The price of learning

Province: more money doesn’t mean better results

Nicoll, Cathy

Halifax – A series of standardized tests found Nova Scotia students wanting when compared to their counterparts across Canada. Then Nova Scotia’s public education system came dead last in a cross-Canada comparison of dollars spent per student. It begs the question: Does more money in the classroom mean better test results? The answer is no, according to some.


Deputy education minister Dennis Cochrane doesn’t believe it’s the case. “I guess I’ve never bought into the fact that educational expenditure per pupil is directly related to the quality of education that students receive,” he said. The province is working on targeting certain areas to improve student performance, Cochrane said.

“You can’t just throw money at the system; you have to put it somewhere where there’s going to be a return,” he said. “We happen to believe right now that the early years are the quickest return, and that’s where the government has made it a priority.” For example, he said, a lot of work has taken place in Active Young Readers and Writers In Action, and a literacy program for Grade 6 students. “Our testing program in Grade 6, the new $1 million supporting those students as they go on into Grade 7, are all fairly new initiatives,” Cochrane said.


“As we test, or as we measure, or as we listen to our teachers, we talk about where the best place is to make the investment.” Nova Scotia’s education expenditures went up 33.7 per cent between 1996 and 2003, he said, while the national average increase was 18.


Charles Cirtwill, vice-president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, which has ranked Nova Scotia’s high schools for the past two years, agrees with Cochrane that it’s not how much the province spends on education, but where the money goes that counts. “If you look at most of the analysis, you’ll see that spending on early literacy programs tend to have a stronger bang for the dollar spent,” Cirtwill said.


“Oddly enough, when you look at the growth in the spending in education in the last eight to 10 years in this province, you do see that they’re spending money probably in the areas that are going to give them the best long-term gain.”


Cirtwill said Nova Scotia is going in the right direction by spending more on the early grades, decreasing the pupil-teacher ratio and continuing to invest in public accountability and reporting. “I think they’re overall doing a fairly decent job of balancing what they have to spend, on what they need to do.”


The Nova Scotia Teachers Union dismisses standardized testing, and doesn’t believe in a relationship between outcomes and money spent. But president Mary Lou Donnelly said everyone should be concerned that Nova Scotia’s public school system is the lowest-funded in Canada.


“It’s a pretty big statement. I think it’s a wake-up call, and people are going to finally sit up and say, ‘Wait a minute, now we’re really at the bottom,'” she said. “And I think Nova Scotians don’t want to be at the bottom.” Donnelly acknowledged the province has begun to target certain areas, such as early education, active readers and math. “We need more target,” she said, adding early reading and math need more money.