Leading High-Performance School Systems: Lessons from the World’s Best

Leading High-Performance School Systems … by Marc Tucker


A New Higher World Standard

Marc Tucker heads the National Center on Education and the Economy.  For thirty years he has made the case that our students will need High Skills for High Wages.  Here in Leading High-Performance School Systems he points out that basic jobs are being given over to automation or overseas workers.  The US is doing better than ever at getting all students to “basic” but the world standard has moved far ahead of the US.  High Performing nations are providing students – all students – with the equivalent of a US diploma by age 16.  Then they are integrating learning into real world employment skills like job ready credentials, complex thinking, strong communications and team building skills.

Systems that work

Tucker makes that point that High Performing School Systems are just that – systems that improve over time.  They integrate education with social policy and use consistent decades-long approaches.  The US he claims, really has no system at all. We are too fractionalized by differing national, state and local jurisdictions.

US Falling Behind

US students on average perform two to three grade levels behind the world’s best.  Our scores have actually gotten a bit better over time but are not keeping up with the leaders.  Who are the world’s best? Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Canada, Estonia, South Korea, Finland, Taiwan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Germany.

Tucker covers all of K-12 education (that’s a lot) in one book of barely over 200 pages.  Still, he makes a valiant effort to call out the good spots in US education and highlight areas where superintendents can make changes in the US system.

Building Blocks from the World’s Best School Systems

Listed below are Tucker’s indicators from the world’s best high performing systems.  He ends each chapter with what US superintendents can do; recognizing that many global leader steps are beyond the scope of local school districts.  Included below are some of those steps most amenable to local implementation.

Quality Early Learning

Leading nations provide quality child-care and pre-school along with a variety of family supports.  As a result, more children come to school healthy and ready to learn.

At-Risk Supports

Granted other nations do far more with public policy to reduce income disparities and support less fortunate.  Top-performing countries educate all students to high levels usually expected of only the elites.  They provide weighted formulas with more supports for the neediest schools, attract high quality teachers and have career ladders that place more high quality teachers with the neediest students.

US Recommendations:  Give more resources to schools with the greatest needs.  Assign the best teachers to the schools with the greatest needs.  Provide incentives for teachers of color.  Provide explicit instruction on teaching students of color.  Provide mentors for new teachers.  Set the same expectations for all students; giver more support/time for those falling behind.  Monitor, inspect and support schools that are falling behind.

World Class Highly Coherent Instructional Systems

Every word counts here.  World class includes much higher cognitive and application standards than we have in the US.  Highly coherent means they have a national curriculum aligned between grades and with assessment and graduation standards.  Instructional systems means they have curriculum frameworks that help guide teacher lesson plans.

US Recommendations:  Design course sequences to achieve Common Core requirements by the end of 10th grade. Create curriculum frameworks, syllabi, end of course exams and “qualifications” for next stages of learning.  Provide more time as needed to ensure all students meet qualifications. Provide examples of what high quality student work looks like


Top nations align curriculum, instruction and assessment. Students meet outcomes not through coursework or assessments but by meeting “qualifications” standards for their next academic and career steps.  These nations provide multiple pathways to high standards.  Some may do so academically.  Other may do so vocationally, graduating career ready for high paying, high tech jobs.

Lots of High Quality Teachers

These nations draw from the top third of college students.  Teaching is seen as prestigious work.  As a result, they have a surplus of talent.

US Recommendations:  Work with universities to raise admission standards and demand highly qualified teachers who understand teaching and have majors in course content.  Create incentives to identify high school students with great potential to become teachers.

Treat Teachers as Professionals

High performing nations may or may not pay teachers more than the US.  But they do treat teachers as professionals.  Teachers have office space and have half their time to work with other adults to improve lessons.  They have mentors and career ladders that support and encourage growth over a lifetime; meaning more continuity and less turnover.

US Recommendations:  Identify master teachers to serve as mentors and provide comprehensive on-boarding.  Increase compensation by paying the best teachers more to work with the highest need students.  Free up teacher time to work with colleagues to write lessons, observe each other, and improve as professionals.  Pair effective schools and teachers with less effective.  Provide time for teachers to pool their expertise in reaching each and every student by solving problems and creating effective interventions.

Career and Technical Training

Preparing students for true career readiness is a hallmark of top performing systems.  This means mastering the basics by age 16 and then having viable alternatives to apply high level thinking skills.

Leadership Development

High functioning systems cannot function without really good leadership.  The key is learning how to lead teams of instructional professionals.

US Recommendations:  Create leadership roles for teachers.  Mentor new principals.  Use action learning projects and networking to improve.  Engage stakeholders in understanding the new imperatives.  Start small to attain early gains and build support as you go.

Consistent and Coherent Governance

Effective systems require coherent policies and consistent implementation over time.  This means that everyone in the system knows how it works and how to support those systems.


Most importantly, great systems make sure these nine factors work together as one system, not nine separate systems.  The World’s Best Systems are closing gaps while reaching for very high standards by thinking very carefully about how all the parts fit together. Tucker urges school leaders to leave no stone unturned in the search for better ways to support the learning of the most vulnerable children.

  • Reviewed by Larry Nyland.
Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com