There are lessons the U.S. can learn from its peers around the world.
That was the message delivered by a panel of experts at a discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress last week.
"If we see a lot of countries … outperforming the United States at significant levels, doesn't it make sense to figure out what they are doing and learn from it?" Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, asked during the panel. "Not to copy them, but to adapt and apply."
In comparison, graduation rates in countries such as Japan, Korea and Finland exceed 90 percent, according to a 2012 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international policy group.
China and India may fall below the U.S. in high school graduation rates, but schools in those countries do a better job of preparing students for college and the workforce, according to reports.
The U.S. could learn from the education models in those high-performing nations, says Tucker.
Among the common threads the panel cited in high-performing countries were consistency, collaboration and professionalism.
In Shanghai, where the average student is more than a year ahead of U.S. students of the same age, elementary and secondary school teachers are not simply instructors, they are researchers, Ben Jensen, school education program director at the Grattan Institute, an Australian think tank, said at the panel.
"If you want to get promoted in Shanghai, you will be an active researcher," Jensen said.
A teacher's work is rewarded not just with career advancement, but a high level of respect and recognition, said Jensen, who coauthored a report released last week titled "School Turnaround in Shanghai."
"Master teachers are the uber-elite in Shanghai," Jensen said. "Only 0.2 percent of teachers in Shanghai reach the status of master teacher. It's difficult, and they are held with respect."
Top schools don't work in isolation in Shanghai, Jensen said. Educators in the best schools are often contracted out to help elevate struggling schools.
Administrators don't simply send elite teachers to take over low-performing schools, though. Instead, instructors from bottom-tier schools spend time in high-performing schools, to see the differences in behavior and culture at those institutions so they can apply it to their own classrooms, Jensen said.
[Learn why culture, not curriculum, is key to school reform.]
Many of the top-performing countries also have a nationalized education system – an unpopular notion in the United States, where state and local governments typically oversee education. Education systems that are not under national control still have a clear governing hierarchy, said Tucker, who detailed his findings in his report, "Governing American Education," also released last week.
"The one common feature [in those countries] is that the buck stops somewhere," he said at Thursday's panel. "It stops at an agency that is responsible for all relevant functions."
The U.S. education system is bloated with administrators and agencies at the local, state and national level, Tucker said.
Educators and administrators don't always get clear messages from those multiple layers of government involved in education about goals, which makes turning schools around more difficult.
In any system, "If you're trying to improve teaching and you send teachers mixed messages about what they should be doing, it all falls apart," he says. "Having different levels of government send conflicting messages – it's over. It's the ballgame."
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