Schoolchildren in the developing world might be better equipped for the demands of the 21st century than their European and American counterparts, because they are adapting faster to changing needs, a new report suggests.

The report, from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), sounds a new alarm for educators charged with ensuring their students are prepared to compete in the new global economy.

U.S. and European schoolchildren are losing ground to countries such as China and India that are adapting faster to changing needs and producing more of the high-skilled workers the 21st century demands, according to the report. Richer nations, especially in Europe, face a growing lack of ambition among their children, fed partly by social inequality that schools have failed to redress, it says.

“Education at a Glance,” an annual study by OECD, was released Sept. 11. It covers 30 of the world’s richest nations, but it also compares how they stack up with key non-OECD members China and India.

That comparison will be crucial in the coming decades. The number of graduates from China last year–4.4 million–outstripped that of the entire European Union. While graduates still represent a small portion of China’s population, the number is growing fast.

More graduates in the world have not, as some feared, created a glut. Wages for highly educated students have stayed the same or grown in all the OECD nations. And as technology has advanced, job market demands for advanced skills have, too.

The report stressed the pressures on rich countries to meet the fast-growing demand for high-level skills, and it warned that the United States and Europe are losing ground internationally because other countries are making faster and bigger gains.

Not everyone agrees with the OECD’s findings. Gerald Bracey, an independent researcher and author of the book Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, says the latest OECD report is misleading for two reasons: One, it does not estimate the quality of education students receive in the U.S. and Europe compared with other nations; and two, “it overlooks critical variables.”

“For all OECD’s dire warnings, the World Economic Forum still ranks the United States as the most globally competitive nation in the world among the 117 that it analyzes,” Bracey said. “There are some warning signs that could signal U. S. decline, though they are not in the OECD report.”

Its authors, not surprisingly, disagree.

Among OECD members, East Asian countries are increasingly outperforming Europe and the United States–and they “succeed without leaving many students behind,” the report said.

Other countries show a marked contrast between high achievers and their struggling peers. More than a quarter of 15-year-olds in the United States, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey performed at or below the lowest levels on math–and students from poor families were 3.5 times more likely to do badly.

Family incomes continue to play a role in how well children do in school in industrialized nations–and, in many countries, schools even reinforce inequalities instead of rectifying them, the report said, calling it “perhaps the greatest disappointment.”

The largest inequalities were found in Germany, France, and Italy; the smallest in Finland, Canada, and five of the six Asian countries on the list.

In looking toward future job market needs, the report warned against a “lack of ambition” among youth in many OECD countries that contrasts sharply with families’ push to educate children in many developing countries–especially China and India.