United States students have better access to computers than students in nearly every other industrialized nation, according to a new report. And girls in the United States say they’re comfortable with technology more often than girls in other countries do.

But the report also suggests that America is divided into high and low achievers in a way several other nations are not—and that U.S. students, on average, perform no better than the rest.

Issued Oct. 29 by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the annual report says each school computer is shared, on average, by five students in the United States. In other OECD countries, the average is 13 students per computer.

Among 16 OECD countries with comparable data, 15-year-old American girls are the most comfortable with computers: 88 percent say they’re comfortable or very comfortable, compared with 70 percent, on average, in other countries.

The report also says the United States is in the top tier on a list of 32 countries for its percentage of 15-year-olds with “top-level literacy skills”—students who are among the best in the world at understanding complex texts, evaluating information, and drawing on specialized knowledge. But the report warns that enough students are doing poorly in the United States that they bring the nation’s level down considerably.

About 12 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds are “top-level,” 2 percentage points more than the international average, the study said. Only six other countries have a higher percentage of top students: Australia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

If the number of low-performing 15-year-olds is added, though, the United States begins to look average.

About 6 percent of American students are “below basic,” unable to do all but the most basic work. That’s about the same as most other industrialized countries and puts the United States’ achievement data squarely in the middle of the pack.

“It’s only on average that [U.S. students are] doing average,” said Barry McGaw, an Australian educational psychologist and OECD’s director for education. He said well-financed suburban schools in the United States, for instance, are producing excellent students.

“At the top end, [U.S. students are] doing quite well,” he said.

The study said countries such as Japan, Korea, Iceland, and Finland have done a better job overcoming poor students’ hardships. In those countries, poverty is less likely to accompany low school achievement, it said.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said the key to helping poor children succeed is to provide better facilities, smaller classes, better technology, and other things suburban students enjoy.

“All kids can learn,” he said. “But you have to make the playing field level.”

Teacher training and prep time also are keys to success, experts said.

The report found that, on average, U.S. teachers spend hundreds of hours more in front of students each year than teachers in other countries. In fact, high school teachers in the United States spend a whopping 73 percent more time teaching than the international average, roughly equivalent to 59 extra eight-hour days each year, the report said.

Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers in other countries enjoy a mindset that says their planning and consultation time is considered work, not break time.

“In other countries, there’s a belief: Teachers working together to really polish their craft is really important to the quality of education,” he said. “What’s going to improve education [in the United States] is that teachers work together and improve their content knowledge.”

Professional development for teachers is especially important when it comes to computer use in schools, said Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., Public Schools. Although American students might have greater access to technology overall than their peers in other countries, many teachers still don’t know how to use computers effectively as a learning tool, Yeagley said.

“I have observed many teachers struggling to find the right way to integrate their newly acquired tools with the teaching skills they have used for many years,” he said. “Simply having good tools available will always be insufficient to produce excellence. Before technology will achieve its potential in the classroom, teachers will need to become master artisans in its use.”

For Ken Eastwood, assistant superintendent for instruction and technology at the Oswego, N.Y., City School District, the findings in the OECD report were predictable.

“There continues to be this misconception that technology relates directly to student achievement,” he said. “Technology is a tool to those correlates that increase student achievement, not a direct correlate itself. Technology [merely] enhances and reinforces good instructional methods, time on task, and [high-]quality teachers.”

Two other findings from his year’s OECD “Education at a Glance” report:

  • Mid-career U.S. teachers, with an average $40,037 salary, rank eighth among 27 countries with comparable data, but the United States ranks 22nd when teacher salaries are compared to gross domestic product.

  • Twenty-four percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said students don’t listen to what the teacher says, average compared with other countries.


Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development