An education system is a construct of policies, practices and institutions as well as the teachers, students and families that take part in the aggregate. The quality of an education system affects everything from literacy rates to employment opportunities to health outcomes.
As such, it’s important for governments to invest in their education systems and several have done just that by increasing budgets for public education and implementing school improvement initiatives . Along with improved funding , these countries also promote accountability through standardized testing.
Education systems vary widely across the globe, but which have been rated the best worldwide?
Read on for a list of 10 countries with top-ranked K–12 education systems.
1. United States of America
The U.S. education system has been ranked as one of the best in the world, though it also faces some challenges . In 2010, the country spent more than any other on elementary and secondary public education , but test scores among 15-year-olds haven’t improved over 20 years. In addition, the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students is five times larger than it was 40 years ago.
However, some reports indicate that more people are choosing to become teachers . The percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree who entered teaching after their freshman year dropped from 14 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2009—indicating that educators may be getting better training before entering the field.
2. United Kingdom
The United Kingdom’s education system is overseen by its Department of Education , which sets policies for pre-K to higher education.
The country makes it compulsory for children ages 5–16 to attend school, with free public education available through secondary or high school.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.K.’s educational system has had mixed results in recent years .
Overall scores on math, reading and science tests have fallen since 1995, though the country generally outperforms most other OECD countries in those subjects .
Students can choose from state-run schools, private schools that receive government funding or private schools that do not receive government funds.
In addition, parents have a say in where their children go to school by electing local representatives, who make up the majority of the schools’ governing bodies.
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The Finnish education system has repeatedly been hailed for its high-quality standards, with teachers given high levels of autonomy in the classroom. Students receive extensive support from parents, including subsidized meals at school.
Education policy is centered on skill formation rather than grades or test scores.
And thanks to a revamped curriculum implemented in the 1970s , students have more free time and better health, both physically and mentally.
The Finnish school year begins in August or September and ends the following June, with Saturday classes available for students who need extra help.
Japan’s education system has been praised as a model example of equity, with high-achieving students from low-income families receiving the same attention as their wealthier peers.
In addition, Japan’s rigorous college entrance exam which students spend years preparing for ensures that those who graduate from high school are truly college ready.
But standardized testing and rote learning aren’t emphasized in Japanese schools; instead, students develop social skills and moral character .
According to PISA , more than half of Japanese 15-year-olds fail to meet minimum standards in math, reading and science so how do Asian countries continue to outperform Western countries?
It’s possible they emphasize noncognitive factors such as motivation and persistence more than superior problem-solving skills.
Singapore’s education system has been praised for its high standards, with the country taking first place in both reading and math on PISA’s 2012 assessment. Singapore also topped TIMSS’ 2011 math rankings .
Its curriculum is designed to prepare students for future workforces. And though teachers aren’t required to have bachelor’s degrees , those who do earn higher salaries than most other countries’ teachers at similar levels of experience and training .
Meanwhile, strong family support enables children from low-income families to excel in school. Schools themselves are divided into three categories: Special Assistance Plan schools admit academically weak children, and teach them using a slower pace, Normal (Technical) schools focus on engineering and technical skills; and Express schools prepare top students for university.
Norway’s education system has also come in for praise, with PISA results revealing that students have top scores in reading, math and science.
But there are some problems: Students report very little trust in their teachers, even though they rate their own abilities high.
And girls, who outperform boys academically , are more likely to drop out of school before getting a degree or diploma . Norway’s curriculum puts an emphasis on critical thinking skills but doesn’t require national testing programs to monitor student progress .
Strong support from parents is one reason Norway performs better than similar countries.
Norwegian children receive free health care until age 18, ensuring that all students can focus on their studies.
And because everything from textbooks to pencils to after school activities is provided by the government, Norwegian families don’t need extra income to pay for education-related costs.
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Canada’s education system has been praised for its high standards and strong student-teacher relations.
It takes an average of 6 years to complete a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, which some argue is ideal as it encourages students to work hard and graduate on time .
The country’s performance on international tests has been mediocre ; but those who do well tend to achieve more than their counterparts in other countries.
One reason: Math scores are considerably more variable than reading scores , meaning that more Canadian students score at the highest level (compared with only 5 percent of Japanese and Korean students).
Additionally, teachers have high levels of autonomy; many schools don’t offer Advanced Placement classes because teachers want to ensure all students meet the same standards, not just a select few.
The Netherlands’ education system is considered among the best in the world, taking 7 of the top 10 spots on 2012’s PISA reading assessments.
The country also ranked among the highest for math and science. And though only about 3 percent of its 15-year-olds are limited to functional illiteracy , one interesting challenge concerns immigrant students who perform below average.
Education officials have set a goal that all students will achieve or exceed minimum standards by 2029.
Another key element of Dutch education: It’s highly decentralized, with many decisions made at a school level.
Teachers are trusted to make important decisions such as how to spend their teaching time which has resulted in better student achievement .
And because teachers are selected directly from universities, they receive higher salaries than other countries’ teachers at similar levels of experience and training.
Australia performs well in international comparisons despite its immigration policies, which attract students from all over the world.
But it still faces challenges: Though more students are graduating college than before, the country is also spending less money for each student’s education.
Its high school graduation rate is lower than most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries’.
And because Australia has only 6 percent of its population enrolled at universities (compared with 25 percent in the U.S.), there’s concern that Australia won’t be able to compete globally if it doesn’t increase university enrollment .
Its school system is recommended by some experts, however; one key reason being that teachers tend to get higher salaries compared with teachers’ wages in other OECD nations .
Additionally, primary and secondary school students spend equal amounts of time in the classroom with teachers who are required to have master’s degrees.
Sweden’s education system has historically been one of the best in the world . It performed well on international assessments such as PISA, and students generally do well.
But OECD researchers suggest it might want to pay more attention to immigrant students; those who don’t speak Swedish (the majority) and attend preschool where they learn primarily through that language tend to under-perform compared with their peers.
And Sweden has a high number of children living in poverty – according to 2012 OECD figures, 13 percent – which can create stress among students.
Nevertheless, Sweden continues to set the standard for how much time should be spent teaching subjects such as math and science: The country’s school system consists primarily of master’s degree holders who teach classes for about 800 hours a year.
State-funded schools are run by local governments, but the national government makes funding available to all schools.
This ensures that small schools have adequate resources even though they don’t have enough students for financial viability.
Parents also pay an “education fee” on top of their property taxes, which is used to fund public education along with central government money.
There are some more great countries with best education and didn’t included in list.
On the whole, students are doing well in the countries considered to have the best education systems.
But there are concerns among educators and policymakers about student performance in some nations, especially those with insufficient learning opportunities for disadvantaged students or higher concentrations of immigrant populations.
Those challenges may be reflected by certain nations’ rankings on the United States’ PISA reading assessments, which show that all countries but one have outperformed American students between 2009 and 2012.
The U.S., meanwhile, ranked 38th out of 64 nations surveyed for science schools , below average.
But other factors may also play a role: For example, teachers must be educated at universities instead of vocational institutions such as teacher colleges, they receive higher salaries than their peers compared with teachers in most Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states, and they are required to work fewer hours.
And students go to school for at least the same amount of time as peers of other countries; some studies show that more instructional time might be beneficial.
Additionally, there’s a push for more student testing in countries with education systems considered great worldwide – whether it’s done through PISA or another international assessment.
That could provide teachers with immediate feedback on what material needs to be covered more thoroughly during class or extra help afterward.