Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks in a video released by his campaign about his concerns for American education. (Donald Trump)

“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.”

–Donald Trump, campaign ad, released Jan. 26, 2016

Trump’s new ad uses familiar talking points: knocking Common Core for being federally imposed on local government, the low school performance of American students and high per-pupil spending in the United States. The Washington Post’s education team found his ad devoid of context and flimsy with the facts, so we also decided to take our own look at his claims.

To no surprise, Trump’s campaign did not respond to our requests or bother to back up the claims of the candidate.

The Facts

Common Core

In the ad, Trump characterizes Common Core as a federally imposed program. Later in the ad, he says: “We’re going to end Common Core.” The call to get rid of Common Core and its federally coerced curriculum is popular rhetoric among Republicans — but it’s a mischaracterization of the educational effort.

Common Core State Standards Initiative was a state-led initiative crafted by a bipartisan group of governors and state school chiefs representing most states. States can decide to adopt the standards for K-12 math and English Language Arts standards; it is not mandatory. State and local school districts design and choose their curriculums to implement Common Core standards in their districts.

“By signing on to the common core state standards initiative, governors and state commissioners of education across the country are committing to joining a state-led process to develop a common core of state standards in English language, arts and mathematics for grades K-12,” read the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices June 2009 news release.

Common Core is not affiliated with No Child Left Behind, the unpopular law pushed by then-President George W. Bush in 2001. There may be confusion over the federal government’s role in Common Core because of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, according to the U.S. News & World Report. Common Core standards align with Race to the Top standards, so applicants for Race to the Top grants who had adopted Common Core had points added to their score to qualify for grants, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s “Guide to Common Core.”

Perhaps Trump confused Common Core with No Child Left Behind. But he should know that No Child Left Behind has already been replaced by a new law, the Every Child Succeeds Act, which was signed into law on Dec. 10, 2015.

U.S. is ‘rated 28th in the world’

It’s not clear exactly which ranking Trump is referring to, and his campaign didn’t answer our inquiry or that of our colleague Emma Brown on the education desk.

Trump made this argument in his presidential campaign announcement speech, saying the United States is “26th in the world — 25 countries are better than us in education. And some of them are like Third World countries.” (We found the international comparisons are mostly of industrialized countries and regions. Trump didn’t repeat the “Third World” point in the ad.)

The widely used international measure for education performance is the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, of 15-year-old students’ reading, math and science performance. The latest report from 2012 showed the United States ranked between 24th and 36th in the three measures behind industrialized countries and regions.

American students are struggling in math, compared to other industrialized countries. The United States ranked 27th out of the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is below average among OECD countries. The United States ranked close to the OECD average in reading and science.

There likely is not a connection between Common Core standards and the 2012 PISA report. For one, these U.S. rankings have not changed significantly in the three academic performance criteria over time, according to the OECD. As Brown noted: By 2012, few states had begun using the Common Core standards to shape classroom instruction.

The United States fared better in another international measure, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking within top six to 13 industrialized countries or regions in 4th and 8th grade scores.

Per-pupil spending

The United States does spend more per student than most countries. But Trump goes too far saying in such absolute terms that the United States spends more than “any other country in the world. By far. It’s not even a close second.”

According to the 2015 OECD report using 2012 data, the United States ranked third behind Norway and Luxembourg for per-capita education spending.

In 2011, the United States spent $11,841 per full-time-equivalent student on elementary and secondary education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics Condition of Education 2015 report. That was 35 percent higher than the OECD average of $8,789. For post-secondary spending, U.S. expenditures were $26,021 per student — nearly double the OECD average of $13,619.

The U.S. ranked behind five other countries (Denmark, Iceland, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Israel) in terms of education spending as a percentage of GDP, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’s report.

A country’s wealth is associated with per-pupil spending, the report showed. Out of OECD countries, the 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita also had per-pupil spending that was higher than OECD average. The inverse was the same for countries with the lowest GDP per capita.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump inaccurately asserts that Common Core is a program enacted from Washington, imposed on local governments. But it has been, and still is, a state-led effort where governors and school chiefs set the standards. It has been a state-led effort, and states have opted into adopting the standards. Then, they have revised the standards to fit their state and allowed state and local school districts to shape the curriculums for themselves.

So the local control that Trump demands is already in place.

Moreover, Trump exaggerates the United States’ per-pupil spending and test scores relative to other countries. The comparisons available show how the U.S. fares compared to industrialized, member countries of OECD. Yet Trump makes broad assertions that do not clarify this point. Trump and his campaign haven’t bothered to defend this point to us, but we’d encourage him to clarify U.S. rankings among OECD countries.

There is some element of truth to the points he is making about per-pupil spending and test scores among American students. But overall, he bungles his talking points and misleads on the facts, and earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

 


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