With increasing anxiety, advocates of American education have been looking at other countries around the world and asking: What do they know that we don’t know?
To be sure, educational and political leaders in many countries besides the United States understand that their people’s well-being depends more than ever on the strength of their educational systems. They also understand the power of technology.
But in the U.S., where the belief that more young people must acquire “21st-century skills” has become a mantra in education circles, American students’ comparatively poor showing on international tests, notably in math and science, has raised the level of concern among many school administrators, parents, business leaders, and government officials. They see growing evidence that U.S. students are being outperformed by their counterparts elsewhere in the world, and they have questions.
What lessons, they ask, might we learn from other countries about their approaches to education technology that we could apply to our own institutions? Have places such as Finland, Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany, and Britain–among 20 industrialized countries whose 15-year-olds outperformed American teenagers in science on the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)–found some dramatic new keys to educational progress that Americans have yet to discover?
The answers, based on research reports and interviews with analysts who keep an eye on the international scene, appear to lie somewhere in the middle: Yes, it’s true that other countries, including some in the developing world, have been taking an aggressive approach to using technology as a catalyst for educational expansion and improvement. But No, they probably don’t know more about capitalizing on ed tech than Americans do.
Whether it’s broadband for every school, whiteboards in every classroom, or laptops in every kid’s backpack, there’s no lack of appreciation among American educators for the value of ed tech and what it can do. But the disparity between what some well-off suburban school districts in the U.S. are accomplishing technologically in comparison with less-well-off districts has generated fresh alarms that the U.S. still faces a huge challenge in bringing disadvantaged schools up to par.
“Our [test] scores are just as good as anyone’s at the top,” says Colette Chabbott, an adjunct faculty member specializing in international education at George Washington University, but U.S. education has to be “geared to those kids at the bottom.” American school leaders have known for many years that low test scores for so-called disadvantaged students throughout the country are a major problem, she points out, but “we’re not going to change that” without addressing underlying social issues such as poverty and the large number of students for whom English is a second language.