World Class Education

9 Building Blocks for a World Class Education System

The 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System is a distillation of more than 25 years of research conducted on the world’s best education systems by the National Center on Education and the Economy.


Provide strong supports for children and their families before students arrive at school

  • Countries in which young children who come to school healthy, eager to learn and ready to profit from the instruction tend to be countries in which those children do well in school.
  • Most strong performers have extensive government supports for prenatal care, mother and child nutrition, universal health care, high-quality childcare for working mothers, high-quality preschools and family allowances for families with young children. Countries with higher proportions of women in the paid workforce tend to have the strongest government supports for families with young children.


Provide more resources for at-risk students than for others

  • Top-performing countries have made explicit decisions to create systems in which all students are educated to standards formerly reserved only for their elites.
  • Policymakers in these countries know that if less-advantaged students are going to achieve at league-leading levels they will have to have access to more resources than students who come to school with greater advantages.
  • Most of the top-performing countries provide more teachers to harder to educate students. Some are even providing strong incentives to their best teachers to work in classes and schools serving students from low income and minority families.


Develop world-class, highly coherent instructional systems

  • Top-performing systems typically develop one to three summative assessments to be taken by students over the whole course of their school career, taken by all students. These are usually in the form of examinations requiring students to respond with essays, or, in the case of mathematics, by showing how they went about solving multi-step problems.
  • No top-performing country relies primarily on computer-scored, multiple-choice tests because they do not believe such tests can adequately test for acquisition of the high-level cognitive skills they are aiming for.
  • Summative assessments are typically used to hold students, not teachers, accountable for their performance; the options available to students as they proceed with their education or enter the workplace are significantly affected by their performance on these exams.
  • Scores by school are widely published.
  • The content of the entire examination is typically made public after the exam is given. Also, examples of high-scoring student work are made public in order to provide guidance to teachers and students in the future as to what kind of student work will win high scores.
  • In some countries, low scores for schools result in visits from expert principals and teachers who develop recommendations to improve the performance of the school.


Create clear gateways for students through the system, set to global standards, with no dead ends

  • Instead of issuing a high school diploma—essentially a certificate of attendance—top-performing countries issue qualifications showing what high school courses the holder has taken and the grades earned in those courses.
  • Because the state has specified the content of the courses and because the exams are developed and administered by the state, not the school or district, everyone knows just what the student has accomplished.
  • Students are highly motivated to take the necessary courses and do well in them, whether they want to be a brain surgeon or an auto mechanic.
  • Countries with well-developed qualifications systems have arranged them into pathways such that an individual can always go back later and pick up a qualification that he or she missed earlier.
  • Successful systems have no dead ends; all paths can be linked up to others so that students can always go further in their education without having to start at the beginning.
  • The qualification students receive at the end of a course of study is their ticket of admission to the next stage of their education.


Assure an abundant supply of highly qualified teachers

    • The top-performing countries believe it will be impossible to deliver to all their students the kind and quality of education formerly reserved for their elites unless they are able to put a very highly qualified teacher in front of all their students.
    • Top-performing countries recruit their teachers from the top ranks of high school graduating classes, most in the top third to top quarter, or, in some cases, the top five percent.
    • Admissions screens are rigorous and comprehensive and take into account:

    – Academic qualifications (class rank, grades, scores on admissions exams)

    – Ability to relate well to students (sometimes through observation

    – Passion for teaching (through interviews with expert educators)

    The ratio of applicants to acceptances for entrance into teacher education institutions can be as high as 10 to one.

  • A growing number of countries are limiting access to approved programs of teacher education to those offered only by their research institutions.
  • Top performers develop very rigorous requirements for mastery of the subject matter the prospective teacher will teach.
  • At least a year is given over to mastery of the craft of teaching, either during teacher preparation or the first year of employment as a new teacher serves as an apprentice of a Master Teacher.


Redesign schools to be places in which teachers will be treated as professionals, with incentives and support to continuously improve their professional practice and the performance of their students

  • Improving the competence of currently serving teachers is a priority as depending solely on newly trained teachers results in delayed improvement.
  • Career ladders are created that develop the skills of the current teacher workforce and establish a culture and organization that provides strong incentives for teachers to get better and better at the work and supports continuous improvement of the school as a whole.
  • The career ladders have multiple levels, each level of which is broken down into several steps. All except those at the top of the career ladders have teacher mentors.
    • Teachers at the upper levels of the teacher career ladder:

    – Serve as mentors to new teachers and others lower on the ladder

    – Identify areas in which the curriculum and instruction methods need to be improved

    -Lead teams in the process of researching and then developing improved curriculum, lessons, materials and formative assessment techniques.

