Schools systems need to give teachers more freedom to be creative if they want to move from "good" to "great", according to a new study by global consultants McKinsey published last week.
The report uses international examples of successful systems to suggest the types of reforms needed to bring others to the next level.
These would be "characterised by more highly skilled educators" and "provide only loose guidelines on teaching and learning processes", it says.
McKinsey's last major schools report in 2007 argued that teacher quality was the key ingredient of the world's best-performing education systems. It did much to change the terms of the global debate on school reform.
The new report covers 20 school systems in a range of countries, including England, which was the only UK nation studied. It found that England's performance had plateaued at "good" for over a decade.
Singapore, by contrast, is shown as being at the same "good" stage as England at the start of 1999, but it quickly progressed and is shown as having achieved "great" standards for more than a decade.
The report charts how Singapore introduced reforms in 1997 which focused on pupils' ability and "required schools to be given much greater flexibility and responsibility for how they should teach and manage their students". They also "gave teachers greater freedom in classroom practice".
The report says any schools system can make "significant" gains in six years or less, providing they employ the reforms appropriate to their particular level of development. Continuity in leadership is seen as a crucial factor and improving systems "actively cultivate" the next generation of leaders.
But it argues that today's debate on school reform places too little emphasis on changing processes such as curriculum and pedagogy, and tends to concentrate on changing structures and increasing funding or staffing.
The consultants note that, while all the systems they studied used data to monitor progress, only the least advanced ones, and Anglo-American systems such as England's, used it to set school targets. Asian and Eastern European systems, by contrast, avoided target setting.
One leader from an unnamed Asian system said: "We have never used targets . No good for our students could ever come from making school data public and embarrassing our educators."
The report, co-written by Sir Michael Barber, former head of Tony Blair's Downing Street delivery unit, pinpoints a leadership change as one of the factors that can ignite a system's reform. It goes on to identify Sir Michael himself as the "strategic leader" that made the difference in England.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented: "The move away from centralised direction is very welcome, but only if the schools have the resources they need."
The McKinsey report, How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, can be viewed in PDF format by clicking the links to the right of this story