Center on International Education Benchmarking

Learning Systems

The following policy briefs are based on NCEE’s research into the practices of the world’s top-performing education systems as articulated in NCEE’s The Design of High-Performing Education Systems.

Instructional Systems | Gateways | Examples from Top Performers

Top-performing learning systems for primary and secondary school students are well-designed, coherent and integrated, with clear gateways set to high standards.

Building Block 3: Develop world-class, highly coherent instructional systems

Top-performing systems typically have well-developed, highly coherent and very demanding instructional systems for all students. They incorporate:

  • student performance standards that emphasize the acquisition of complex knowledge, deep conceptual understanding of the subjects studied, the ability to write well and to synthesize materials from many disciplines to address real world problems, and strong analytical skills and the capacity for creative and innovative thinking;
  • curriculum frameworks that specify the sequence of topics to be covered grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject, but expect teachers to create lesson plans with guidance and support; and
  • summative assessments that rely on essay-based answers or, in the case of mathematics, multi-step problems requiring explanations of how they were solved. These assessments hold students, not teachers, accountable for results, and are only given from a few times throughout compulsory schooling at key transition points.

Building Block 4: Create clear gateways for students through the system, set to global standards, with no dead ends.

The top-performing countries also create clear gateways for students through the system, set to global standards. This allows everyone to know what is expected of students and what students have accomplished.  The systems of qualifications top performing countries create have no dead ends, so that individuals can always go further with their education.

Examples from Top-Performing Countries

Canada does not have a national curriculum; rather, the provincial governments are responsible for establishing the curriculum for their schools, and each province has its own, ministry-established common curriculum. However, the Ministers of Education from each province have joined together in the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), in order to establish best practices in a collaborative effort. All provinces develop their own assessments and curriculum frameworks. Most have province-wide examinations for certain year groups, during which the assessment measures numeracy and literacy, and core-subject tests to determine graduation eligibility in senior high school. In primary and lower secondary school, test scores do not typically determine progression to the next phase of education. Graduation from upper secondary school, however, is often based on exam performance and course credits. British Columbia is the province that has most recently revamped its primary and secondary school curriculum, and ensuring that assessments are aligned.

In Japan, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), in conjunction with university professors and the Central Council for Education, establishes broad guidelines for the content of each school subject from pre-school education through senior high school. The curriculum for each grade level is carefully calibrated to pick up each year where the previous grade left off, and to ensure preparation for the following grade. Students take school-developed exams at the end of lower secondary and upper secondary schools, both of which have an impact on their placement in the next level of the education system. Admission into senior high schools is extremely competitive, and in addition to entrance examinations, the student’s academic work, behavior and attitude, and record of participation in the community is also taken into account. Following senior high school, a Japanese student’s future is dependent on their score on the national achievement exam, as well as their performance on the individual exams administered by each university.

In Singapore, there are a series of gateway exams that students take as they move through the education system.  The national curriculum is aligned to these gateway exams , at each level, teachers have access to past test examples so that they are able to prepare students for the kinds of questions they may be asked on the exams.  The first test is the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) given to students at about age 12 at the end of Primary 6.  Scores on the PSLE determine what type of secondary school a student can apply to.  There are four types of secondary schools: Special, Express, Normal Academic or Normal Technical schools. Approximately 60 percent of Singaporean students enter the Special or Express (pre-university) pats.  The rest choose either Normal Academic or Normal Technical path.  In any of these pathways, students study the same subjects; the difference is in the level of complexity of the materials and projects.

Singapore secondary schools use customized International General Certification of Secondary Education (IGCSE) curriculum developed by the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Special and Express pathways are four-year courses leading to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE “O” Level examination. Normal Academic is a four-year pathway that primarily leads to the GCE “N” Level examination, although students can choose to take the more rigorous “O” level exam. Normal Technical is a four-year course that emphasizes more technical skills in preparation for further vocational and technical training at the Institute of Technical Education. It is possible for Normal Technical students to do well on the “N” level exams and make a lateral transfer to Normal Academic to take the “O” levels. Most Normal Technical students follow the vocational and technical pathway, with only a small number earning acceptance to polytechnics or universities. Following secondary school, 30 percent of students enter junior colleges, 40 percent enter polytechnics, and 20 percent enter Institutes of Technical Education. All of these options can lead to higher education.