    • Teachers constantly observe each other’s teaching; demonstrate new lessons to their colleagues; critique these lessons; revise them; and implement them once they have demonstrated their worth.
    • Teachers meet regularly by grade and by subject to participate in all these processes. The research, development, trial, revision and evaluation process is very disciplined and highly collegial.
    • Professional development is an integral part, indeed a result, of how the work of the school gets done. There is wide access to workshops for professional teachers, but this is not a workshop model of professional development.
    • The integrity of the whole system depends on the creation of powerful career ladders, which in effect define what it means to have a career in teaching and create an environment in which teachers come to be treated as leaders and as professionals.
    • Staffing ratios are similar to those in other countries, but class sizes tend to be larger in the top performers, which makes time—typically 40 percent of the school day—available to teachers to work with one another in teams to design and implement interventions intended to improve the performance of their school and students.
    • Teachers use teaching methods that require large class sizes to develop students’ deep understanding of the subject they are studying.
    • Staffing ratios are modestly higher in schools serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds and slightly lower in schools serving others.


Create an effective system of career and technical education and training

  • Healthy, competitive economies that support broadly shared prosperity depend upon an effective system of vocational education and training (VET).
  • VET systems risk collapse when enrollment is below 40 percent of all students. Below that point, it is increasingly likely that the VET system will be viewed as a system of last resort for students who have no other option.
  • Successful VET systems have no dead ends; they offer viable routes for students enrolled in VET programs to acquire the additional education and training they will need to work in the professions and in senior management if that is what they aspire to.
  •  Quality training is offered that embeds modern technical skills on state-of-the-art equipment at the hands of teachers and mentors who are deeply versed in the most up-to-date equipment and practices.
  • VET students study in settings that have all the attributes of real industry settings, or are offered an opportunity to study in real industrial settings, or both. Students receive a training wage that is increased as their value to their employer increases but is set at a level that makes it attractive for employers to offer apprenticeships.
  • Skill standards reflect the state-of-the-art in the industries being trained for and a high level of investment in the education and training of the students.
  • The demand of industry for skilled workers in the industries served by the system is matched with the supply being produced.
  • There are standards that employers must meet to offer apprenticeships that guarantee that students will receive the education and training needed to meet agreed industry standards; industry associations provide those services that individual firms cannot.


Create a leadership development system that develops leaders at all levels to manage such systems effectively

    • Successful systems identify and develop leaders who can:

– Get broad agreement on demanding goals for both the students and the staff,

– Create and successfully implement effective strategies for achieving those goals,   – Recruit a highly capable staff,

– Organize and manage the school in a way that is designed to incentivize that  staff to get better and better at the work and to provide the resources they need to do that, and

– Create a culture in the school founded on the belief that all students can achieve  at high levels of performance, whatever it takes.

  • Successful systems seek out and develop school leaders with a combination of strategic skills, self-knowledge, patience, drive, management skill, ethical roots, moral qualities and a strong command of what is known world-wide about managing professionals for high performance.
  • Top-performing systems typically:Limit access to the principalship to people who have proven themselves highly effective teachers;

– Work hard to build a deep pool of candidates for principal positions by grooming capable teachers who appear to have strong leadership potential; they groom them for the principal positions by offering them a succession of progressively demanding opportunities to lead teacher teams in the school;

– Train principals entirely on the job or in a combination of formal training and on-the-job training, but the training always involves a clinical experience and mentoring by a successful school leader;

– Provide new school principals with access to a group of experienced peers and mentors who support them in their career growth, guide them toward professional learning opportunities aligned to their aspirations, and help them realize their personal goals and goals for the growth of their students;

–  Provide strong incentives for especially effective principals to take responsibility for mentoring less successful principals; in some cases, the most successful principals are asked to take responsibility for providing guidance to the principals of more than one low-performing school; and

– Provide principals with opportunities to regularly visit other schools in their district, state or province, and even abroad, in order to learn about successful practices in those schools, districts and countries and adapt their own leadership practice accordingly. This practice is intended to keep leaders learning continuously and to promote a benchmarking culture.


Institute a governance system that has the authority and legitimacy to develop coherent, powerful policies and is capable of implementing them at scale

  • To develop a modern, high performance education system with high and internationally competitive levels of student performance and high levels of equity at reasonable cost depends on having an institution comparable to a typical department of education in a high-performing country.
  • In top-performing systems, either at the state or national level, there is a place where the buck stops that has responsibility for all policymaking or management functions directly related to education and can be held accountable for the design and functioning of the system as a whole.
  • In effective systems, education professionals in the government are responsible for planning and proposing policies that can then be debated by the responsible elected officials, and are then responsible for carrying out the decisions their legislatures make.

Marc Tucker, “9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System”, (Washington, DC:

National Center on Education and the Economy, 2016). The complete report can found at