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Northern European teenagers are 10+ percent more likely to graduate from secondary school than their American counterparts and learn considerably more as well. This paper explains why Northern Europe’s upper-secondary schools have achieved school cultures that accomplish so much more than typical American secondary schools.

The keys to N. Europe's success are:

1. Parents/students decide which program of study to enter.

2. Programs have well signaled reputations that influence access to occupations/professions and higher education programs.

3. Undertaking a challenging program confers prestige.

4. If the program turns out to be too difficult or poorly taught, transfers to a more appropriate program are arranged.

5. A spirit of solidarity is promoted among the students in each program.

6. Students are not competing against classmates. Some learning activities involve large group projects. Teachers encourage fast learners to assist classmates having difficulty.

7. Program funding depends on enrollment, so teachers and principals are no longer incentivized to push-out lagging or troublesome students.

8. Supplementing teacher assessments, there are high quality externally-set examinations describing what students have learned and are able to do at the end of the program.

9. This information is made available when the student applies for a job or admission to a post- secondary institution. Employers and post-secondary institutions recruit/select secondary school leavers based in part on this rich and nuanced information.

10. Students who worked hard to attain the skills taught are rewarded in a natural way by employers and college admission officers.

11. Teachers teach but they also coach and market their students to the next stage of life.

12. Each teacher/student team [program] believes that the goals and achievements they aspire to are just as important and socially valuable as the objectives of the other secondary programs.

Choice and external examinations are essential, but they must be structured in a particular way that is designed to build a pro-engagement esprit de corps in each of the teacher led student teams.


Suggested Citation
Bishop, J. H. (2010). Which secondary education systems work best? The United States or Northern Europe. Retrieved [insert date] from Cornell University, ILR School site:

Required Publisher Statement
Copyright by the author.