The Chinese city of Shanghai came top for mathematics, reading and science among teenagers in a study that suggested East Asian schools were driving academic excellence by tackling tough classrooms and abandoning rote-learning.
Fifteen-year-olds in the United States trailed in maths and were average for reading and science in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's triennial student survey that assessed its 34 members and 31 mostly developing countries.
With a special focus on mathematics, the latest Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA) tested the maths, reading and science knowledge of some 510,000 15-year-olds last year.
Released on Tuesday, the study said schools in East Asian countries dominated the league table. With Shanghai at the top, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao and Japan also won high marks for mathematics, reading and science.
Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands also made it into the top 10 best performing education systems while Germany and Poland made significant progress.
In maths, students in Shanghai had the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above the OECD average.
The recipe of East Asia's success is setting high standards for all schools and giving them the means to achieve them, the OECD's head of education Andreas Schleicher told Reuters.
"They basically succeed in attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms, they get really great principals in the tough schools," Schleicher said.
"They mobilize resources where they can make the most differences," he added.
In a new development, the OECD found that East Asian students were increasingly able to extrapolate from what they were taught and use their knowledge creatively - skills traditionally more associated with Western school systems.
"Many Asian systems have been able to overcome the stereotypes of rote-learning," Schleicher said.
TEACHER SALARIES PART OF THE ANSWER
The PISA are closely watched by policymakers and parents around the world to see how their education system stacks up.
Poor rankings matter as they can trigger the soul searching that leads to change. Germany's surprise, below-average showing in 2000 led to reforms that put it back among the best ranked.
So what, according to the results, is the recipe for making a high-performing education system?
Part of the answer appears to be paying teachers well. High-performing school systems tended to pay their teachers more compared to national per capita income, the OECD said.
But that was only part of the answer as well-qualified teachers also had to be sent to disadvantaged schools to make a bigger difference.
The best-performing school systems tended to share resources more equitably between advantaged and disadvantaged schools, suggesting it's not just how much a country spends on education as how well and fairly it spends it.
Across OECD countries, students from wealthier backgrounds are about a year ahead of their less-advantaged peers. Early starters also performed better, with students who attended pre-primary school at about a year ahead of those who did not.
The OECD recommended in particular that governments subsidize pre-primary education in poor areas.
Schleicher said East Asian countries still had work to do on ensuring that talented students get top jobs, noting it remained difficult for women in those countries to break the glass ceiling despite being highly educated.
Nonetheless, their top marks in education were setting the stage for strong economies, he said.
"Your education is your economy tomorrow. Our economies increasingly depend on the talent so those countries are positioning themselves very well."