The recent book The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley is an attempt to glean information from countries that have improved their education system and even surpassed the U.S. (which nowadays isn't as big of a deal). Ripley doesn't just talk to school administrators and teachers. She doesn't just talk to theorists and test makers. She talks to students! And foreign exchange students at that.
In Finland the "government abolished school inspections. It didn't need them anymore. Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks. They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated." (p. 90)
"One thing was clear: To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible." (p. 193)
Ripley follows three American exchange students who go to Finland, Poland, and South Korea. We learn a lot from their perspective.
This is an excellent book that should start the ball rolling for getting US schools back on track.