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Donald Trump on education: Wrong, wrong and wrong

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, doesn’t talk all that much about education issues, but when he  does, it is usually about the Common Core, rankings and spending. And usually he is wrong, wrong and wrong.

In one Trump ad this year, he hit all three in just a few sentences:

“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.”

And on May 2, he said:

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.

Talk about ridiculous.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been repeating some false statements over and over again. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Michelle Lee/The Washington Post)

For one thing, the United States is not “last in education.” He is presumably talking about education outcomes and appears to be referring to international rankings of students, of which there are several based on different tests given in different countries.

There is, for example, the Program for International Student Assessment, better known in the education world as PISA, which is given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world in reading, math and science. The most recent PISA results available, from 2012, show the United States ranked 17th out of 34 countries and school systems in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in reading, 27th in math and 20th in science. Not the top, but not the bottom.

Another test. known as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, is given every four years to fourth- and eighth-grade students in several dozen countries. The most recent results, from 2011, show fourth-graders in the United States ranked 11th in math and seventh in science out of 50 countries. Eighth-graders in the United States ranked 9th in math and 10th in science out of 42 countries.

And there is yet another international exam, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which fourth-graders take every five years. It was last taken in 2011, with 53 education systems from around the world participating, and U.S. students wound up ranking sixth.

In fact, in every international rankings, going back decades, the United States has always ranked about average.

It is a frequent exercise among many in the education world to compare spending and student outcomes across countries — even though the comparisons are often between apples and oranges. For one thing, the United States attempts to educate every student and give them a chance to go to college, an approach that is different from that of most other countries. The United States also has a unique funding system in which local property taxes play a significant role, leading to vast inequities from district to district. And it is known that poverty rates correlate to test scores, and the United States has one of the top child poverty rates in the developed world.

Then there are Trump’s comments about the Common Core, which he repeatedly says he would “end” or “get rid of” if he became president, sometimes a response to questions about how he would cut federal spending. Either nobody told him, or he is ignoring, the fact that state legislatures individually approved the Core, and only state legislatures can decide to change or drop the standards and the standardized tests that are aligned to them. There is no way he can wave a federal wand and eliminate it all at once.

Common Core started out as a push by states to improve learning standards, but it has made education an even more contentious issue. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Could Trump entice the states to drop the Core by dangling federal funds in front of them? After all, the Obama administration used  its $4.3 billion Race to the Top competitive program to persuade — critics say coerce — states to adopt the Core; 45 states and the District of Columbia fully adopted the standards, but the rest refused. Spending billions to get state legislatures to dump the Core doesn’t sound like something that a president who said he wants to eliminate the Education Department would probably want to do.

As for spending on education, the picture is not as straightforward as Trump says. It is true that the United States spends a great deal on education — and it is also true that way too much is badly spent. But according to a 2014 study by OECD — the most recent data available — Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more than the United States per pupil. And when looking at percent of GDP spend on education, here is what the study found:

Trump repeatedly says he wants education to be locally driven, as it has traditionally been. The administration of President George W. Bush increased the federal role with his No Child Left Behind education initiative, which mandated annual standardized testing for most students. The Obama administration stepped up that federal role in an unprecedented way, with critics saying it micromanaged local education decisions. This policy posture sparked a national protest movement against standardized testing and fueled opposition to the Common Core. As a result, Congress, which was supposed to rewrite No Child Left Behind in 2007 but didn’t, finally got around to replacing it in December with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new U.S. K-12 education law sends a lot of education policy-making power back to states and districts.

Congress, therefore, has already substantially done what Trump says he would do if he became president in regard to local control.

This isn’t the first time that I, or other writers, have pointed out Trump’s incorrect and exaggerated claims about education. Something tells me it won’t be the last.