One of the big differences, and probably the hardest to change, is that the general national cultures buy into the idea of education. Finland has 'stoner kids', but they show up in class, turn in the homework, and write their assigned essays.
South Korea may take this too much to the extreme, since everything builds up to the college entrance exams, where getting into one of the top three universities assures you of a sweet life, and anything else is failure. Although it's absolutely charming to hear that during the English language portion of the exam (where I presume the students have to listen closely to canned English speech) the country shuts down air travel for those hours. It's less charming that everyone sends their kids to after school hagwons, for-profit tutoring classes that run all night. Indeed, there are police task forces dedicated to shutting down hagwons that run past the 10 pm studying curfew. And since the kids are studying in the afternoon and night with the best-paid tutors, many actually sleep in their regular classes, since they find the hagwons are better. The other horrifying thing is that no one seems to like the current system, but they are all on the treadmill. Even the rockstar hagwon teacher pulling down $4 million a year in his education empire is looking to find ways to change things to be more humane.
But one concrete way that societies can buy into education is to have better teachers. That's at least part of what boosted Finland. It's not fair to say that, in America, 'those who can't, teach', but certainly the requirements for education school are generally not demanding, and there are education schools under every rock. In Finland, education schools are few in number and hard to get into. And the teachers are paid equivalent to college graduates in other fields.
Another theme was expecting more of students. A heartening US success story was a school that got rid of its lowest track. The teachers were complaining that there would be big problems, but (at least anecdotally) no one seemed to notice any difference when the brown reading group got mixed in with the silver reading group. And the complaints stopped.
A few illustrative quotes:
Like all Finnish teachers, Stara also had to do original research to get her degree, so she wrote a two-hundred-page thesis on the ways that teenagers' spoken Finnish shaped their written Finiish. Now, consider Kim's math teacher back home, Scott Bethel. He'd decided to become a teacher mostly so that he could become a football coach.
[Elina] thought she might have more trouble in the U.S. history class, since she was not, after all, American. Luckily, her teacher gave the class a study guide that contined all the questions -- and answers -- to the exam. ... Elina was unsurprised to see she'd gotten an A. She was amazed, however, to see that some of the other students had gotten Cs. One of them looked at her and laughed at the absurdity. 'How is it possible you know this stuff?'
In [Elina's] experience, American kids didn't study much because, well, they didn't have to. ... [American high school] was like elementary school in Finland," she said. In that history class, she remembers, the class spent an inordinate amount of time making posters. ... "It was like arts & crafts, only more boring."
The Polish kids who took the first PISA in 2000 had grown up under the old system. ... They were the control group, so to speak. ... [They] ranked twenty-first in reading and twentieth in math ... Three years later ...[they] ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the United States in both subjects. [I note these numbers don't quite gibe with the Wiki page, though if anything it's more impressive, at least for reading: 25th to 16th.]
Also read a later edition (1975 over the original 1958) of Harlan Ellison's The Deadly Streets, with stories of New York juvie/gang life. The second edition includes a few additional stories, including the "The Hippie-Slayer", which shouldn't have been. Set in Los Angeles (and written after Harlan's move here), the story was originally published under a pseudonym. "And her ripe young body was outlined in the minidress the way all descendants of Cleopatra, the queen teenie, show their snaring sexuality in foxy gear."
It was the 60s.
But most of the stories are bad boys and bad girls doing bad things, written with words that ain't half-bad.