jmh, my comment about more competition meant that the schools (not the students) would have to compete. That is, in the US the school system is rather like our mail system: Whatever the outcome, the schools continue. If schools had to compete, perhaps the outcome would improve.
Yes, I did get your point. In the UK, schools do compete. Parents have a lot of choice in selecting the school for their child, whether in the state sector or the independent (private) sector, for those who choose and can afford to pay. In rural areas there may be less schools within reach of home, in urban areas there wll be more. There is a limit to each school's intake and popular, successful schools tend to be over-subscribed. All schools results are displayed in league tables, where exam results (but no other qualitative assessment of pupil's success such as increase in self-esteem) are available for all to see.
Last year's results are here:http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/education/newsid_953000/953191.stm
but they are likely to be unintelligible to anyone outside (and to many inside) the UK.
In addition there are school inspection reports, available on-line http://www.ofsted.gov.uk
(for England) which go into more detail about the perceived quality of teaching.
Whilst there are claims that the league tables and other measures (such as a literacy hour and numeracy hour in England) have improved standards. It is very clear that many parents who can, are willing to move house into areas with successful state schools to increase their likelihood of gaining a place. Other parents are willing to drive their children huge distances to school.
Not suprisingly, this results in a postcode lottery - most of the best state schools are in the more expensive post-code areas which puts up house prices in those areas, which means that less people can afford the houses. So you start off with increased choice and end with decreased choice. The children from Peckham, mentioned in my previous post, are less likely to go to a school with high rating because disruptive, absentee pupils tend not to get good results and the school slides down the league tables. People who are able to make a choice because they have enough money to pay for housing in a better area don't tend to send their children there, so the downward spiral continues. There are some stunning, inner-city schools where children with very little support at home increase their self-esteem but the likelihood of that showing up favourably in the league tables is slim. When I went to school, we sat an exam at 11. Those who passed, were able to go to the grammar school, regardless of post code. Many argued that it was unfair to select children at 11, branding some as failures, and it was scrapped in the seventies for state schools in most (but not all) areas. I suspect that even then, the proportion of children passing the test from primary schools in "better areas" was higher.
So you are left with the age old problem that the simple act of observation changes what you are observing. Parents do not, necessarily, make sophisticated choices about the whole range of things that a school provides, branding some schools as successful schools for successful children and others failing schools for failing children. Schools do not exist in a vacuum.
Perhaps it is better in the USA? Helen says that there is parental choice in New York and that it is possible to match the child to the school. How are schools compared there? How do parents find out about the schools?