Pearson Education, in association with the Economist, has published its latest index on cognitive skills and educational attainment in a number of countries and an accompanying report. Unlike the end-of-schooling measurements that are frequently quoted, these also incorporate higher and tertiary education statistics. From the BBC report which focuses on the UK figures:

These rankings are based upon an amalgamation of international tests and education data - including the OECD's Pisa tests, and two major US-based studies, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).

They also include higher-education graduation rates, which helped the UK to a much higher position than in Pisa tests, which saw the UK failing to make the top 20.

A Learning Curve report accompanying the ranking says that the success of top-performing Asian countries reflects a culture in which teachers and schools are highly respected and "teachers, students and parents all take responsibility for education".

The report compares the same data in its 2012 report (seetable). By amalgamating the two sets of primary data, it is an equivalent of a "poll of polls".  The introduction to the report "The Learning Curve" (.pdf) cautions on the limitations of the methodology uses.
Even so, some conclusions from The Learning Curve can clearly be reached. One is the continuing rise of a number of Pacific Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which combine effective education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited ‘smartness’. Another is the significant challenge of improving skills and knowledge in adulthood, for people who were let down by their school system. This is one focus of The Learning Curve report and will become increasingly important to countries around the world.

These and other lessons need to be debated and understood country by country so that each can learn, in a sophisticated way, how to do better. Even the highest-performing countries in The Learning Curve rankings are far from providing education that would ensure every single student is prepared for informed citizenship and 21st century employability.

Other conclusions (from a quick reading) include the observation that these overall measures of education are better in countries where there is a commitment to education from teachers, students and parents.  
Schools in which principals work with teachers on school management, and thus can function autonomously, tend to produce better results; parental expectations have a measurable impact on student motivation; and
student interest has an effect on outcomes in a variety of ways. Effective education requires a broad range of actors, which points to the benefit of having a broadly supportive culture.
There also appears to be a correlation between good school results and the esteem in which teachers are held and rewarded, including involvement in the management of the school.

Among other snippets, also from page 4 of the pdf:

Scandinavian countries, strong performers in international education rankings since the 1990s, display mixed results. Finland, the 2012 Index leader, has fallen to 5th place, due to its performance in the 2012 PISA tests. Sweden has also declined (from 21st to 24th), fuelling the debate over the country’s free schools policy

Swedish "free schools" are analogous to the "Charter schools" in the USA. The report also cautions that role learning as practiced in some of the most highly ranked countries like South Korea does not allow for creativity necessary for some aspects of economic development.

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