1. The best school systems are the most equitable—students do well regardless of their socio-economic background, but schools that select students based on ability at a younger age show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.
  2. High-performing systems allow schools to design curricula and establish assessment policies, but don’t necessarily allow competition among schools for students. Also, combining local autonomy with effective accountability produces good results.
  3. Schools with good discipline and better student-teacher relations achieve better results.
  4. The more uniform the school system as a whole, the better the student performance.
  5. Countries that perform the highest tend to partner successful schools with struggling ones to share best practices with the struggling schools.
  6. Successful countries believe that all students, not just some, need to learn at high levels.
  7. Successful countries make the teaching profession attractive with good salaries and multiple opportunities for promotions. They also train teachers to become highly-qualified professionals.
  8. Successful schools have a flat, collaborative, collegial-type of work environment, rather than a top-down hierarchical approach.
  9. Successful schools are accountable to other schools (their peer institutions) and to the school’s stakeholders. There is also a clear articulation of who is responsible for ensuring student success.
  10. Top-performing students usually attend preschool.
  11. Top-performing students have access to individualized learning opportunities and are taught higher-level thinking skills.
  12. Successful countries align their standards to global standards and tend to have a country-wide standard system.
  13. Successful countries also have effective instruments to share and spread their knowledge of what works.

Schleicher said one finding indicated that the amount of money spent on education explains only 10 percent of an economy’s success—a point that resonated the most with press conference attendees.

“As the years progress, money spent on education will explain less and less,” said Schleicher. “We expect this number to decrease to six percent in the next three years; meaning that 94 percent of success depends on how you invest what you have.”

“We need to re-structure our investments, and one way to do this is to get our young people interested in foreign cultures and incite a desire to compete in the global economy,” said Kolb. “We can do this by focusing more on foreign languages; this will inculcate an investment mentality in our young. American companies cannot compete successfully in the global economy without a workforce that can communicate effectively with their colleagues in other countries.”

Schleicher’s recommendations to create a national standard relates to goals of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which see this in the creation and adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

“A foundation for helping all students become globally competitive are the Common Core State Standards, internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards that have now been adopted in states representing 87 percent of the nation’s K-12 public school population,” said Dane Linn, director of the Education Division for the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. “When our students have the skills and knowledge needed for today’s workforce, we will be positioned to compete successfully with any country in the world.”

Alongside PISA’s results, McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, released a new report called “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better,” which analyzes 20 systems from around the world, all with improving but differing levels of performance. The report examines how each has achieved significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes.

The McKinsey report identifies reform elements that are replicable for school systems elsewhere as they “move from poor to fair, to good to great, to excellent,” says the company. The report can be found here.

Many of McKinsey’s findings mirror those of PISA in terms of what top-performing education systems are doing. The report’s findings include the following eight highlights:

1. A system can make significant gains from wherever it starts, and these gains can be achieved in six years or less.

2. There is too little focus on “process” in the debate today, meaning that improving system performance ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students in the classrooms by changing school structure, resources, and processes (curriculum and instruction).