Simply throwing more money at schools will not increase student test scores

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Appeared in the Winnipeg Sun, June 4, 2024
Simply throwing more money at schools will not increase student test scores

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” was a popular bumper sticker back in the day. These days there’s broad acceptance of the need for adequate spending on this inherently expensive process. But do we get our money’s worth? Do Canada and the provinces get a good return on their education spending or should we spend more?

To help answer that question, it helps to broaden our perspective beyond Canada’s borders. According to a recent study published by the Fraser Institute, in 2018 (the latest year of complete and comparable data) there was a wide range of K-12 education spending among 33 high-income countries, ranging from Luxembourg (US$21,968 per student) to Lithuania, (US$6,551 per student). Canada (US$11,771) ranked 14th-lowest, just above the average and well below higher-spending Norway, Austria, Korea, Denmark and the United States.

There was less variation in provincial spending, with highest-spending Saskatchewan and Manitoba spending similar amounts to the U.S. and Germany, and British Columbia spending notably less, close to amounts spent by Finland and Japan.

So, Canada’s K-12 spending was in the mid-range of spending among high-income countries. What did we get, in terms of student performance, for this level of spending?

Based on results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-old students worldwide every three years on reading, math and science, Canada’s average test performance was significantly higher than most other countries—specifically, Canada’s 15-year-olds had higher average scores than their peers in 11 higher-spending countries including Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

There was a similar pattern between school spending and student performance in the provinces. Alberta, Quebec and Ontario had the highest average test scores, with each spending markedly less per student than Manitoba (C$15,473) and Saskatchewan (C$17,194), the two highest-spending provinces who both had significantly lower test scores than lowest-spending B.C. (C$12,132).

Of course, due to the many differences between education systems in different countries, global comparisons are less than precise, but clearly higher K-12 spending is not reliably associated with higher test scores. And there’s obviously a lot more to good education than doing well on standardized tests. Yet doing well in reading, math and science—the core PISA subjects—is important because these subjects provide a necessary foundation for future higher-level study and employment.

These findings raise a fundamental question. How can we close the gaps between test scores among countries and provinces if poorer-performing systems already spend more than those achieving higher scores? Given the poor track record of popular and expensive reforms such as smaller class sizes and extended teacher education, there’s no obvious answer to this question. Simply shovelling more money into school budgets will not, by itself, make a difference unless effective ways to improve student performance can be found.

Instead, education systems should encourage greater school-level decision-making to better serve local circumstances. And there’s also much to gain by paying at least as much attention to student performance as spending.

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