Student performance does not reflect education spending hikes in Alberta

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Appeared in the Lethbridge Herald, February 6, 2019
Student performance does not reflect education spending hikes in Alberta

Parents in Alberta are concerned about the state of elementary and secondary education. Results from the Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) and international tests including the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) indicate alarming trends, particularly in math. Unfortunately, a pervasive myth that large cuts to education spending are responsible for the decline in Alberta student performance continues to cloud the education debate. However, a reality check quickly dispels that myth.

Some facts. As noted in a recent Fraser Institute study, in the 10-year period between 2006/07 and 2015/16, spending on public schools in Alberta rose from $6.2 billion to $8.6 billion—an increase of 39 per cent.

To put the increase in public education spending in context, changes in enrolment must also be considered. Between 2006/07 and 2015/16 the number of students enrolled in public schools in Alberta increased by 13.7 per cent while per student inflation-adjusted spending in public schools increased from $12,663 to $13,321—an 8.1 per cent increase—and well above the Canadian average of $12,791.

If increased education spending improved the academic performance of students, we should have seen marginal improvements, at the very least.

So what happened to student performance in Alberta after the provincial spending hikes?

In 2017/18, according to PAT results, 40.8 per cent of Alberta Grade 9 students failed to achieve the acceptable standard in math, up from 32.8 per cent in 2016/2017—that’s an increase of 24.4 per cent in the number of students failing to meet the math standard in a single school year. The percentage of students achieving the standard of “excellence” also dropped from 19 per cent in 2016/17 to 15 per cent in 2017/18.

Now let’s look at the PISA exams, the gold standard of international testing, administered to 15-year-old students worldwide every three years in reading, science and mathematics. Math scores in Alberta declined significantly between 2003 and 2015 (the latest year available, as 2018 results have not yet been released). In fact, no province except Manitoba recorded greater declines in PISA math scores since 2005. And Alberta now ranks below British Columbia and is essentially tied with Ontario—two provinces it once consistently outperformed. PISA scores in both reading and science have also decreased, but less dramatically.

Clearly, the increase in spending on Alberta education has not improved academic performance, a fact that should concern all parents, policymakers and taxpayers. We owe it to young Albertans to ensure they are prepared with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful and productive adults. The essential promise of public education has always been that all children will receive tools to continue their education and lead happy and prosperous lives. The numbers don’t lie—something must be done about declining student performance in Alberta. Policymakers in Edmonton and in school districts around the province can learn from other jurisdictions and what’s been successful in Alberta in the past. But one thing is certain—if this problem could be solved by simply spending more money, it would be fixed by now.