Much attention has been paid lately to the “Achievement Gap” between our nation’s highest and lowest-performing students. It's become the focal point for reform programs like the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top Program. These programs assume that our top students are setting a high bar, and that their schools are places to emulate. But are they?

A team of researchers from Stanford and Munich decided to compare America’s highest-achieving students with those from other countries. After studying scores from the international PISA math exam, they came to a disturbing conclusion: “the percentage of American students in the U.S. class of 2009 who are highly accomplished is well below that of most countries with which the US compares itself.” In other words, only 6% of American students scored at the highest level, compared to countries like Taiwan at 28%, South Korea at 23%, and Finland at 20%. In fact, the list of thirty countries that outscored us “…includes virtually all of the advanced industrialized nations of the world.”

The researchers wondered whether the scores were skewed because our public schools take all comers. But when they compared subsets like white students, or students from college-educated parents, they found that these groups also lagged behind most of the other countries: “this is not a story of immigrant or disadvantaged or minority students hiding the strong performance of better-prepared students.”

This report offers a dire warning: we are not preparing our students to enter the workforce with the skills they need in the new millennium. And as a result, we need to focus on a new gap: “the gap between the burgeoning demand for a highly accomplished workforce and a lagging education system." We're seeing results of this gap right now in our current workforce. "Even as the US was struggling with a near 10 percent unemployment rate in the summer of 2010, businesses complained that they could not find workers with needed skills.”

Clearly, we must fix our system. But how? What do the other nations do that we don’t? McKinsey & Co is a consulting company that advises businesses and governments on policies, best practices, counseling and other services. In 2007, they compared the school systems of the countries that took the PISA scores. Their resulting report was called How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top. Its findings were clear: “Schools need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers, and step in when pupils start to lag behind.”

How does America compare when we consider these recommendations? Not well, if we look at the statistics. In South Korea, for instance, teacher recruitment is taken very seriously. According to one of their officials, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” South Korea therefore recruits from the top 5% of graduating college students. America, in contrast, tends to recruit from the bottom third. Salaries for new teachers in South Korea are 141% of the country’s GDP. In America they are only 81%, trailing professions like programming, accounting, and nursing. In addition, pink slips are routine for new American teachers, so there’s no job security to compensate for low wages.

How about teacher support? This includes time to collaborate with colleagues, getting advice from mentors, and support from other agencies when students implode. Singapore, the second-highest scoring country, provides teachers with 100 hours of training a year and supports senior teachers to oversee professional development in each school. Teaching is viewed as an honored, lifelong career. In America, teachers are thrown into their classrooms and left to fend for themselves, and half of all new teachers quit within five years. Even the U.S. Department of Education admits that this is because of “a lack of support and a ‘sink or swim’ induction” into the teaching profession.

Finally, how well do we accommodate the needs of individuals? According to McKinsey, “High-performing systems are better at ensuring that each student receives the instruction they need to compensate for their home background.” These countries set high expectations, then intervene “early and often” with students who are struggling to meet them. Finland has more special education teachers than any other country – in any given year, a third of pupils get on-on-one remedial help. This not only helps the targeted student, but also frees up teachers’ time with the remaining students. By contrast, about one tenth of American students receive any type of special education services.

We’ve all experienced the magic of truly gifted teachers. They push our minds, shape our goals, and change our lives. And yet, we seem to believe that teachers are interchangeable, and that the secret to improving education is to create a level of standardization that makes schools teacher-proof. But perhaps we need to learn from the countries with higher scores, countries who have proven that great teachers are themselves the driving force behind educational success.

Bill Gates recently wrote, “Compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop, and regard excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.” If we’re going to improve our math scores and prepare students to compete with their global peers, then it’s time for immediate and sweeping reform. We must tempt top recruits with competitive salaries while holding sub-par teachers accountable. We must support both new teachers and the dedicated veterans who keep our schools afloat. And lastly, we must identify and assist those children for whom a little early intervention will prevent years of struggle. There’s no time to lose, for when we consider our global competition, it’s clear that the vast majority of American students are being left behind.