“The Learning Curve,” the global ranking of education systems produced by the publishing company Pearson, is by most accounts a beautiful publication. A harmonious blend of narrative, appealing infographics, and images of joyous learning, the report sets about rating the performance of various school systems as nicely as it can. For the American reader, once they scroll past the advice and best practices, finding the U.S. slot isn’t as pretty. By the report’s latest edition, in 2012, the United States education system sits at 17th place out of 40 countries, and it’s not just behind those socialist Scandinavians. In addition to the classic northern European bloc—Finland (1st), Netherlands (7th), Denmark (9th)—the superior contenders also come from Asia (2nd through 5th), Oceania (New Zealand, 8; Australia, 13), the rest of Europe, and indeed, even Canada (a respectable 10th).
Each of the countries ahead of the U.S. has a fundamental commitment in common, one that the America doesn’t: a constitutional, or statutory, guarantee of the right to education. By centralizing education as a key focus of the state, these countries establish baseline requirements that set the frame for policy and judicial challenges, as well as contribute to what the Pearson report calls a “culture” of education: where “the cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own.” As the U.S. is about to embark on another national attempt at education reform in the Common Core, evidence suggests that a constitutional amendment, that rare beast, is both timely and vital to improved results. Comparing the American to the international approach to educational rights suggests that this reform might be a wise one.