One of the greater difficulties in assessing the success of different educational policies is deciding the best way to test for it. While standardized tests have been used for decades for this purpose, there are a multitude of opponents who believe standardized tests are discriminatory or paint an incomplete picture. For example, in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, twenty-seven percent of eligible students in Shanghai did not take the test due to policies preventing enrollment in the program. In the United States, that exclusion rate was only about eleven percent. While these claims should not be brushed aside, the widest implemented programs to determine the success of students in different nations are still based on standardized testing. Those findings, while incomplete, can still give us some indication of the impact of different approaches to education around the world. Though there are some nations and regions that have had a lasting grip on top of the tests, individual countries trying different approaches have been able to achieve great results. Focusing on what these top-ranking countries do differently, outside of their test scores, may help uncover what national policies have led to their success. The Center on International Education Benchmarking was created by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) with the purpose of researching and evaluating international education systems performance in the context of their history. By evaluating the policies and practices of top performing countries, they aim to bring effective education systems to every nation.

South Korea

South Korea had to overcome major setbacks in building its world class education system. In the first half of the 20th century, Korea was under Japanese occupation where teaching and enrollment in higher education was restricted to only the Japanese. When that occupation ended, South Korea was left with no teachers and no one educated to become teachers. This problem was only further complicated  by the Korean War. When South Korea again began taking on the high illiteracy rates and education problems, they did so with immediate success.

To respond to their nation’s education crisis, the government took control away from local school boards and concentrated it in the Ministry of Education. Which they used to implement their larger national plan. These efforts led to the literacy rate skyrocketing and South Korea becoming a world leader in the completion of secondary and post-secondary education. In South Korea, teaching is one of the most popular career choices among the young due to its stability, high pay, and social status, with the competitive nature of those positions leading to some of the most highly qualified teachers in the world.

The curriculum, while including traditional subjects like mathematics, history, reading and foreign language, also leaves room for classes that focus on the transition into school life and habits. As an alternative form of education, South Korea emphasizes the development of vocational schools that contain traditional general education alongside skill development for vocational work. These schools are effectively modernized and focus on trades such as semiconductor engineering. While testing has always been a part of their program and  will likely remain so, South Korea has developed new strategies to meet the needs of global markets and their own citizens as their education program has developed.

One of the key differences between South Korea and many North American or European programs is the proportion of students who receive private tutoring. After-hours education and the stress on testing performance created so much anxiety that the government took action to limit the hours of these programs. While being a key part of the success of their system and deserving to be mentioned, it also calls into question what can be implemented from their national program. 


The Finnish education system was not the result of a single policy, program, or administration. Since the creation of PISA testing, Finland has always ranked near the top in all categories. Though at first glance it may seem there is little in common between the South Korean planned education model and the steadily created Finnish system, one of the most apparent similarities between South Korea and Finland is the focus on developing high class teachers and their society’s view of it.

Finnish teacher education programs admit about only one of every ten students who apply. Even once an applicant makes it beyond the first screening round, they are observed in teaching-like activity and interviewed, with only those showing a clear aptitude for teaching admitted. Compared to other professions in Finland, their salaries are competitive. The national core curriculum is definitively thinner than other countries, and it serves as a guide rather than a lesson plan. Teachers are encouraged to focus on developing students’ creativity, management, and innovation skills.

Finnish schools combat problems with education differently, with a focus on learning through doing, group work, and creative problem-solving skills. Finnish students spend less time in the classroom and far more playing outside than their international peers. There is less focus on homework and more focus on meeting the child’s needs to learn. Finnish students stay together in classes with the same students and teachers, so their progress can be tracked and worked with by the same expert teacher over a number of years.

They also promote vocational schools and treat them as an equally viable choice for young people. Forty-seven percent of Finns that choose to continue their education select vocational programs. As one of the more unique global education systems, it is hard to gauge how much of what they have achieved is transferable to the systems of other countries. Despite its clear individuality, what it shares with other successful nations can and should be noted. Finland, like South Korea, focuses on developing teachers of the highest quality and the option of vocational education to its great and consistent benefit.


Japan has always placed a high value on education and prided its country on being egalitarian. The complex curriculum, set by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, demands mastery over a great deal of information about the fundamental subjects. However, it also stresses problem-solving ability and the mastery of concepts underlying the disciplines.

Similar to South Korea, the cultural and societal pressure around academic success has created an enormous market for after-school private tutoring. Similarly to South Korea, the government is attempting to curtail the tutoring due to the immense pressure on students and disparate economic availability of those institutions to all Japanese students. Their future plans for education look to support the development of emotional intelligence and physical health alongside academic abilities.

Teaching is a highly respected profession in Japan and is competitively compensated in comparison to most other civil servant positions. A policy adopted after World War II specifically raised teacher pay and was aimed at remedying teacher shortages by providing a greater incentive. Like their students, teachers in Japan are monitored based on a series of rigorous exams and evaluations; and like the other countries previously mentioned, the applicants are highly educated and rarely accepted into the job. However, the program puts less focus on vocational education, with only twenty percent choosing to attend those schools compared to forty percent of the students in the 1990s.


Estonia is a more recent addition to the top-ranking countries in PISA scores. A nation that only gained independence in 1992, Estonians have pushed to foster an education system aimed toward high-tech, high-skill, and high-wage jobs.  The rebuilding of their education system focused on building a relevant national curriculum, increasing teacher education requirements, and the expansion of vocational education.

Students attend compulsory education from age six to seventeen, and afterwards are offered the option of continuing their education, choosing a vocational school, or entering the workforce. The compulsory education focuses on traditional academic subjects alongside other life skills like self-management, entrepreneurship, and learning itself. Estonian classrooms are the smallest of all other OECD countries, with a student-teacher ratio of seven-to-one. Student performance is assessed by exams, both national and local. However, for their national exams, one section is left entirely to the discretion of the student, allowing the students flexibility and control over how they are evaluated.

Estonian teachers are compensated less than teachers in the countries previously mentioned, with starting salaries comparable to the United States. However, the government has worked towards increasing salaries to create a more competitive hiring process. Despite these setbacks, the teachers are trained and selected with a focus on hands-on teaching work and high educational attainment.

Estonia set out with a plan and worked to achieve it, creating a market focused education system rivaling others in Europe while starting from nothing thirty years ago. Combining practical and traditional education, students are able to excel academically and continue into typical high education or move towards a career they find themselves more suited to.


These top-performing countries seem to prove the veracity of the claim that there is no silver bullet. One test or program is not enough to change the direction of a national education system. While these nations took different paths with respect to their own culture and traditions, there are some similarities that seem reproducible. All programs concentrated on raising the educational requirements for teachers and making that goal realistic through better compensation. They all sought the introduction of a more holistic approach to education, with programs and activities not represented in their high-test scores. Overall, these societies place great value on education, and the intrinsic link between the schooling of their youth and their countries economic direction is discussed and acted upon with regularity. There may not be a silver bullet, but a consistent focus on the quality of teachers and the students’ career trajectory seems to be a strategy worth consideration.

Author Biography: Connor Noel is a moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He received a B.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology at Christopher Newport University.