US schools need more tech savvy

In Maine, every seventh and eighth grader is equipped with a laptop computer. In Kansas, students in middle school and high school can now take state reading and math tests via the Internet. And in North Carolina, teachers in the 2004-2005 school year will be able to access students' academic and attendance records from their desktop computers.

Yet despite these technological advances, a new report released Thursday shows that America needs to play catch-up with several other countries when it comes to Internet availability and computer use in schools.

The US is tied for first in the world, with Australia and Latvia, for student-to-computer-ratio (five students per computer). But it falls well behind other countries in percentage of school computers connected to the Internet, according to Technology Counts 2004, Education Week's seventh annual report on school technology. Only 39 percent of schools in the US are connected to the Internet, as opposed to 80 percent in Australia.

"Given the computer to student ratio, you would think that the US would be No. 1," says Kevin Bushweller, project editor for Technology Counts. "It's surprising" that schools in Australia, Finland, and Iceland that are connected to the Internet were actually twice the numbers of those in the United States.

The 98-page report presents a global view of school technology in North America, Asia, Europe, South America, Africa, and the Australia/Pacific region. Education Week sent reporters to Canada, Singapore, and Iceland to get a firsthand look at how computers are being used in the classroom. The goal of this report, says Mr. Bushweller, was to go out of the US borders and bring back lessons to the United States. One good example is Singapore. The tiny Asian nation is using technology to foster more independent thinking and self-directed learning.

The data also shows that the US ranks behind Italy, Britain, and Australia in the number of 15-year-olds using computers at school several times a week. Only 25 percent of students use the computer for instructional learning as opposed to 34 percent in Italy, 36 percent in Britain, and 38 percent in Australia.

Reasons for this vary, from inadequate teacher training to significant budget cuts at schools around the country. Technology spending for schools has dropped more than 24 percent from the 2001-02 to 2002-03 school years, according to Market Data Retrieval.

"With the No Child Left Behind focus, schools are doing everything they can to get these yearly progress goals met and things that used to have emphasis, such as technology, are getting less attention. If they cut back on technology, teachers can put more preparation into testing," says Kathleen Fulton, director of Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century at the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future in Washington. But technology can really help kids "work in more problem-solving and open-ended approaches."

Although US schools are behind in offering Internet availability, they're actually first in the percentage of 15-year-olds using the Internet at school several times a week. "But we're not sure what they are using the Internet for," says Bushweller. "They could be using it just to surf in very basic ways or using it for sophisticated tasks."

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