Results from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are alarming, particularly in math.
There’s a pervasive myth that large cuts to education spending are responsible for the decline in student performance. But the province is spending much more than it did a decade ago.
A recent Fraser Institute study showed that between 2006-07 and 2015-16, spending on public schools in Ontario increased from $20.2 billion to $26.6 billion – a hike of 31.5 per cent.
To get a more accurate picture of the change in education spending, we must take both the changes in enrolment and changes in inflation into account.
The number of students enrolled in public schools in Ontario has declined from more than 2.1 million in 2006-07 to just under 2.0 million in 2015-16. That’s a decrease of 5.2 per cent. As a result, per-student inflation-adjusted spending increased from $11,238 in 2006-07 to $13,321 in 2015-16 (in 2016 dollars). That’s an increase of 18.5 per cent.
Ontario is also spending more than the Canadian average of $12,791 per student.
What’s the result of this spending hike?
If increased spending resulted in improved academic performance, we should observe at least marginal improvements. Each year, students in Grades 3 and 6 write provincial exams in reading, writing and math. Fewer than half (49 per cent) of Grade 6 students who wrote the exams met the standard in math exam in 2017-18. This is a one percentage point decline from the previous year’s dismal results. Grade 3 students fared better, with 61 per cent of students meeting the standard, but this is also down from 67 per cent in 2013-14.
The PISA exams, the gold standard for international testing, also indicate a decline in math performance. These exams are administered to 15-year-old students worldwide every three years in reading, science and math. Ontario scores in math declined between 2003 and 2015 (the latest year of available results) by a significant degree. Ontario also scored lower than British Columbia and Quebec in all three subjects.
We owe it to young Ontarians to ensure they gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful and productive adults.
It’s clear that something must be done about the declining student performance in Ontario and there are many reform options available.
But one thing is certain: If this was a problem that could be solved by simply spending more money, it would be fixed by now.
Angela MacLeod is an analyst with the Fraser Institute and co-author of Education Spending in Public Schools in Canada, 2019.