Fraser Forum

Education reform, not more money, is the answer to declining PISA scores

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Student performance in Canada is stagnating or declining in key subject areas despite dramatic increases in education spending. That’s the main takeaway, in light of last week’s report from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-old students every three years in reading, mathematics and science.

Consider this. PISA’s latest round of testing, conducted in 2015, included some 20,000 Canadian students from roughly 900 schools across the country. The average score in math dropped from a high of 532 in 2003 (the earliest comparable PISA year for mathematics) to 516 in 2015. Although Canada’s average math score is relatively high among OECD countries—Canada now ranks seventh in the world—the decrease illustrates an alarming and significant overall decline in math performance achieved by our 15-year-olds compared to a dozen years ago when we ranked third.

Moreover, average scores in both reading and science, when compared to scores in the earliest comparable PISA years, 2000 and 2006 respectively, showed no sign of improvement.

This drop in math, and flat-lining in reading and science—three crucial core subjects—took place despite dramatic education spending increases in Canada. Specifically, education spending (adjusted for inflation) increased from $9,689 per student in 2003 to $13,443 in 2014, the latest year of available data. That represents a 39 per cent increase in per student spending in just over a decade.

It’s one thing to spend more money and get better results, but it’s quite another when spending increases markedly yet test results either stagnate or decline. Simply put, additional government spending—paid for by taxpayers—has not translated into improved student performance.

Moreover, the OECD, which releases the PISA scores, said basically the same thing, acknowledging in 2012 the limited role money plays in improved student performance: “higher expenditure on education does not guarantee better student performance. Among high income economies, the amount spent on education is less important than how those resources are used.”

For those interested in genuinely improving Canada’s education system, this is a critical point. Simply throwing more money at public school bureaucracies is not the answer. But instead, we should fundamentally reassess how we finance, deliver and regulate K-12 education in each province and territory.

Focusing on the real drivers of education performance, such as how schools are organized and governed, how teachers are educated and incentivized, the degree to which parents have choices in their children’s education, and how curriculum is designed and delivered, have the potential to deliver better educational outcomes.

The 2015 PISA results again demonstrate that more spending on education does not magically produce results. Structural reform will give Canadian students the best chance at success in the classroom, and ultimately, in life.