The 10 Best Secondary Education Systems in the World


Having economic stability and maintaining high living standards starts and ends with an educated workforce. If the next generation is equipped with strong reading, math and science skills, they can compete in today’s tech-driven world. With that in mind, we’ve used facts and figures from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) in order to create a list of countries that provide the best high school education in the world. Think you’re smarter than a 10th grader? Unless you come from one of these 10 countries, consider us skeptical.

10. New Zealand

New Zealand might not rank as highly as some of these other countries, but it still made the list due to improvements in achievement levels. For instance, from 2012 to 2015, the country advanced from 13th to 10th in reading, 18th to 12th in science, and from 23rd to 21nd in math. Okay, so that last one is kind of… meh. Anyway, in recent years the government as undertaken sweeping reforms that focus on enhancing the professional development of the teachers as well as encouraging collaboration. Also, fun fact: the sheep population in New Zealand outnumbers the human population by a ratio of nearly 8:1. This has absolutely nothing to do with this article, but you can’t deny it’s mighty impressive.

9. The Netherlands

The Netherlands has a very unique system of education for which there is no counterpart. For instance, any individual or organization – private, public, religious – is allowed to open their own school and all receive equal amount of funding. Furthermore, they have complete autonomy over their hiring processes and are free to develop their own curriculum as long as they fulfill government guidelines and offer certain required subjects. They also have free, universal education starting at the age of 4. It has certainly paid off: students here rank 11th in the world in math and 15th in both reading and science.

8. Estonia

Considering that Estonia had a lot of catching up to do since declaring independence from the USSR in 1991, it’s remarkable that their system of education is not merely on par with the industrialized world, but in many cases is actually better. Compared to their EU counterparts, Estonia ranks tops in science, 2nd in math, and 3rd in reading. An important factor that has helped Estonia’s economy grow tenfold since gaining independence has been their focus on educating their youth in high-tech and high-skill fields. As a result, the country has become quite an IT hub.

7. Canada

Canadians might have silly accents, but their kids are pretty damn smart, ranking 2nd in the world in reading, 7th in science and 10th in math, according to recent figures. Much of the country’s success lies in how decentralized its system of education is, with the governments in each of the 10 provinces and 3 territories being responsible for curriculum development and determining education priorities that best suit their residents. What’s particularly interesting about academic achievement among students in Canada is that you won’t find much disparity in scores in terms of racial, ethnic or socioeconomic status, in contrast to their neighbors to the south.

6. Finland

Finland has developed such a solid reputation for their education system that the Ministry of Education has actually created an agency whose sole function is to show interested foreigners how they do it. The Finns rank 4th in reading, 5th in science and 13th in math, and while there is no single explanation for why Finland is so successful, it is clear that they invest a lot in their teachers, and the communities have a great deal of trust in their schools. It probably doesn’t hurt that all of the schools follow a national curriculum, which makes it easier for them to tinker around and make adjustments on a broad scale when seeking to improve educational outcomes.

5. South Korea

During the first half of the 20th century when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, Koreans weren’t allowed to get an education past primary school. As a result, 80% of the country was illiterate and upon gaining independence following WWII, there weren’t any teachers since nobody had the academic qualifications to do the job. The war between the North and South made things only worse. But by the mid-60s, illiteracy had been practical eliminated, and South Korea began to emerge as the economic powerhouse that it’s become today. South Korean students rank 7th in reading and math, and 11th in science. In addition, a full 98% of all students graduate from high school, the highest percentage in the world.

4. Japan

Given the reputation of the Japanese for being hardworking and high-achieving, it’s not a surprise that they made this list. They rank an impressive 2nd in the world in science and 5th in math, which probably brings them great shame and dishonor because, of course it would. One of the reasons why they have so much success is because students aren’t merely taught to memorize information, there is a lot of stress on using problem-solving skills and applying concepts that they’ve learned.

3. Taiwan

Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, and China, aka the People’s Republic of China, have a pretty complicated relationship. The post WWII civil war brought communism to the mainland, causing the defeated nationalists to flee to the island of Taiwan, and today both claim to be the legitimate government of the Chinese people. Economically, Taiwan is thriving, with a tech-heavy industry leading the way. Taiwanese students rank 4th in the world in science and math, and 23rd in reading.

2. Hong Kong

Since becoming reincorporated into China in 1997, Hong Kong has maintained a “One country, two systems” policy. One of the differences that distinguishes Hong Kong from the mainland is the belief that there should be minimal intervention of the government in the schools. In addition, rather than focusing on rote memorization, Hong Kongers learn how to apply concepts and demonstrate their skills in ways that are practical and ultimately help drive the island’s high-tech and financial-based economies. Students here rank 2nd in the world in reading and math, and 9th in science.

1. Singapore

Just 50 years ago, Singapore was an economic backwater with no industry and where the majority were illiterate. Today, it is one of the richest countries in the world, due in no small part to its high quality education. The Education Ministry is responsible for training teachers and putting together the national curriculum, and local superintendents are made up of former principals who excelled at their jobs. In spite of the country’s rigorous academic standards, a whopping 96.7% of students graduate from high school. Not surprisingly, the students here rank 1st in reading, math and science.