Trump's Education Agenda: So Simple, a Fifth Grader Can Understand It

The Issues page on Donald Trump's campaign website is, well, special. It's a series of short videos, most under a minute. The Economy: 26 seconds. The Military: 23 seconds. Illegal Immigration: 56 seconds.

One of the longer videos—a minute, 21 seconds—is on our "Broken Education System." You can watch it for yourself, but for those of you who prefer the written word, the complete text is below.
Without education you cannot have the American Dream. Some people say the American Dream is dead. I don’t disagree with them. The American Dream is dead. But we’re going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before. But again, without education, you can’t do that. So we’re getting rid of Common Core. We’re taking Common Core, it’s going to be gone. There won’t be education from Washington DC. There’ll be education locally, the love of parents, the love of these people that love their children and they’re in the area. That’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll have school boards, and we’ll have local. We’re not going to have it through Washington. So Common Core is dead, and we’re going to take education and we’re going to make it local. We’ll save money. Our education will be much better. Do you know in the world today we’re ranked number 30. Number 30. So we’re at the bottom of the list, and yet per pupil, we pay the most. You look at other countries, Denmark, Sweden, China, Norway. These are countries that are right at the top, and they spend much less money than us. So we’re going local, it’s going to be great, and we’re going to spend less money, and we’re going to move up that list very, very rapidly.
The average fifth grader could get all that in one watching, even if he/she missed a thought or two the first time around, since they're all repeated three times. Most of it is pure Trump: "Some people say the American Dream is dead. I don’t disagree with them. The American Dream is dead. But we’re going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before." But one sentence, my favorite, is downright Sarah Palin-esque: "There’ll be education locally, the love of parents, the love of these people that love their children and they’re in the area." Sarah couldn't-a said it any better. You betcha.

So. Education, good. Common Core, bad. Local, good. Washington, D.C., bad. Other countries rank high and spend less. If we go local and spend less, we'll move up the rankings.

The only time Trump gets specific is when he talks about spending and our international ranking. He's basically right about spending. We spend more on education than almost everyone else. On testing, he gets one thing right and the rest wrong. True, our ranking on the latest international PISA test is around 30 (In another video on the page, he says our ranking is 28, but nobody ever said Trump was a numbers guy). According to him, that puts us at the bottom of the list, which is incorrect. We're right in the middle. That's still not great, but it's not the bottom.

Let's look at the scores of the countries he says are "right at the top" on the latest PISA test in 2012. (You can follow along on the official website.) First, Sweden. It's two places below us. The U.S. outscores Sweden in all three categories, Math, Reading and Science. Norway is six places above us, with slightly better scores in Math and Reading but a lower score in Science. Denmark is eight steps above Norway, mainly because it scored very high in math. In Reading, it's a tad lower than the U.S., and in Science, a tad higher.

Look at the countries the U.S. is grouped with in an analysis on the PISA site, countries whose scores are "comparable"—a bit lower or a bit higher than ours, but not by enough for the differences to be significant.

"comparable with Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam."
"comparable with Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Sweden."
"comparable with that of Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and Spain."
Norway is in the comparable lists in all three categories, and Denmark is in two. Sweden is only in one of the lists, because in the other two, Sweden's scores are significantly lower than ours.

But what about China? In the PISA rankings, China doesn't exist as a country. Three separate scores come from three places in China: Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao. They all score in the top six, but they're not the entire country, or in any way representative of the entire country. We have no way of knowing how a country-wide random sampling of Chinese students would fare on the test, but if the Chinese government doesn't allow other areas to take the PISA tests, you can bet it's because they wouldn't score very well.

The U.S. would look very different if the PISA test were only given in certain states. In 2012, PISA treated Massachusetts like a separate entity, just like it does for Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao. The results? In Reading, Massachusetts outscored everyone but the three Chinese regions, meaning it topped every country in the world. There were six scores higher than Massachusetts in Science and nine higher in Math. Based on PISA scores, Massachusetts is an educational world beater.

Trump's misrepresentation of the international scores is typical of his ignorance and sloppiness. If he had anyone knowledgeable advising him on education, that person would have told Trump to put Norway and Sweden's neighbor, Finland, at the top of the list. Instead, he picked three very white northern European countries that popped into his head, assuming, wrongly, they'd beat our kids handily.