Now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, education advocates are asking what his candidacy means for education policy. Trump has not made extensive statements about his positions yet, but he has made his views known on social media and television commercials, and what he has to say makes advocates uneasy.
In a commercial from the campaign, Trump says:
“I’m a tremendous believer in education. But education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education. So Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue. We are rated 28th in the world, the United States. Think of it, 28th in the world. And, frankly, we spend far more per pupil than any other country in the world. By far. It’s not even a close second.”
During a speech on May 2, Trump added additional facts to his claims:
“Now, if you look at education. Thirty countries. We’re last. We’re like 30th. We’re last. So we’re last in education. If you look at cost per pupil, we’re first. So we — and by the way, there is no second because we spent so much more per pupil that they don’t even talk about No. 2. It’s ridiculous.”
Are any of Trump’s claims about education true?
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), four countries spend more than the United States on secondary education per-pupil (Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland). When OECD examined spending per student on primary schools, the United States was ranked fifth behind the same four countries. The claim that “there is no second” because the U.S. spends so much is false.
However, Trump’s claim about America scoring 28th on a test is based on the OECD’s biggest study of worldwide education, which ranked 76 countries according to the test scores of 15 year old students. Singapore topped the worldwide rankings. The USA came in 28th. The report also ranked countries based on the percentage of students who had not acquired basic education skills. Basic skills were categorized as those who achieved below 420 points in the math and science tests. This study found 24 percent of American students lacking basic skills, which obviously suggests math and science is the biggest need area of U.S. students. So Trump is partially correct in diagnosing one problem, the U.S. spending more money than most countries in the world but students not performing as well as other countries.
What about Common Core?
Trump, like many parents and teachers, points the finger at Common Core as the major culprit in U.S. performance. The problem with this equation is twofold. First, there is little evidence that Common Core is the dominant factor hurting American performance on tests. Over time, U.S. children have performed about average among other nations. Even the ranking of 28 is in the upper third of nations tested. There is a lack of concrete data showing that performance has dropped significantly since Common Core was adopted by state legislatures.
A second issue with Trump’s analysis is that it over-relies on the ultimate result of OECD’s surveys. In the U.S., there is compulsory education for all. In some countries poor children are not even educated. It’s also important to consider the impact of class stratification in educational outcomes. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), class inequality is higher in America than in comparable western nations. Students who are economically disadvantaged do not perform as well as students who come from families with higher incomes, a result which is consistent throughout the world. The test OECD relied on was not given to every 15 year old in America. EPI claims that the U.S. over sampled students in lower income districts. According to EPI, if some of those test results were thrown out, America would have ranked 6th.
The point is not that Americans are wrong to be concerned about the state of American education system, or that Common Core is necessarily a net positive. Instead, Trump’s various claims shows yet again how statistics can be manipulated. Even more important, it shows how Trump’s claims are a combination of hyperbole and emotion derived from some actual sources. The key for those interested in improving American educational outcomes is to take the emotion out of numbers and find out what other countries are doing right in education.