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Derek J. Allison: Canada spends a lot on education—but is it paying off?


The kids are back to school. And while Canada has long maintained a high level of education spending, it’s worth asking: Is it paying off? 

Analysts often compare education performance among countries by using measures such as percentages of eligible students enrolled, per-pupil spending, and levels of education in the adult population. Canada shines on these metrics, spending 5.9 percent of GDP on education (from kindergarten to post-graduate studies) in 2018,Compare your country: Education at a Glance 2021 which was third-highest among G7 countries after the United Kingdom (6.1 percent) and the United States (6 percent). On the output side, Canada’s 60 percent of 25 to 64-year-olds with a post-secondary education outperforms all other OECD countries

But such metrics tell us nothing about student achievement. As we all know from experience, high costs and quantities do not guarantee quality. As discussed in my new studyWhat International Tests (PISA) Tell Us about Education in Canada published by the Fraser Institute, PISA—the OECD’s Programme for International School AssessmentWhat is PISA?—offers the best, albeit limited, comparative achievement measures of student performance on the planet. For Canada, it’s a good news bad news situation. 

Current PISA data are all pre-COVID. The planned 2021 assessment was postponed for a year, with results expected in 2023. But PISA has tested random samples of 15-year-old students in reading, math, and science every three years since 2000. Canada did very well in each test cycle, outperforming all G7 countries except Japan, which achieved higher average scores in science and math than Canada in recent tests (although Canada has an overall superior record in reading, only scoring below Japan in 2012). 

Given the Canadian public’s concern about math performance, the PISA scores for these two top-scoring G7 countries tell an interesting tale. In 2003, 2006, and 2009, the two countries were statistically tied in average math scores. Since then, Japan has consistently outscored Canada, although average scores in both countries have drifted downward recently. 

Beyond the G7, Canada has also done well on the broader world stage. In the most recent 2018 PISA assessment, Canada’s average subject scores were close to or above the 90th percentile among all 78 participating countries, ranking 6th in reading, 8th in science, and 12th in math. 

Yet we must be careful when comparing ranks, as sampling and measurement errors can make it difficult to distinguish between close scores. Canada’s 2018 reading scores, for example, were so close to those of five other participants (Hong Kong, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, and Korea) as to make them statistically indistinguishable. Yet only three participants—Macao, Singapore, and four municipalities in China—had statistically higher average reading scores than Canada at or beyond the 95 percent level of statistical confidence.

Averages are indispensable when comparing performance but are blind to the range of student scores, which is key when comparing student achievement. As such, PISA reports percentages of high and low performers in each subject. Again, Canada does well on this metric, with a significantly larger percentage (15 percent) of high achievers in reading in 2018 than all other G7 and OECD countries other than the U.S., which was statistically tied at 13.5 percent. Canada’s proportion of high achievers in math (18.3 percent) was statistically tied with Germany (17.8 percent) but below Japan’s significantly higher share (21 percent). In science, Canada’s 11.3 percent share of high achievers was statistically indistinguishable from those in Japan, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. Only France and Italy had statistically significant smaller proportions of high performers. 

That’s the good news for Canada. Here’s the bad news. In each subject, Canada’s average scores have been declining over time, as have the percentages of high performers. Comparable metrics in other G7 countries have either been stable or improving, which means Canada has been slowly but steadily losing ground, especially in science and math.

Again, current PISA data are all pre-COVID. Across Canada, government policies during the pandemic (including school closures) surely affected student performance. Given that Canadian students, particularly in Ontario, endured some of the longest school closures and most acute learning disruptions in the developed world, further score declines are likely.

Deani Van Pelt: Saskatchewan shows how everyone wins when we embrace independent schools


Revelations of a class action lawsuit over horrific alleged abuses at a Saskatchewan independent schoolSaskatchewan Children and Youth Advocate launches investigation into independent schools after abuse allegations have led to renewed calls to end taxpayer funding for the entire sector.  

But that’s not really a solution to anything.

Defunding independent schools would just concentrate control of education in fewer hands. It deprives parents and communities of a more direct role in learning. And it limits options for students simply based on their address. 

Saskatchewan is much better off with a pluralist education system. This involves local-district, separate, francophone, and independent schools operating side by side.

Frankly, Saskatchewan should be applauded for continuing on the path of innovation it started in 2012 when it began partially funding Qualified Independent Schools (QIS). Right now, the QIS sector accounts for 21 of the province’s 64 independent schools. They educate about 2,000 of Saskatchewan’s approximately 185,000 students. These are non-profit schools that follow provincial curriculum, employ professionally certified teachers, provide approved programs, follow the minister’s accountability framework, are inspected, and submit financial statements.

Saskatchewan offers just under $6,000 per QIS student annually, far less than $14,000 per student allocated for the typical neighbourhood school—saving taxpayers considerable funds.

This mix of funding does at least three key things for Saskatchewan families and kids.

First, it helps families find alternatives when their catchment school just isn’t the right place for their child. No two kids are the same. Learning styles and needs vary. A system that funds and recognizes only one type of school—the typical government-run variety—is unable to meet the full spectrum of student needs. Independent schools stand in the gap to meet particular needs or offer innovative educational approaches.

We also know that the right fit between school and student makes a measurable difference. Controlling for family background and income, a Cardus study found that students who fit well with their independent school scored five to nine percentile points higher in standardized math and reading tests than those who didn’t fit well.A Good Fit: How Matching Students and Schools by Religion Improves Academic Outcomes

Second, Saskatchewan’s independent school funding makes education more equal for everyone. When alternatives to catchment schools are more affordable, lower and middle-income families are able to access innovative schools that meet needs or fill in gaps that the government-run system can’t. Or won’t. These alternatives shouldn’t just be the privilege of the wealthy. Public funding makes sure they aren’t.

In a major international study, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development found that in countries where independent schools get more public funding, there are smaller socio-economic differences among students at all schools.Public and Private Schools: How Management and Funding Relate to their Socio-economic Profile

In other words, as public funding makes independent schools more affordable, the mix of incomes, backgrounds, and neighbourhoods represented at independent schools starts to look a lot like what you get at government-run schools.

Not surprisingly, public funding for independent schools is the norm in three out of four countries worldwide, including places as diverse as Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Israel. 

Finally, educational pluralism contributes to social cohesion.

Opponents have said the opposite for so long that many of us have believed it. But the fact is, independent schools help form students into good citizens. There have been dozens of studies on schools’ contributions to good citizenship. Out of 86 statistically significant findings, 50 showed a clear independent-school advantage towards civic formation and contribution; only three showed an advantage for government-run schools. The independent school advantage comes in terms of students’ political knowledge, civic skills, higher levels of voting, volunteering and charitable giving, and respect for civil liberties and others’ opinions. This is confirmed by a decade’s worth of data from the Cardus Education Survey—the largest reliable, representative dataset of independent school student outcomes in Canada, the United States, and Australia.Many Educational Systems, a Common Good  

Despite the rare, tragic anecdotes that make headlines, when including all independent schools, the data reveals an international record of overcontributing to the common good.

Funding independent schools makes good-fit alternatives available, makes education more equal for everyone, and contributes to social cohesion. Everyone wins.