information systems that keep detailed public school records for students, teachers, and school administrators on the basis of parameters established for mandatory statewide use. Public schools are subject to state-enforced sanctions when a school fails to meet the mandated performance criteria. But overall, particularly in the sciences and mathematics, U.S. K-12 students continue to perform substantially below average in international comparisons.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s report on December 7, 2010, presented on the occasion of the release of the 2009 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), did not contain encouraging news about the performance of U.S. 15-year-olds in mathematics.24 U.S. students ranked 25th among the 34 participating OECD nations, the same level of performance as 6 years earlier in 2003. The results were not encouraging in reading literacy either, with U.S. students placing 14th, effectively no change since 2000. The only improvement noted was a 17th place ranking in science, marginally better than the 2006 ranking. Secretary Duncan added that the OECD analysis suggests the 15-year-olds in South Korea and Finland are, on average, 1 or 2 years ahead of their American peers in math and science.

The picture is not improving. In September 2011, the College Board reported that the SAT scores for the U.S. high school graduating classes of 2011 fell in all three subject areas tested: reading, writing, and mathematics. The writing scores were the lowest ever recorded.25 A report from Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance in August of 2011 revealed that U.S. high school students in the Class of 2011 ranked 32nd in mathematics among OECD nations that participated in PISA for students at age 15. The report noted that 22 countries significantly outperform the United States in the share of students who reach the “proficient” level in math (a considerably lower standard of performance than “advanced”).26

In September 2007 McKinsey & Co. produced what it called a first-of-its-kind approach that links quantitative results with qualitative insights on what high-performing and rapidly improving school systems have in common.27 McKinsey studied 25 of the world’s school systems, including 10 of the top performers. They examined what high-performing school systems have in common and what tools they use to improve student outcomes. They concluded that, overall, the following matter most:


24 Available at, December 7, 2010.

25 Wall Street Journal, “SAT Reading, Writing Scores Hit New Low,” September 15, 2011.

26 Paul E. Peterson, Ludgar Woessmann, Eric A. Hanushek, and Carlos X. Lastra-Anadon, 2011, Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete. Harvard Kennedy School of Government, August.

27 McKinsey & Co., 2007, How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Came Out on Top.

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