to move forward the kinds of systemic changes that the study group has been discussing. Most recently, the study group met Aug. 2-3 to focus on communication and implementation strategies and have a discussion with national union organization leaders and state leaders who are engaged in statewide efforts to bring stakeholders together to discuss statewide reform.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released in December 2016 the latest results of 15-year-old’s knowledge and skills in 72 countries and economies across the world.

Hear how the U.S. ranked and about policies and practices we might consider to close the performance gap.

New and Hot in International Education

In Rememberance of Julie Davis Bell

Julie Davis Bell was the Education Program Group Director at NCSL for 28 years. She passed away in the spring of 2017. Her leadership of the International Study Group was integral, and her insight, vision and hard work is missed and remembered.